It’s October and the last phlox are fading, the asters look ratty and the daylilies have had their day. But the artichokes are blooming their heads off. Blue is normally a receding color, but the blue-violet of an artichoke flower is like that of a neon sign, one you can see clear across the yard. The plants that bear them are striking features in the landscape, with their monumental form and spiky gray-green leaves. They’ve fed us for months with their tasty butter-dipped buds, best picked when they’re still tightly wrapped. To any that have opened too far we’ve said, “Carry on, make flowers.” Now we’re enjoying the light show.
Artichokes were once considered too fussy for home gardeners to grow, and even the commercial market was restricted to parts of California with a perfect artichoke climate: a winter cool enough to provide a minimum chilling period to induce bud formation but mild enough not to kill the plants.
Savvy growers have long known how to trick artichokes into bearing without having gone though a winter. You sow them in a warm greenhouse in January or February, set them out in a cool but protected spot to chill (they can take light frosts) and then let them respond to warming temperatures by making buds. But the big breakthrough was making this easier to do by breeding new annual varieties. The best is one called Imperial Star. It requires only two weeks of weather below 50 degrees to set its inner procreative timer to “Go.” We’ve found it more productive than other varieties, too.
Things get a bit more complicated in areas where summers are not coastal-California cool but beastly hot. The plants might make buds, but they’re fibrous and not good to eat. Studies done by Virginia Tech, in which the plants were tested in various plots throughout the state, pointed out that limitation.
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So the recommendation for mild winter-hot summer climates is to set out the plants in fall and let them get their chill from winter. They will bear in the spring before severe prolonged heat sets in. Because the plants are able to survive from one year to the next, they are cut or mowed down after the late summer/early fall crop and left to regenerate in spring. Winter protections such as heavy mulches or low plastic-covered hoop tunnels can be used when winters are not quite mild enough.
But what about an area, say, in the Midwest that has a severely cold winter and a blazing hot summer as well? You could dig up plants and store them in the cellar, divide them like dahlias and replant them in the spring, but growth might not be fast enough to beat the heat.
Maybe there are some places where you can’t raise artichokes, or maybe not every year. Then again, it depends on what you’re after. The plants will still be strong architectural elements in the garden. If heat compromises the buds, they will still open in fall and send up flares of gas-burner blue, which will be fragrant and lure pollinating bees. I’d be okay with that.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.