6.26.2013 The Prickly Truth about Artichokes

When you’ve never grown artichokes before, knowing when to pick them becomes problematic.  And, if you happen to have grown your artichokes from seed, it’s even more difficult because seed grown artichokes don’t always look like the ones in the grocery store.  In fact, none of my artichokes ever looked like grocery store artichokes.  Heck, they didn’t even look like the picture on the seed packet.

Nope, my artichokes held court out in the orchard looking for all the world like the onion domes you see on Russian churches.  The lower courses of petal blossoms turned out immediately and did not stay tight and closed.

My onion dome artichokes.  How's that for iridescent purple?

My onion dome artichokes. How’s that for iridescent purple?

Sources on the internet said this is common in seed grown plants.  You can grow from seed, but you will end up with blossoms of all shapes and size.  If you are looking for something familiar and marketable, you’ll need to locate root cuttings from production plants, or go with an artichoke bred for use as an annual (even then 20% of them will likely be off.)  Otherwise, you’ll spend years getting that one plant in the seed placket that makes perfect artichokes and years more taking root cuttings.  (Seed sellers never divulge that little tidbit and neither do the gardening books I have in my possession and I have quite a few.)

I never get great germination with artichoke seeds – the best sprouting medium for me is soil.  Peat pellets were a total failure.  Seeds germinate better if they are covered than if left exposed to the light.

Internet sources said to harvest buds before the second course of petals turn out.  Nearly all the rows of petals on my artichokes were turned out as soon as the buds formed.  Most of them were on the small side.  Some got as large as baseballs, and a very few reached softball size.  But when the largest of the lot sent up iridescent purple hair, I figured it was probably time. Past time even.

So before the afternoon deluge began, I went out and cut my artichokes.  I should have worn gloves, more as a barrier against the milky ooze than as a guard against the thorns.  There was also honeydew in the few stalks that had blown over in last week’s storm – honeydew farmed by aphid slaves of ant overlords.  (I only saw aphids on the storm stressed plants.  There was a lot of insect activity on my artichoke plants, but the plants served as a meeting and mating place for bugs of all sorts.)

Pruning shears required.  The trusty pocket knife wasn’t up to the task.  Neither were the kitchen scissors.

I filled my half bushel plastic lug in short order off ten second year plants.  Five of those ten are full sized healthy plants.  The other five plants are stunted, but still producing.  If I cut all the blossoms off a stalk, I cut that stalk and laid it at the base of one of my fruit trees so the trees could make use of the nutrients brought up by the deep roots of the artichoke plants.

Then came processing.  We watched YouTube videos and that helped.  But it was a tedious and somewhat painful four plus man hours and in the end, I ended up with artichoke medallions instead of hearts.  The petals were just so small and tough that the only real salvageable part was the disc at the base of the blossom.  Most of the haul was small, (slightly larger than ping pong balls) but even so, the choke had already formed in all but two.  Sharp knives and a melon baller would have been helpful, but sharp knives and lemon juice can make for an interesting evening if you miss.

I found a recipe for pickled artichoke hearts (http://honest-food.net/2012/04/18/pickled-artichokes-recipe/) and used that to conserve our hard earned bounty.  They are tasty, but all that work for 1 quart of pickled artichoke medallions!  I didn’t bother putting the finished product in a water bath canner.  I just refrigerated them to slice onto salads.

pickled artichokes

I started the seeds and planted them out in 2012 and they never did much in last year’s intense heat and drought conditions.  They overwintered under a light blanket of straw.  Our winter was long but not intensely cold – upper teens at worst.  This spring has been mild and wet and most of the 2012 plants are thriving.

I am disappointed in the quality of the buds though.  I don’t know if their toughness was because I waited too late to harvest, the sudden run of heat, all the rain or just something genetic in the seed.

This spring I started a new variety, Imperial Star from Johnny’s seeds.  I just set them out a few weeks ago and the plants still have only three or four leaves, but they are already sending up flowering stalks and these buds look more like what you would see at the grocery store.  So maybe it is possible to grow quality artichokes from seed, if you get the right seed.  More to come on the Johnny’s artichoke variety.

Bred to be grown as an annual and produce in the first year, this Imperial Star from Johnny's Seeds seems to have great ambitions.  5 wee leaves and already sending up a flower stalk!

Bred to be grown as an annual and produce in the first year, this Imperial Star from Johnny’s Seeds seems to have great ambitions. 5 wee leaves and already sending up a flower stalk!

One last point about artichokes: As mentioned above, I am using them as nurse plants for my fruit trees.  With the understanding they would have a six foot spread, we planted the artichokes three feet away from the tree trunks.  This spacing works great most of the year, when the big basal leaves of the artichokes shade out a great many weeds.  However, once the flower stalks shot up, (and they go up about six feet), they really started crowding my young fruit trees.  If I decide to keep the Italian Seed and Tool varieties, I will dig them up this fall and move them out to at least six feet from the trees. But more than likely, I’ll just dig them out and compost them, replacing them with the Johnny’s Imperial Star variety.

7.13.2013 Update

I have been watching my artichokes bloom and change colors since I originally wrote this post.  The buds continue to deepen in color and I am beginning to suspect that my plant labels got all fouled up.  The blossoms we were trying to harvest as artichokes were probably the blossoms of the Rouge D’Alger Cardoon or the Gobbo Di Nizzia Cardoon plant from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  No wonder it was so hard to eat the blossoms like an artichoke!  We should have been eating the stalks!

This means that none of the artichokes I planted in 2012 survived – either the drought or the winter killed them.  Not sure which.

However, the caution of growing artichoke from seed still stands.  Several reputable sources on the internet suggest artichokes don’t always come true from seed.  And another thing that you won’t normally find in artichoke growing instructions:

Artichokes are tap rooted plants and do best when then tap root is given plenty of room to grow and is not touched or bent when transplanting.  So, start your artichokes in deep pots, at least six inches and transplant carefully.

I shared at: The Backyard Farming Connection #40

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