In my world, there are two kinds of artichokes: globe artichokes and spiny artichokes. Both grow great in our garden, and in general, the artichoke is an easy-to-grow perennial vegetable that grows for multiple years, with best flower bud production coming on two and three year old plants.
Without a doubt, the globe types are the most famous in the United States, because that’s what all the big commercial growers in Watsonville, Calif., grow, and that group grows three-quarters of all the commercial artichokes in the United States. I adore globe artichokes and have eaten several thousand over the years of living in California.
California artichokes are those big, fat green heads that I used to boil or steam until the leaves were softened enough to pick off one at a time. I enjoyed dipping the swollen leaf base in mayonnaise or some other sauce before biting off the succulent part and throwing the rest of the leaf away. (Side note: Artichoke leaves make a great compost component because they resist getting too soggy, and their somewhat rigid curved shapes help add oxygen and therefore combustive capacity to a compost pile of juicy kitchen wastes.)
But these days, I’m a thorny artichoke guy, and my intake of artichokes has increased a hundredfold, easily. We eat a lot of artichokes at our house — in soups, in vegetable dishes, raw in salads and stuffed (or really more like sprinkled) with various fillings/sprinklings. Most Italians eat a lot of artichokes and Italy, the top producer in the world, produces about ten times the number of artichokes than the United States does.
The secret to growing good globe artichokes is in cutting off the extra buds if there are more than three on a normal-sized plant or five on a huge plant. Farmers near Rome do grow one spectacular globe style artichoke here in Italy. They cultivate huge plants and then cut off all but one of the new flower buds, thereby forcing all the growing power into the single flower bud on top. That practice makes for huge buds, and the growers of that variety put paper bags over the individual flower buds to protect them, and also sometimes to write down the name of the person that has already paid to purchase that specific artichoke. Some of those growers may get as much as ten euros for each single artichoke — often paid ahead of time!
Now that I grow and eat mostly spiny artichokes (the Italians call them carciofi [car-cheau-fee]), I don’t worry about thinning much, and I usually leave on all the flowers. The difference is that, with spiny artichokes, considerably smaller buds are perfectly acceptable, because much more of the flower bud is eaten. When my wife prepares spiny artichokes, she cuts the spines off the tops of the flower buds and trims a bit off the outside foliage. Sometimes, she will cut the whole bud and as much as a foot of the stem into pieces to be used in the kitchen.
When globe artichokes are eaten California style, people will eat perhaps 5 percent of the total mass of the flower bud. With Italian spiny artichokes, perhaps 75 percent or more of the whole mass is eaten.
Artichoke cultivation is all about producing flower buds, so the nutritional requirements for phosphorus and potassium are high. Before planting new shoots, I like to fertilize the soil with fireplace ashes and some old bone product, like bone meal. As much as I like eating them, I really also like not harvesting the artichoke flower buds and letting the flowers mature. These big, beautiful thistles can be real stunners in the garden.