With long, silvery leaves and strikingly attractive blooms, the artichoke is a unique addition to your vegetable garden. Growing artichokes isn’t difficult, and with the proper planting, watering and pruning, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest of edible chokes.
What is an Artichoke?
Many people think of thistles as prickly weeds, and no gardener wants a weed in their vegetable garden. But the artichoke, scientifically known as Cynara scolymus, proves that not all thistles are a nuisance. Eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans, this member of the thistle family has been cultivated as a gourmet food for centuries.
Where do artichokes grow? Although the artichoke isn’t traditionally a hugely popular plant in the United States, it can actually be grown in almost all US growing zones. Artichoke growing zones range from Zones 3-11, while artichokes grow as perennials in Zones 7-11. Colder zone gardeners can still grow artichokes, but only as annual vegetables. Most of the plant is edible, but the portion usually eaten is the immature flower bud in the center, formed before the artichoke blooms.
Steps to Growing Artichokes
Members of the thistle family are known for their ability to grow in almost any location. Because artichokes require lots of room and a long growing season, how to grow artichokes and achieve large harvests is a primary concern for many growers.
- Choose the Right Location
Artichoke plant care begins with great drainage and plenty of sunlight. Often, gardeners assume their artichoke plants haven’t returned in the spring due to a cold winter. But in reality, soggy soil is usually to blame. Consistently sitting in moisture will damage the artichoke crown and root system.
Artichokes love to eat up all the nitrogen from soil. If you’re planting artichokes in your vegetable garden, good artichoke companion plants include peas, cabbage, sunflowers and tarragon. These plants will not compete for nutrients.
- Prepare the Soil
Artichokes grow in most soils, but deeply worked, nutrient-rich soil full of organic matter will increase your artichoke harvest. To check the texture of your soil, grab a handful, give it a squeeze and then open your hand. Properly mixed soil will not clump together, but it also won’t fall apart. It should gently crumble across your palm.
To prepare your artichoke bed, dig your row at least 8 inches deep and work in 5 inches of compost. For a large artichoke garden, mix in 100 lb. of manure for every 100 square feet of garden space.
- Plant Your Artichokes
Planting artichokes from seed can be a bit of a gamble – they don’t always stay true to seed package labels. Growing artichokes from seed isn’t impossible, but be forewarned it takes a bit of time. Artichoke seedlings usually need to be approximately 60 days old before transferring to your garden. Root divisions are an easier option and are widely available from both local and online nurseries and garden centers.
With a height of 3 to 4 feet and a mature diameter of up to 6 feet, artichokes take up a lot of space. Artichoke plants require full sun, so if you plant them too closely together, the large plants can shade smaller ones. Plant your artichoke transplants in a row at an interval of 4 to 6 feet. Placing rows 6 to 8 feet apart will allow room to easily water, fertilize and harvest. Building the row up in a mound or with irrigation channels will help improve soil drainage.
- Trick Your Annual Artichokes
Annual varieties produce buds during their first season because they’re not guaranteed to last the winter. If you see poor results with your annual artichokes, you may need to trick them. Expose the seedlings to cool temperatures below 50 degrees in March and April. If temperatures drop below freezing, bring them indoors. Then, wait to plant until after the last frost.
- Water Artichokes Consistently
Artichokes love water. They need it to produce tender buds. As a thistle, the perennial power of an artichoke plant lies in its deep roots. To encourage strong roots, water deeply between 1 to 3 times a week, depending on the weather.
Extremely hot summers can cause artichoke buds to open quickly into flowers. To prevent this from happening, overhead irrigation can keep the temperatures down so buds won’t open. Mulching around each plant can also help reduce soil temperatures and water evaporation.
- Apply Artichoke Fertilizer
Taking the time to properly fertilize your artichoke bed gives your plants the essential nutrients for a well-established start. Apply a balanced vegetable plant food every two weeks throughout the growing season for healthy plants and high yields.
- Harvest Artichokes with Ease
The center artichoke bud matures the fastest and grows the largest. When harvesting artichokes, all you need is a utility knife to cut the stem approximately 1 to 3 inches from the base of the bud. The stem becomes a useful handle when trimming the artichoke.
After harvesting the center bud, the artichoke plant will produce side shoots with small buds between 1 to 3 inches in diameter. These side buds are extremely tender and flavorful.
- Pruning – Continue Care After Harvest
Once the plant stops producing buds in the fall, pruning artichokes helps to prepare for over-wintering. Simply cut the artichoke stem back to a few inches above the ground. Apply a thick mulch of leaves or straw over your artichoke bed to protect the plants for cold winters. If the winter weather dips below 15 degrees, some plants may be damaged. Remove the mulch in the spring after the last frost date for your growing zone.
