The artichoke is a formidable vegetable. Armed like a cactus, the spiny globe is as much a challenge as a temptation. You must peel away many sharply pointed scales to reach what Pablo Neruda called “the peaceable dough of its green heart.”
But the reward is great. The heart is silky-tender when steamed or boiled, sublime when dipped in butter. There are even nuggets of flavor at the base of the scales, to urge you along.
Growing artichokes can be a fun project for the adventurous eastern gardener. Most of this country’s crop comes from the mild coastal regions of California. There the plants, though perennial, do not normally produce fruits (which are actually flower buds) until their second growing season, having survived the winter with their roots in the ground. If the roots are exposed to temperatures below 20 degrees, the plants usually perish.
Nevertheless, anyone can grow them, anywhere in the United States. Researchers in New York in the 1920s successfully wintered over established plants by cutting them back to a foot tall, gathering in the leaves, and heaping sifted coal ashes over them. In 18th century Virginia, John Randolph overwintered them at Williamsburg with straw as insulation. Thomas Jefferson also succeeded at Monticello. Some growers dig the roots and pot them up; others store them in cellars the way you would dahlia tubers, then divide them once they sprout in spring.
However, the simplest method today is to grow them from seed as annuals. This requires a technique called vernalization — tricking the plants into thinking they have been through their first winter, and thus are ready to set buds. There are new varieties that lend themselves well to this practice.
If you’re game to try it, purchase the seeds now and sow them indoors or in a greenhouse at least eight weeks before the last expected frost. (At our farm we sow them on Feb. 15.) Transplant them into 4- to 5-inch pots when they are about 10 days old.
Once the plants are six weeks old, set the pots out in a cold frame or some other spot where they’ll experience cool temperatures. If you use a cold frame, make sure it is closed at night to protect them from freezing, but fully open all day, so that they experience a few weeks of chilly spring weather.
You could also set them just outside your door, where you can cover them or whisk them in for the night if frost threatens. After frost danger has passed, plant them in the garden. As far as they’re concerned, that chilly spell was “winter,” and they are now two years old.
The varieties that play this game are, in reality, perennial plants whose required chilling period is very brief. The best is one called Imperial Star. With the proper timing, it produces abundant buds of consistent quality, fine-tasting and less prickly to handle. It even has a delicious stem, which can be peeled and eaten, and less of a “choke” — the nest of fuzzy, inedible bracts that sits atop the heart.
Set the plants 2 feet apart in the row. (If you’ve overwintered some, and this spacing proves too tight, just remove every other one.) Their long taproots appreciate a well-drained, deeply dug bed, and the more fertile you can make the soil, the more artichokes you will harvest.
A plant on average soil might produce five buds, on good soil 10. On a gorgeously rich muck, loaded with organic matter you might get 15. Topdressing with liquid fish fertilizer will supply extra nitrogen and calcium, though I’d go easy in very hot weather, when the plants may enter a stretch of summer dormancy. (In most parts of Italy — true artichoke country — they are a winter crop). Ample water and a mulch will help keep production going.
The first bud, formed on the central stalk, is the biggest. When you cut that one, the side branches are encouraged to bear. All buds should be harvested while tightly closed, since they toughen as the scales start to flare outward.
The smaller you pick them, the more tender and chokeless they will be. With just a little trimming of the tips, the tiny ones can be fried or braised whole, in garlic and olive oil.
Even for those who dote on artichokes, their steep price in the market may be the most daunting trait of all. Imagine having all you could eat, for months on end. What luxury! You could drop the hearts into soup, simmer them and toss them with pasta, layer them in a pungent Mediterranean casserole with capers and anchovies, or sardines.
If you can’t keep up with the picking, leave some buds and let them bloom. Picture a row of magestic, gray-green plants, crowned with thistle-like flowers in an intense, almost neon, violet-blue. They’ll lure butterflies, pollinating bees and seed-eating finches, enhancing your garden as much as they do your table.
Barbara Damrosch, author of “A Garden Primer,’ is president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Sources of Imperial Star Artichoke:
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, (860) 567-6086. www.kitchengardenseeds.com.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 861-3901, www.johnnyseeds.com