Artichokes in the Valley

these giant thistles can grow well locally

Artichokes are giant thistles that grow 3 feet tall and are as fun to grow as they are to eat. Their prickly silver leaves are an excellent backdrop anywhere you plant them.

Although most artichokes thrive in the cool, moist climate of coastal California, western Oregon's climate also is usually mild enough to grow these edible thistles as perennials if cut back and mulched in the winter, according to Jim Myers, professor in the horticulture department at Oregon State University.

The OSU Extension Service recommends artichoke varieties Green Globe, Imperial Star and Emerald.

"For something unusual, try growing Violetto," Myers said. "It is particularly variable for spines and purple heads, but in my opinion, has the best flavor of all of the artichokes." Artichokes as annuals also can grow in many places east of the Cascades with a little coaxing.

To grow artichokes from seed, start them indoors in late February or March under grow lights for about eight weeks and then plant them outside after the last frost. In May or June, it's best to purchase starts from your local nursery or mail-order catalog.

"Plant artichoke starts in deep, well-amended soil in full sun," Myers said. "Space them 3 to 5 feet apart, and when planning your garden, think about the shade they will cast. Mulch and water regularly."

By mid summer, the artichoke plant should send up flower buds. To eat the buds, harvest them before they open. If left to flower, the plant will produce a large purple thistle that can be dried and used in arrangements. If you harvest all the flowering heads, in milder climates artichokes may send up a second crop of flowers in the fall.

An artichoke will produce well for about three or four years, Myers said. After that, it's best to dig and divide it as it produces offshoot plants that may crowd the original plant.

"In the fall, cut back your artichoke plant and mulch it with a covering of leaves or straw," Myers said. "After mild winters, new plants will sprout in the spring from the old parent plant. Uncover them in April. Cold winters, however, may kill artichokes, whether or not they are mulched."

Judy Scott writes for the Oregon State University Extension Service.

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