If you live in Los Angeles, there is not much chance that you will see an artichoke plant growing in someone’s garden or, if you do, you probably will not recognize it. This could be on account of its reputation as a mild-climate plant that benefits from consistently foggy summer days, such as those found along California’s central coast, where artichokes are produced in greatest abundance. Out of sight, out of mind.
Yet, even where the summer is as hot as ours, as long as you understand their culture, you can grow artichokes. Appreciate the fact that they are actually native to the Mediterranean basin, which means that their climate of origin is essentially the same as our own: namely, rainy winters and long, hot, dry summers. Yet just because artichokes grow best in the moderate climate found in Castroville or Santa Cruz does not mean they cannot also be productive in our own Valley, which, in any event, more closely resembles the artichoke habitat.
It is possible to harvest artichokes from a single plant throughout the year, for many years, if you select the correct variety and strictly adhere to certain cultural practices. In the Valley, you would want to plant ‘Big Heart’ or ‘Imperial Star’ varieties. These recently developed hybrids are planted from seed but, once established, may be divided at their roots to increase your quantity of plants. However, there is strong evidence that artichokes grown from seed have stronger heat resistance than clonally propagated plants. If you planted either of these varieties now, you would begin to see fruit in the late fall.
Artichokes are not only for eating. Their leaves and flowers are highly ornamental. If you are familiar with the white, lacy-leafed Artemisias, wormwoods, or Dusty Millers, you can appreciate the appearance of the artichoke plant, since it is nothing more than a gigantic version of these more familiar perennials. The artichoke that we eat is an unopened flower bud; where the bud is left on the plant, it opens up into a striking violet bloom, the type you see on certain thistles, up to 6 inches in diameter, fit for both fresh or dry arrangements and bouquets.
Artichokes prefer a soil amended with compost and will accept asparagus, lettuce, summer savory and parsley as companions in the same garden bed. None of these edibles will accept standing water yet none of them will grow effectively when water-deprived. One to two good weekly soakings should keep plants happy once they are well-rooted. An application of mulch is advisable to extend watering intervals.
Once you complete your artichoke harvest in early spring, immediately cut your plants all the way down to the ground. Provide an ample supply of nitrogen fertilizer and watch as they begin to grow again.