Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)

20180414_091720If 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.

End of September.  If you look closely you will see that there are actually three plant clusters, with the one on the left actually a cluster of plants, itself.  This would be your guide as to where to divide the plants in the future.

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.*

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End of November.  They grow fast with the cooler weather!

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.

End of January.  Not ready, yet!  Still a few months to go.  Notice the lack of snow?  If you live in zone 8 or lower, you will need to find a way to protect your plants from frost.

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!

Almost harvest time!  The main flower will be centrally located, with smaller side flowers below.  Removing the main one will help the side flowers grow larger.  The bottom right picture shows what happens if they don’t get enough water, the stems should be firm and straight!

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.

Aphids can be a big problem, so be sure to attract helpers!

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.

Earwigs love to use my artichoke flowers for shelter.  Kind of gross, but harmless.

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!

It was the need to clean artichokes that inspired getting our garden sink.  Start by letting the flowers soak in water to scare out the critters and soften any grime.  Then vigorously swish them around in the water to wash it away.  It may take a few washings to get them good and clean.  The wash water goes to the garden!

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.

This flower is almost too late to harvest.  It was salvageable, but you want to get them before the petals start open like this one.

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.

Way too late to harvest, but the real show is about to begin!

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.

Artichoke flowers!  I will leave some of the smaller buds on the plant since they aren’t big enough to bother with eating.  The flowers are a stunning attraction, and the bees love them, too!

Plant Summary:

  • 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, but can be planted in early spring



11 thoughts on “Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)

  1. Castroville, the Artichoke Capital of the World, is just a short distance down the coast from here! I have never grown them in my own garden, because they need a bit of space, and make only a few artichokes annually. That is one vegetable that I would rather leave up to my neighbors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are a bit of a space hog, that’s for sure, but they are so darned expensive that we hardly buy them anyway. We just happened to have a space that would suit them so we thought why not? We get also get some fun conversations when people realize what they are!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Expensive? We get them occasionally, and sometimes they come from the store, but I do not remember ever buying them, so I would not know. I do not even look at them. If I were to grow them in my own garden, I think I would like to put them where I could show off the foliage too. I they are going to take up that much space, they may as well work for it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s not unusual to find them for no less than $1 a piece here, and that’s for the average sized ones. The larger ones are closer to $1.50 each. I don’t mind getting them occasionally, but not for regular eating. As for the foliage, I have to keep them tucked to the side since the leaves dry up and die back. In fact, right now there is hardly anything left! I will start seeing them reappear in September.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I do not think that I would pay $1 each for them. There is not much to them anyway. Most of the bulk gets discarded. Oh well. I will still eat them when someone else cooks them.

        Liked by 1 person

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