With proper care, artichokes can survive Pennsylvania winters
Most gardeners like to take chances on plants. We push the boundaries and try our hands at growing plants that might not be cut out for our climate just because we like to experiment.
I make it a point to grow something new-to-me in the vegetable garden each year. Whether it’s a new variety of beans or a crop that typically thrives in another region, such as okra or peanuts, I enjoy experimenting to see if I can challenge myself as a gardener. As a result, I’ve grown some pretty fun stuff over the years.
Sometimes it returns to my garden as a new favorite, and other times, it’s a complete failure and I never try again (I’m talking to you, sesame seeds!).
One crop I initially grew on a whim, thinking I’d have no success but now grow on a regular basis, is artichokes. Though artichokes (Cynara scolymus) typically grow best where temperatures are consistent year-round, I find I can grow them as long as I’m careful about which varieties I grow and how I protect them through the winter months.
Artichokes are susceptible to freezing, but they’re biennials, so they don’t produce their edible flower buds until their second year of growth. This presents quite the conundrum for northern gardeners like us.
How do we keep the plant alive through the winter and not let it be exposed to freezing temperatures? Plus, artichokes need a very long growing season with warm days and cool nights — and there’s a definite shortage of cool nights in a Western Pennsylvania summer.
Here’s the method I use to grow artichokes in my garden every few years. Yes, it takes some work, but homegrown artichokes don’t compare to those purchased at the grocery after travelling here from California.
Begin by selecting a variety most suited to our climate. Artichokes take at least 110 days to mature. Varieties like “Green Globe” and “Imperial Star” have slightly shorter maturation times and are good varieties to grow here in Western Pennsylvania.
Start the seeds indoors under lights about 6 to 8 weeks before our last expected spring frost. When the seedlings are ready to move outdoors after the threat of frost has passed, select a location that receives full sun and is as protected as possible but big enough for the plants to reach maturity.
Mature artichoke plants can reach 5 feet across. They have beautiful, spiny foliage that requires 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. Enclose the straw in a 2-foot-tall ring of chicken wire fencing to keep it in place. Make sure the straw covers the plant entirely.
Come spring, gradually remove the mulch over the course of two weeks and the plant should begin to regrow from the roots.
Put them in pots
Another option is to grow your artichokes in very large pots (35 to 50 gallons) and move the pots into the garage or another sheltered area to go dormant for the winter. It’s important that the roots don’t freeze out, so if your garage dips below freezing, insulate the pot with a few layers of bubble wrap before winter’s arrival.
Water the plants only once or twice throughout the winter. Keeping the soil too wet will lead to root rot. When spring arrives, move the pots back out into their sunny location and trim off any dead leaves.
The edible portion of an artichoke 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 also develop and lead to subsequent harvests of smaller chokes.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.