Growing artichokes

It’s late August and, as I look over my vegetable garden, one of the most gratifying moments is being able to ask myself, “What’s for dinner?” Will I toss fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and thyme with some olive oil and throw that over pasta? Maybe I’ll lightly grill some zucchini, eggplant, fennel and red pepper and serve that with some polenta. How about some steamed edamame to start a meal? So many fresh and mouth-watering options. 

But if you would like to attempt something a little different next season that will provide a fun and delicious addition to your summer garden, I suggest trying a particular favourite of mine: artichokes. 

The artichoke, Cynara scolymus, is a biennial in warm, Mediterranean climates where it flourishes. The first year after planting, it will only grow leaves and the following year, it will grow stalks and the flower buds which we love to eat (especially steamed and dunked in garlic butter!). Unfortunately for us in the north, the winter is too severe for the plant to survive after its vegetative year. So, in Ontario, in order for the plant to produce the buds, we need to trick it into thinking that it has passed two years in one season.

This is what you need to do: 

  • First, plant the artichoke seeds about six weeks before you can safely have them outside in a cold frame or sheltered area and the temperature won’t fall below -4°C. In Kingston, that means I start the seeds in mid-February. 
  • Keep the plants warm inside under grow lights or beside a nice, sunny window for 6 weeks or so – that is their “summer”. 
  • After 6 weeks, shock the seedlings outside in a cold frame (or inside a plastic tote on the deck, as I do) making sure that they remain as cool as possible. However, if temperatures below -4°C are forecast, then I either insulate the plants with a blanket or find some room in the refrigerator and put them in there. These 6 weeks of cold treatment is their “winter” and they are now ready to be planted in a sunny part of the garden. 
  • Mix in plenty of organic matter into the soil, space the plants about 24” apart in the centre of a row that is about 24”-36” wide and mulch with straw to retain moisture. Water regularly.
  • In August, you will know when to harvest the artichokes when the flower bud is about the size of an orange and the leaf bracts on the bud are tight and firm. Subsequent flower buds are smaller than the first buds on the plant, but just as delicious! 
Two artichokes ready to harvest
Two artichokes ready to harvest

While my artichokes may not be the delightful beauties my Greek neighbour reminisces about, the plants are still an unusual feature in the garden and provide a tasty alternative to the August fare. The plants themselves are beautiful with their grey-green, cottony leaves and, if they’re visible from the street, a delightful conversation piece. Be prepared to field questions from curious neighbours and good luck! 

Information about growing artichokes and many other vegetables can be found in Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest and Turid Forsyth and Merilyn Simonds Mohr’s The Harrowsmith Salad Garden.