Artichokes in the Heart of the Garden: How to grow, harvest & eat this fresh vegetable
Artichokes are actually flower buds harvested before they open. If these buds are allowed to bloom, they blossom into beautiful blue flowers that are a delight to bees and butterflies alike. Very ornamental in the garden that is often used as cut flowers. They just look natural in the Arizona mountain garden.
Often gardeners think of thistles as prickly weeds. Eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans, this member of the thistle family, Cynara scolymus, has been cultivated as a gourmet food for centuries.
Artichoke can be grown in almost all of the United States’ growing zones and considered a perennial locally, in zones 7 and higher. Colder zone gardeners can still grow artichokes, but only as seasonal 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.
A healthy artichoke requires great drainage and plenty of sunlight. Often, gardeners assume their artichoke plants haven’t returned in the spring due to a cold winter; in reality, soggy soil is usually to blame. Consistently sitting in moisture will damage the artichoke crown and root system.
Artichoke is a large plant the requires a lot of nitrogen. Feed every other month during the growing season with a (7-4-4) all-purpose plant food. Good companion plants for artichoke include peas, cabbage, sunflowers, and tarragon. These plants do not compete for nutrients in the same garden space.
Soil preparation is the key to healthy plants. Double dig the garden space working in lots of premium mulch full of organic matter. Check the texture of your soil when complete. Grab a handful of blended soil, give it a squeeze and then open your hand. Properly mixed soil will not clump together, but it also won’t fall apart. The perfect artichoke soil will gently crumble across your palm.
Plant size — With a height of 3 feet, and even larger artichokes, they take up a lot of garden space that requires full sun. Plants are best planted in rows at 4-foot intervals, with rows, spaced a minimum of 5 feet. Planting on mounds that utilize drip irrigation improve soil drainage for increased harvest.
Artichokes love water. To encourage stronger roots, water deeply at least once per week. This should produce tender new buds.
June heat may cause flower buds to open quickly. Mulching around each plant reduces soil temperatures and water evaporation.
Harvest the center artichoke bud first. Use pruners or a utility knife to cut the stem 1 to 3 inches from the base of the bud. The stem becomes a useful handle when trimming the artichoke. The center bud is always largest, but the side shoots produce the most favorable, tender bud 1 to 3 inches in diameter. Yum!
Pruning artichokes helps prepare for over-wintering. Simply cut the artichoke stem back to a few inches above the ground. Apply a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch, leaves or straw over your artichoke bed to protect the plants for cold winters. Remove this mulch layer in April when the spring freeze is over.
A ripe artichoke is determined by bud size. The central choke bud should be harvested when it is between 3 to 5 inches in diameter. If you wait too long, it becomes tough. The secondary side buds are best collected when buds are 1 to 3 inches in size. If you wait too long to these buds open into a surprisingly fragrant and beautiful flower.
How to eat a freshly picked artichoke
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 two 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. Place the shaved artichoke in a bowl of lemon water to keep it fresh until ready to steam.
Artichokes keep in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks.
There are free gardening classes each week at Watters Garden Center:
• June 28, Friday at 3:30 p.m. — “Animal Proof your Landscape”
Yes, there are plants that actually taste bad to the critters and still look gorgeous in the garden! This class is crucial for gardeners trying to enjoy our beautiful outdoor environment and abundant wildlife, but not have their landscape become lunch. Learn which plants deer, javelina, and rabbits usually shy away from, and where they will best grow in your garden.
• June 30, Sunday from 5 to 8 pm — “Grape 4 Grades – A Garden Party”
Watters Garden Center is hosting the ultimate garden party with Prescott Frontier Rotary to raise awareness and money to benefit the PUSD Summer School Enrichment Program.
El Gato Azul has especially paired foods with featured wines and sweets. All money raised goes directly to the kids. Rotarians are donating their personal villas in Austria and Italy along with private golf tours, garden consults and more. Tickets are $50 and available at Watters, Olsen’s for Healthy Animals, Prescott True Value, and online at www.PrescottFrontierRotary.com.
Consider this a personal invitation to join us for a fun garden party that benefits and even greater cause.
Until next week, I’ll be helping gardeners choose the perfect Artichokes here at Watters Garden Center.
Ken can be found throughout the week at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road in Prescott, or contacted through his website at WattersGardenCenter.com or FB.com/WattersGardenCenter.