If you drive along some parts of the central California coast, you are likely to see wide swaths of the landscape covered in artichoke plants. In fact, this is pretty much the only place in the U.S. where commercial artichokes are grown.
Artichoke production world wide is predominantly located in areas that have a Mediterranean climate. No surprise then, that Greece is one of the top producing countries, and since almost all of California has that Mediterranean climate, it’s also no surprise that they are heavily produced here. It is a surprise, however, that they can be grown in my zone 9 yard.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
Artichokes prefer the “warm summer” type of Mediterranean climate. I live in the “hot summer” type (lucky me?). That means that they need a little extra help to grow here, but they will produce loads of tasty ‘chokes if you work it just right.
Artichoke plants grow large, having a spread of up to 4 feet and 3-4 feet tall. Each plant can produce multiple flowers, which is the part that is eaten, but the amount is dependent on variety. Most plants will grow one large flower on a central stalk, with smaller flowers forming on the sides. Harvesting the large one will allow the side ones to grow a little bigger, but they may not get as large as the first flower. They still taste good, though!
To grow them in hotter climates, be sure to keep the soil moist and it is a good idea to provide them some shade. Either morning or afternoon shade can help with the heat. Covering the area they are growing in with a shade cloth will also work if no other shade is available. The plants prefer full sun in cooler summers, so don’t go overboard with shade in hotter zones. Mulching the soil will help in retaining soil moisture as well as keeping ground temperatures cool.
In the cooler summer zones, the plants will produce a main crop in late spring and a small one again in fall, depending on the variety. In hotter summer areas, the plants are more likely to die back after producing their crop in spring. Don’t worry, they are still there, but are just waiting for cooler weather to reappear. You just won’t get a second batch of chokes.
Eventually the plants will begin to get a little crowded and it will be time to divide them. This will need to happen every 3-4 years in order to help the plants stay productive. To do this, wait until the weather starts to cool. Using a shovel, cut around the plant forming a 2 foot wide circle. Don’t worry about cutting roots, you are going to be doing that anyway. Dig down below the main root mass and pull it up. You should see where the offshoots of the plants are coming out of the roots. Cut the roots up into chunks where each one has a baby plant forming. Try to leave as large of a root piece attached as possible. Plant the babies 3-4 feet apart. You will likely have “leftover” plants, depending on how many you are dividing and how much space you have. These can be put into pots and given away!
Pests to watch out for are the usual suspects: slugs and snails, and aphids. In my yard, earwigs love to make the artichoke flowers their home, but don’t feed on them. However, they do leave a nasty mess so it is important to wash the artichokes thoroughly. The plants can also be susceptible to Verticillium wilt and Botrytis rot, both due to excess moisture and warm temperatures. Artichokes are in no way drought tolerant, but they don’t like soggy soil, either. Be sure to keep the soil moist but not soaking, and amend the soil with organic material if your soil is heavier, like clay, to improve drainage and reduce disease risk.
You can start artichokes from seeds yourself, or buy pre-started plants. If you know someone who has plants that they need to divide, that’s another option. Just know that you won’t get a harvest right away. Your plants will need a couple of years to get established before you can really see decent production. After plants are divided, it will again take another year to get a crop. It is a good idea to have plants at different stages so that you can still have a harvest from more established plants while you wait for younger ones to catch up. Just keep in mind the amount of space each one can take as you will want them to be no less than three feet apart in each direction.
Be sure to harvest the flowers before the petals begin to open. If they have opened a little, they will still be okay, however waiting too long leads to tough and bitter petals. If you don’t get to them in time, enjoy the flower show instead. They are quite stunning and unique with an electric blue-purple color. Bees love them too! Just be sure to cut the flowers as they fade so the plants don’t use their energy on seed production but instead develop more rigorous roots for bigger, more productive plants the following season.
- Perennial: Plants will live for several years, but should be divided at least every 5 years
- Deciduous: leaves may stay on in cooler summers, but will die back in hot areas
- Height: depends on variety, about 3 feet
- Width: depends on variety, about 3-5
- Sun: full sun, will want some morning or afternoon shade in hot areas
- Water: regularly, do not let soil get dry
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other flowers
- Planting time: best to start in fall as temperatures drop