When I see expensive produce at the market, I think, “I’m gonna grow that.” So, for most of this century, I’ve enjoyed growing artichokes. I didn’t know anyone in North Carolina, where I live, who grew them, but I believed I could figure out what the plant needed.
Like many plants from the Mediterranean, artichokes have narrow, grayish leaves that indicate a preference for mild winters, full sun, excellent drainage and lean, alkaline soil. Being from the Mediterranean also means they relish droughts. When my local garden center started carrying artichoke seedlings, I snapped one up. (I could have started it from seed, but I’m an impulse shopper/planter.) I put the artichoke in a dry, sunny spot and amended the soil with a bucket of gravel to improve drainage and a couple of handfuls of pulverized lime to raise the pH.
I planted the artichoke in my backyard and a similar plant called a cardoon in the front yard. But by the time they set flowers, I knew that both had been mislabeled at the nursery. Until they set flowers, these two plants are very difficult — if not impossible — to tell apart, because the artichoke is bred from the cardoon simply to have bigger, edible flower heads. Their leaves are practically identical, and I’ve heard stories of other gardeners buying mislabeled plants. You have been warned.
Having the artichoke in the front rather than the back wasn’t a problem. Our main vegetable garden is also in front, so we’re able to harvest a few things for dinner on the way in from work. Artichokes produce a fist-sized flower bud (a cardoon’s flower is only the size of a big fig. Harvest them before the petals start to show. You might have to let the first one flower (they’re lovely), so you’ll recognize its stages of development.
I live in hardiness zone 7, and many books describe artichoke as a zone 8 plant. But my Green Globe artichoke had survived five hard winters by the time I decided to divide up the offshoots. Digging up the plant was tougher than I expected: It had a taproot that broke off at 14 inches long and almost 1 1/2 inches wide. Seven smaller artichokes had grown from the horizontal roots, so I potted them all up. They separated easily by hand; I simply broke off the lateral roots. But an early cold snap killed all the artichokes in their containers. Roots above ground in pots experience weather as one zone colder; they thought they were in zone 6, so I lost them all. Live and learn. I’ve since planted another artichoke in a limed and graveled garden bed with other Mediterranean plants. No way am I going to pay market prices for artichokes now that I know I can grow them in my garden.