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Garden Q&A: Artichokes a chance worth taking

| Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
An artichoke plant that was not harvested and the chokes have gone to flower.

Q: I am curious about artichokes. I would like to grow them this year, and I understand from a gardening friend that this is possible, albeit difficult. Do you think it is worth the effort? If so, how do I go about doing it?

A: Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) do best where temperatures are consistent year-round because the plants are susceptible to freezing. Though some varieties will grow in our climate if afforded extra winter protection, artichokes do best where there is a long growing season with warm days and cool nights. Still, I think it's worth it if you want to give this interesting plant a try.

Begin by selecting a variety most suited to our climate. Artichokes are tender perennials that take at least 110 days to mature and often don't produce any “chokes” until their second season (though sometimes they will produce the first). This growth cycle makes it necessary to see them safely through one or more winters.

The edible portion is the flower bud, which is harvested when it is still tightly closed and well before any flower color is showing. If grown properly, many secondary buds will develop and lead to subsequent harvests. “Green Globe” and “Imperial Star” have slightly shorter maturation times and are good varieties to grow in Western Pennsylvania. Start the seeds indoors under lights six to eight weeks before our last expected spring frost.

When the seedlings are ready to move outdoors, select a spot in the veggie patch that receives full sun and is as protected as possible since the plants will remain there all winter long. Mature artichoke plants can reach 5 feet across and have beautiful, spiny foliage, so give them plenty of room. Amend the soil with compost, and fertilize with a liquid, organic fertilizer every few weeks through the summer.

Come September, it's time to get serious about seeing them safely through the winter. Protect the roots from freezing temperatures with a deep, heavy layer of straw mulch that covers the entire plant. You can enclose the straw in a ring of chicken wire fencing to keep it in place. Come spring, gradually remove the mulch over the course of two weeks, and the plant should begin to regrow from the roots.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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