- Divide Mature Artichoke Plants
Artichokes are generally considered 5-year plants. Each plant produces off-shoots that begin to crowd the parent plant. To maintain a healthy artichoke garden, carefully divide your artichoke plants every few years. You don’t have to dig up the entire plant, though. You can simply separate a rooted shoot with your gardening knife and then carefully dig it up with a spade.
How to Trim an Artichoke
Trimming an artichoke is not difficult once you understand the process. Artichokes require just a bit of work after harvest to become edible.
- Use a serrated knife to trim off the top third of the artichoke bud.
- Remove the outer 2 layers of leaves from around the stem.
- Use kitchen shears to trim the sharp tips off each remaining outer leaf.
- If you want the artichoke to sit flat, cut off the stem. Otherwise, simply peel it with a paring knife.
- Place the trimmed artichoke in a bowl of lemon water to keep it fresh until ready to steam.
Types of Artichoke Plants
The many different varieties of artichokes mean you can choose the perfect variety for your garden. Some of the most popular types of artichoke include:
- Green Globe Artichoke – considered the original improved artichoke. It’s capable of budding in the first year, produces as an annual in climates as cool as Zone 3 and is still able to handle warm summers as a perennial. It reaches harvest early – at only 75 days.
- Big Heart Artichoke – a painless variety with no thorns. This relatively new variety is able to handle warm weather and can be grown as an annual from seed. This artichoke’s name pays homage to its ability to reach up to 5 ½ inches.
- Violetta Artichoke – a heavy producer of side buds. This heirloom variety from Italy has an attractive purple bud known for its tenderness. As a smaller plant, the Violetta artichoke requires only a 3-foot spacing between plants.
- Jerusalem Artichoke – also known as a sunchoke. In fact, the Jerusalem artichoke is actually not an artichoke at all, despite its name. It’s a species of sunflower, native to North America. Much different than an actual artichoke, these plants grow from about 5 feet to over 9 feet, with sunny yellow sunflower-esque blooms. The edible tuber portion resembles ginger root and is typically between 3 – 4 inches long.
Artichoke Growing FAQs
Common Pests and Diseases for Artichokes
While overwhelmingly hardy plants, gardeners should be on the alert for a few of the following common pests and diseases for artichokes.
- Artichoke plume moth is actually a small larva which damages the artichoke bud throughout the entire growing season. A regular insecticide program can help control an infestation.
- Slugs and snails often eat the leaves, stems and outer surface of artichoke buds. There are many organic and chemical methods for control.
- Curley dwarf disease kills artichoke plants. Symptoms include curling leaves, stunted growth, misshapen buds and reduced production. Plants should be removed from the garden.
- Botrytis blight is a fungus that develops on artichoke plants damaged by disease, weather or pests. It often appears as a grey-brown coating on the leaves during a warm and wet summer. There is no remedy. Infected plants should be removed and destroyed.
- Young earwigs leave holes in leaves. Most of the damage is simply cosmetic, but a heavy infestation can damage young shoots. Earwig traps help cut down on the population. Hot pepper repellents can be sprayed as a deterrent.
When is Artichoke Growing Season?
The artichoke season depends on your climate and variety. In the extremely warm coastal areas of Zones 9-11, artichokes grow throughout the winter and begin bud growth in May. Harvest continues into mid-June. In the mid-range zones of the country, artichokes live through winter under the soil and begin new growth once the ground begins to warm in the spring. Annual artichokes can be transplanted into the garden after the last frost.
What Growing Zone is Ideal for Artichokes?
Artichokes thrive in areas with mild winters, cool summers and plenty of moisture. As a perennial, artichokes perform well in hardiness Zones 7-11. Colder zone gardeners can grow artichokes as an annual vegetable or over-winter their perennial varieties in a sheltered area.
Can You Transplant Artichokes?
Transplanting artichokes is the ideal method of planting. Artichoke seeds are usually only 80% true to their parent plant. Transplants from indoor starts or dividing ensures you grow exactly what you want.
The Difference Between Artichoke Bushes and Trees
While mature artichoke plants do have a somewhat bushy appearance, there actually is no such thing as an artichoke bush or an artichoke tree. The artichoke is a member of the thistle family and grows large stalks with edible buds that are widely used in culinary dishes around the world.
How Long Does It Take to Grow Artichokes?
Perennial varieties of artichokes usually begin budding in their second year of growth. In ideal growing conditions – such as the coastal areas of California – artichoke plants produce buds throughout the entire year. For the rest of the country, buds begin to appear in early summer. The center bud matures the fastest, followed by the side buds for the rest of the growing season. Most artichoke plants reach harvest in 85 to 100 days.
How to Tell if an Artichoke is Ripe
Size is the primary way to tell if an artichoke is ripe. The central choke bud should be harvested when it is between 3 to 5 inches in diameter. If you wait too long, the artichoke becomes tough. The secondary side buds are best harvested when between 1 to 3 inches in size. If you wait too long to harvest, the bud will open into the artichoke flower – a surprisingly fragrant and beautiful flower.