Mr Fluttergrub’s Garden: Globe artichokes

Jun 20, 2024

Spring and early summer is the time when perennial vegetables are most welcome. In March there’s the first rhubarb stalks (perhaps the only vegetable to get coated in custard) and towards the end of April the first delicate spears of asparagus. Other perennial vegetables that provide cuttings at this time include various herbs and sorrel. The latter is often undervalued. I grow both the Buckler leaved type and French sorrel. In case you’re not familiar with either, the former has small shield shaped leaves with a lemony tang that are good in mixed salads and the latter has larger spear shaped leaves that are more chewy and best cooked as an alternative to spinach. Various other leafy plants growing semi-feral also make it to the plate. A favourite amongst these is ramsons, perhaps better known as wild garlic, which we’ve allowed to naturalise in what we tell our more snooty plant spotter visitors is the ‘rewilded garden’. There is though, one late spring/early summer cropping perennial vegetable on the plot, that for me surpasses all the above, even the asparagus: the globe artichoke.

Compared with that other down to earth artichoke, that is the Jerusalem artichoke, with which it has no botanical or other similarities, the globe artichoke is an exotic show-off. Scientifically Cynara cardunculus, it is actually a form of edible thistle, believed to have been developed from the wild cardoon native to the Mediterranean area. With silvery grey foliage and reaching in excess of one and a half metres in height and spreading up to a metre in width, a full grown globe artichoke is a statuesque plant. It’s not a sight widely seen here in Yorkshire or indeed in UK horticulture more generally. You may not be surprised to learn that the foremost artichoke producer globally is Italy. However, you might not have expected Egypt, Algeria, Argentina and Peru to also be top producers.

Globe artichoke in full growth and with a few heads at the end of May

One of the reasons globe artichokes aren’t more commonly grown as a crop in the UK is that being perennial, they need to survive the rigours of winter weather. Here in one of the less exposed parts of Yorkshire most plants come through the colder months each year, but in a harsh winter, such as that of 2010-11 (I’ve a long memory) all plants were lost. It’s sometimes suggested that dormant globe artichokes can be protected in winter by thick mulches, for example with layers of straw. In my experience tough, this can be counter-productive inducing rots and creating a haven to slugs. In most years it is usually only younger plants, those facing their first winter, that are vulnerable. Older plants are generally tougher, probably because they have a far more established root system.

This brings me to an issue that’s often overlooked when globe artichokes are grown as a garden crop. If you want to harvest globe artichokes in quantity and quality year after year, new plantings need to be made regularly. Although a perennial plant, globe artichokes become less productive as they age. The first two or three seasons of cropping are the best. After this the number of heads, and to some extent the quality, tends to decline. For this reason I have up to four beds: one of young plants started the same season; the others begun in each of the preceding three years. Once a bed has cropped for the third time it’s usually removed. To keep the succession going I sow seeds for new plants every spring. These are started in a greenhouse in March and planted out in early May. The young plants may produce a head or two in late summer, but it is not until the following year that they’ll throw up a worthwhile crop. Another method of producing new plants is to take young shoots or suckers (sometimes known as slips) from the base of an existing clump in spring. I’ve rarely done this as the slips are prone to drying out unless the weather is damp and cool.

Another consideration is variety. There are marked differences between those available. Green Globe is an established standard but I generally grow Tavor, an improved selection of the older variety available as organic seed. Tavor’s main virtue is that it gives a compact and tight head which do not have spiky tips to the bracts (leaves) that make up the actual edible artichoke. It tends to be some of the purple varieties, for example Violet de Provence, that are most spiny. Grow these if you like but the heads are truly vicious to pick and prepare and, for me at least, the eating qualities are inferior.

Globe artichoke Tavor With compact heads ready for harvest end of May

Globe artichokes are a niche crop. They’re also not to everybody’s taste. Eating a whole head is quite an undertaking, each leaf or scale having to be peeled off and run between the teeth to remove the tender flesh at its base. Many people have only had globe artichokes as ‘artichoke hearts’, perhaps from a jar or more frequently as part of another dish, especially as a pizza topping. The majority of our WWOOFers, even those from countries where globe artichokes are more widely grown and consumed, have never eaten a whole one before. A few of the more faint-hearted find tackling one too much. For some it’s the fiddly dismantling process, for others the somewhat bitter taste. Like all vegetables though, globe artichokes have lots of nutritional pluses. They’re low in calories and fat and contain cynarin and sesquiterpene-lactones indicated by scientific research to lower cholesterol and improve liver function. Other virtues are relatively high levels of folic acid and vitamin K.

There we have it, the three main virtues of the globe artichoke: nutritionally beneficial; a unique and [to me] appetising taste; and as a perennial, or at least semi-perennial, a relatively low labour crop. In all but the coldest areas they should find a place on every plot, especially those practising or aspiring to permaculture principles.

We hope you enjoyed reading Mr Fluttergrub’s article on the globe artichoke. The best perennial on the plot? What do you say? Maybe you have experience of growing artichokes yourself? If so, we’d love to hear them and we can add them to this article for the benefit of the WWOOF UK community at large. Email us: editor@wwoof.org.uk

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