Artichokes are like broccoli and cauliflower – grown so we can eat their flower buds. This makes time of harvest important, and kind of hard to gauge. Harvest too soon, and they do not develop their full flavor. If you wait too long, they turn into flowers – which will delight the pollinators, but the gardener, well,,, not so much. Although they are fragrant which is nice.
Artichokes are in the sunflower family which means they are kin to thistles, stevia, chrysanthemums, chamomile, chicory, lettuce, and dandelions. You get to see how they are related to thistles if you wait too long to harvest.
If you wait even longer you get to see how they look like giant dandelions.
The artichoke we eat is an unopened flower bud. The bud has overlapping rows of spine-tipped green bracts (leaves) enclosing the flower. Deep within all these bracts is the tender, flavorful artichoke “heart.”
How to Grow Artichokes
Artichokes take about two years to flower, so they are commonly planted from plants as opposed to seeds. In the Southwest USDA Zones 11 to 9, artichokes are best planted in September or October.
Well-drained, even somewhat sandy soil is a must, but don’t forget some organic matter to help hold some moisture for the hot summer. Raised beds are fine.
The label says “full-sun” but my artichokes grow best in afternoon shade on the East side of the house.
Artichokes are large plants and should be spaced at least 4 feet apart – 6 feet is even better. At least they do make a decorative garden statement.
Artichokes need a lot of water to produce tender flower buds. Water them deeply and frequently. Very hot soil will make the plants flower too quickly, so apply a thick mulch around the base of the plants to keep the soil cool.
If you want many flower buds to eat, be sure to use a “bloom fertilizer” that is high in phosphorous. I had some citrus fertilizer that worked just fine.
How to Harvest Artichokes
The web warns us “Harvest the buds for eating before they develop into thistle flowers.” Well, DUH!
You will need to do both – look and feel for harvest-readiness.
Look at the bud. The bracts should be large and tightly clasped to the bud. When they start to spread, the flower is getting ready to open.
You also need to gently squeeze the developing bloom near the base – if it’s hard, it’s not ready yet. When you can feel a softer space inside, this is the hollow where the tiny flowers will grow, and combined with the bract appearance it tells you ‘choke is ready to harvest.
If first you don’t succeed! I felt like Goldilocks because it took me 3 tries until I perfected my eye for artichoke readiness. The first one was too soon, the second one was too late, third was just right!
By the way, more on other flowers we eat on SWGardening.
Want to learn more? Look for my free lectures at your local Pima County Library branch, Tucson Festival of Books, Western National Parks Association and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press). If you clike on the book title it will take you to Amazon, and if you buy the book, I get a few pennies.
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