We San Diego gardeners have an amazingly wide selection of vegetables to grow.
Most vegetables come from regions with far more rainfall than ours naturally offers, but some of our favorite garden edibles need very little coddling in San Diego’s dry, Mediterranean climate, including one of my favorites—the artichoke.
The Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus)
The artichoke is a type of thistle that likely originated as a prickly wild cardoon in Sicily and North Africa. The Romans ate them cooked in butter or fried in oil. They also admired artichokes’ perceived medicinal benefits, like curing baldness and promoting the conception of male children.
Today’s supermarkets typically offer just one variety of artichoke, while farmers’ markets offer a few more. In Italy, I’ve seen 20 different varieties sold in street markets, each distinctive in size, shape, and flavor.
Artichokes are tri-purpose plants. We eat their meaty, leaf like bracts and the lovely, tender edible “heart” at the center of each bud. We grow them as large, beautiful perennials whose long, jagged, gray-green leaves emerge in a fountainy spray from the base. And, artichoke buds left on the plant open to a beautiful “flower” of fringy, rose-purple stamens.
Plant artichokes from seed in fall, from bare root in January and February, or from a four-inch pot or one-gallon nursery can the rest of the year. Plant in full sun in soil that drains well and has a high organic content. Artichokes need mulch but no fertilizer.
A single artichoke grows about four feet across. Over time, the roots form side shoots, so one plant can eventually fill a space eight feet across.
Water artichoke plants generously from the time rains end in spring through the end of bud harvest.
Early spring brings the start of artichoke buds. For “baby” chokes, harvest the buds at Ping-Pong ball size. Let the buds develop longer for larger chokes but be sure to harvest while the buds are still tight. The more buds you cut, the more buds the plant makes until it reaches the end of the season. At that point, bracts get tough, then open to reveal the flower within.
After harvest, reduce irrigation and allow the leaves to die back. The roots will stay dormant through summer’s heat, and in the cool of fall, new leaves will sprout from the base as the cycle starts again.
Ants and the aphids they farm are inevitable when it comes to artichokes. Flush them away with a sharp spray of water. When you harvest the artichoke buds, swish them vigorously in a basin of water mixed with a splash of white vinegar and squirt of dish soap. Between the soap, acid, and movement, dead aphids will float to the top so you can pour them off. If there are a few aphids left, just think of them as extra protein.
Artichoke Varieties to Look For
Green Globe, Violetta, Grosso Romanesco, Imperial Star, Emerald, are just a few of the great varieties that grow well here. (The Jerusalem artichoke is an entirely different plant; it is a perennial, tuberous sunflower grown for its starchy root.)
Word of Warning: Do not plant cardoons, the artichoke relative grown for its edible stem. This thistle is invasive in California, which means that it harms native habitats.