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Advice about artichokes from Miss Piggy and me

“These things are just plain annoying. After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual food out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead.”

– Miss Piggy, "The Muppet Show," 1976

While it’s true Miss Piggy is not well-known for her literary merit, the 40-year-old Muppet has, nonetheless, been quoted thousands of times for her tips on beauty, style and fine dining. (Miss Piggy also advises, “Never eat more than you can lift,” surely a pearl of wisdom for us all!)

I agree with Miss Piggy’s sentiments about eating artichokes, but I enjoy growing the plants for their silvery foliage and late summer-blooming flower thistles.

The Green Globe artichoke in my raised garden bed has thrived for the past four years. A hardy perennial in Zones 7 and above, I cut back the artichoke in the fall and cover it with shredded leaf mulch to overwinter. However, warmer weather and the plant’s protected location in my garden bed have resulted in it continuing to grow this winter, and now I see three offshoots that need to be divided and transplanted by early spring. Here’s how to accomplish this task:

Preferably wait for a cloudy day, and then find a clear division between the plants. Using a sharp-edged shovel, push the blade straight down into the soil, keeping in mind that artichokes are long-rooted plants. Move around the perimeter of the plant this way, keeping a few inches away from the base, and then use the shovel handle as a lever to uproot the offshoots from the soil as gently as possible. Some gardeners say to uproot all offshoots at once and then gently pry them apart with your hands; however, you may find it’s easier to lift them separately.

Be sure each division has new growth at the center. Transplant the divisions immediately in pre-moistened, well-draining soil (pH 6.0-7.0) by digging a hole big enough to accommodate the plant and its roots. Artichokes are most productive when they are planted in full sun, but mine fare better during our hot summers with some afternoon shade. Add compost to the hole with some high-phosphorous fertilizer to counteract transplant shock, and/or add mycorrhizal fungi to the bottom of the hole, which will attach to the roots and increase their ability to uptake water and nutrients from the soil. A mature artichoke needs 3-4 feet of space.

Set the artichoke division in the planting hole so the crown is level with the soil line. Fill in the hole with compost, then water the plant and apply a mulch dressing, keeping mulch away from the crown. Don’t be dismayed when the outer stalks of the divisions flop open and begin to die. Cut these stalks off a week after transplanting, so the artichoke can focus its energy on developing the new growth at the center. Keep the plant moist, but not too wet, and use a balanced fertilizer once a month. (Mature plants are fertilized in spring and fall.) Be sure to keep an eye out for slugs and aphids.

In order to set buds, most artichokes need at least 250 hours with temperatures below 50 degrees, a process called vernalization, so the divisions may not set fruit until the second year of growth. However, annual varieties, such as Imperial Star, will produce the first year provided they are healthy. According to Territorial Seed Co., Imperial Star will also perennialize in Zones 7 and above if grown in favorable conditions.

Artichoke plants will produce buds in mid-summer. If harvesting artichokes for food, cut them off the plant when the buds are still firm and tightly closed. If all of the buds are harvested, the artichokes may produce a second fall crop. Buds that are left on the plants will produce lovely purple flowers that attract butterflies and other pollinators.

According to Aristotle, artichokes are an aphrodisiac; given this information, perhaps Miss Piggy would change her mind about their value. Regardless of the reasons you grow this unusual member of the sunflower family, be sure to let others know about it. As Miss Piggy shrewdly recommends, “Refuse to be falsely modest about your achievements.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.