Sunday, April 20, 2008

They're Baaack

Imperial Star Artichoke, 2007 growing season.

I must admit, I am a bit fascinated by artichokes. It's not quite to the point of obsession, like I am with tomatoes, but I find them more interesting than many of the other vegetables I grow. I think that stems from the fact that they are not really widely grown in this part of the country. So it's a bit of a challenge.

Last spring/summer I grew my first artichokes, Imperial Star Artichokes. They produced flowers (that's the part we eat) their first year, which is a plus, since artichokes are a perennial that produce (most of the time) in it's second year. However, it was questionable if they would survive the winter here. Actually, they are only supposed to be hardy down to USDA zone 8 (even more detailed maps here) and we are in zone 6 here. What does all this zone business mean? Well, it's just a way for gardeners to gauge how well a given plant will survive the extreme cold of winter in a given geographical region. In theory, you'd want perennial plants (plants the come back year after year) that are rated to survive your zone or colder if you live in a cold area. The lower your zone number the colder it gets in the winter. It doesn't take into account how hot it gets in the summer, how long a growing season you have, or all the many other variables that go into growing plants. Many people get confused by the zone thing and think that if one lives in a higher zoned area, you must have a longer growing season, and vice versa. This is not so. Your growing season is determined by the number of frost free days you have and also how hot it gets in the hottest part of your summer. For example Dallas, TX is zone 8, as is Seattle, WA. Obviously the two have different weather and completely different growing seasons. If you lived in Texas, you might have a spring garden and a fall garden, because the heat of summer would kill your crops. While in Washington, it might be mild all through the spring and summer. To add to the confusion there are micro-climates within zones that can throw you for a loop. If you lived on top of a mountain, it might be much colder than down in the valley. So it would seem the zone system is flawed. But, if you use it simply as a way to determine how cold a temperature a give perennial plant can take, it should work for you.

Last summer I let some of the buds go to flower.

So back to artichokes. Once the artichoke foliage died back from the fall frost, I took measures to protect it from our cold winter. I cut back the plant and piled about a foot of shredded fall leaves on top of the plants and then covered the entire raised bed with a plastic tarp to keep too much moisture from rotting the plants. I weighted down the plastic tarp around the edges with large rocks and bricks. It stayed that way all through the winter. Rain came down, snow piled up, ice formed, the whole works. Then in spring it started to warm up. My other perennial plants started popping up. I figured it was time to uncover the artichokes. So the first week of April, I pulled back the tarp and pushed away the leaves. The leaves smelled earthy, a nice scent. The bottom few inches of shredded leaves had already turned into compost, a nice black crumbly layer. I removed most of the pile of leaves and left a few inches to feed the plants, and hopefully act as a mulch and prevent weeds from sprouting. There was just the tiniest bit of growth on three of the plants. Slowly, they are waking up from a long winter sleep. I have a good feeling we'll have quite the crop of artichokes this year. They are said to produce in abundance the second year.

By April 20 new growth appears on the old stump and increases each day.

It looks as though only three of the six plants have growth so far. I'm not sure if the other three are just slower to wake up, or they may be dead. I'll give them until May to do something. During the winter, I sometimes get carried away while looking at seed catalogs and websites. I bought some new artichoke seeds of Violetto Artichoke. The description says, "Beautiful purple heads of artichokes look like flowers (because they are) on these plants. Fruit is more elongated than the green globe type. There is some variation in the seed and the Italian supplier recommends removing any weedy looking seedlings before setting out. Start indoors for a mid-summer crop even in Maine." To me that sounds like the seed is not pure and may have come from cross pollinated stock. I guess I'll take my chances. These seedlings look quite happy and robust. Although I did start them kind of late. My first batch did not germinate. I don't know why, sometimes that just happens to even the most experienced of seed starters. I tried again and most of the seeds germinated. Now that I know my old plants survived, I will have to find a spot for these or give them away. I'm thinking about putting a couple in an Earth Box (I have 3) and then in the winter, storing it in the garage for protection.

Violetto artichoke seedlings. No weedy looking seedlings here! What are they talking about?

Now some call them weeds and some call them volunteers, but if you let a plant go to seed, you may have some seedlings that pop up unexpectedly. Such is the case in the artichoke bed. I found this volunteer yesterday. Funny thing is, it popped up next to one of the plants that hasn't started growing yet (possibly dead). Isn't nature a wonderful thing?

Look familiar? A volunteer artichoke a few weeks behind the ones started inside.

1 comment:

John said...

Great artichoke post! I hope that it inspires others in the Northeast to try artichokes.