Globe artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are grown for their edible flower buds, produced over the summer months. Plants are highly ornamental, with big, jagged, silvery leaves and tall flower stems topped with large globe-shaped buds that have pointed scales (sepals). Some varieties have particularly attractive dark purple or red-tinged buds. If left unharvested, the buds open into large purple thistle-like flowers, beloved by bees and other pollinating insects.
Globe artichokes like warmth, full sun and free-draining soil, and once established need little maintenance. A mature plant can produce up to 12 edible buds over the summer months. Harvested when still tightly closed, small buds are delicious roasted or sautéed whole, while larger buds can be steamed, then the fleshy scale bases and heart eaten with a dressing.
Month by Month
There are many varieties of globe artichokes, varying in plant size, bud size, bud colour and flavour. Some have attractive purple flower buds, others make larger plants that need additional space but produce a larger crop. Hardier varieties are a better choice in colder parts of the UK – some of the French and Italian varieties grow best in warmer, sheltered locations or very free-draining soil.
A wide range of vegetables are grown in all the RHS gardens, so do visit them for more veg-growing inspiration.
What and where to buy
Globe artichokes can be bought as plug plants and young plants in 9cm (4in) pots in spring, mainly from online plant suppliers.
Larger plants in containers are sold in both garden centres and online for most of the year, as are packeted seeds.
Seeds are cheaper to buy than plants, especially if you want a good number of plants, but they’re more time-consuming to grow and slower to reach cropping size. Seed-raised plants also tend to be variable and spiny, so only keep the best plants. You can later propagate your favourites from offsets (or suckers) or by dividing clumps to produce more identical plants.
Before buying, if you have any gardening friends who already grow globe artichokes, it’s worth asking if they have any young plants to spare. Mature clumps should be divided every five years or so, producing several new plants each time. Clumps also produce offset plants (or suckers) around the outside, which can easily be removed. See Propagation, below.
Preparing the Ground
Choose a warm sunny growing site with reasonably fertile, free-draining soil. Avoid very cold, frost-prone or waterlogged spots. A sheltered location is best for these tall plants, and make sure they have plenty of space, as they can reach at least 90cm (3ft) wide over time. There’s also no need to confine them to the veg plot, as they make attractive features in flower borders too.
Prepare your growing site by removing any weeds and digging in several bucketfuls of garden compost to improve moisture retention.
Sowing indoors is usually more reliable, as seedlings can be kept consistently warm and protected from slugs and snails. Indoor-raised plants also get a head start on those sown outdoors, which helps to ensure they are established enough to survive the following winter successfully.
Move young plants to their permanent growing position in late spring or early summer, after the last frost, once they have at least five true leaves and are about 30cm (1ft) tall. Harden off indoor-raised plants first, to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions. Space plants 90cm (3ft) apart. See Planting, below.
New plants can also be grown from seed (see above) or made by dividing mature clumps or taking offsets (or suckers) from the outside of clumps (see Propagating, below). These can be planted outside in spring in the same way as containerised plants.
Plug plants and very young potted plants are best kept in containers until they have a sturdy root system. Then transplant them into their final position in the ground when they have at least five leaves in late spring or early summer, after the last frost. Protect from slugs and snails.
Larger containerised plants, seed-raised plants, divisions and offset plants with a good root system are best planted in spring, 90cm (3ft) apart.
Globe artichokes need minimal maintenance – just water in dry spells, apply mulch annually in the spring, and divide mature clumps every five years or so to maintain vigour and produce new plants.
Water newly planted artichokes regularly during their first growing season. After that, once they have a strong root system, plants are fairly drought tolerant. However, do water during hot dry spells, especially when the flower buds are forming, to improve the crop.
Lack of water can lead to fewer, smaller flower buds.
Feed in spring with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4, at a rate of one handful per square metre/yard, to improve flower bud production.
In the first summer after planting, remove any flower stalks that begin to form, so the plant concentrates on getting well established. You can start harvesting the buds in the second summer.
Remove the old flower stalks once harvesting is over. Then prune off all the faded foliage at the base in late autumn.
Lay the spent foliage it over the crown of the plant to help protect it from frost. It’s also beneficial to add a layer of garden compost, for extra insulation.
Young plants are particularly vulnerable to cold in their first winter, before they’re well established. So spread a thick layer of mulch over the ground in autumn, and add fleece in frosty weather.
Established plants are usually fairly hardy, depending on the variety, but spells of harsh weather can kill them. So cover the crown of the plant with the spent foliage, to help protect it.
In colder regions, and elsewhere if you want to be on the safe side, also add a thick mulch of straw, garden compost or well-rotted manure to provide additional insulation.
Artichoke plants become larger and more prolific each year, but eventually run out of steam and need to be replaced. So before this happens, be sure to divide clumps, every four or five years, to produce vigorous new replacements.
New plants can also be made from offsets or suckers (young shoots arising from a plant’s root system). In spring, look around the outside of the clump for vigorous young rosettes of leaves, 20–30cm (8–12in) tall, sprouting from the roots. Detach them from the clump, along with a section of the root, by slicing down vertically with a sharp knife. Reduce the height of the leaves to 15cm (6in), then plant straight away – see Planting, above.
New plants produced by division or from offsets are clones of the parent, so these are the best ways to propagate named varieties.
From June onwards, use secateurs to remove flower buds when they reach the size of a golf ball and are still tightly closed. Remove the buds with a length of stalk, cutting it just above a leaf joint. Harvest the main larger flower bud first, then secondary, smaller buds will develop, which can be harvested in turn over the summer. Check plants regularly, as buds can open quickly in warm weather.
Plants should crop well for about four to six years, and mature plants can produce up to 12 flower buds in a season.
Small, tightly closed buds can be roasted, grilled or sautéed whole. Alternatively, boil or steam larger buds until tender, then serve with melted butter, vinaigrette or hollandaise sauce – to eat, remove the bud scales (sepals) one by one, dip in the butter or sauce, then suck out the juicy flesh from each scale. Finish off with the succulent, nutty-flavoured heart.
Established globe artichokes are robust plants, rarely troubled by pests or diseases. However, do protect young plants from slugs and snails and water them well during their first year until well settled in.
Aphids may colonise the buds and leaves – wash off or squash at the first sign, to prevent large infestations.
Globe artichokes can rot in damp conditions, especially over winter, so don’t plant in sites that get waterlogged – plant in raised beds instead.
Also avoid planting in very cold locations, or protect the crown from hard frosts by covering it with a thick layer of garden compost or straw over winter – see our guide to protecting plants in winter.
Plants should be propagated by division about every five years, to keep them healthy and productive – see Propagating, above. If not, plants will eventually start to decline.
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