My hearts desire
Cooked artichoke hearts, with a glass of wine, are among Monty Don’s greatest pleasures – and he loves the plants they come from, too
ARTICHOKES are something I truly adore. I enjoy eating cold artichoke hearts in good oil and perhaps a little chilli with a glass of very cold Frascati, or pasta with artichokes and lemon, accompanied this time by a good robust chianti. But my real passion is for the plants themselves. It never fails to thrill me to grow something of such stature and glaucous beauty from a seed in a year or two.
I sow the seed in March, prick out the seedlings into 7.5cm pots, then grow them on until large enough to plant out. For the rest of the summer they do not grow a great deal but are busy underground establishing their deep tap roots. If they do produce a bud it should be removed to focus all the plant’s energies into the root system. You can buy young plants now if you don’t want to wait until next spring to sow the seeds.
They like a rich but well-drained soil and thrive in full sun, but they really do not like our very wet winters, and this is when good drainage really helps. In winter the leaves will gradually die right back and the dried stems should be cut and shredded before going on the compost heap. I mulch my artichokes in autumn with a thick layer of compost that both feeds and protects their roots from the worst frosts.
In their second year they will put on a great flush of growth and produce a few chokes, and in year three they will double in size again and be ready for a few years of
intensive harvesting. They will also start producing offsets which can be cut away in April from the parent plant with a sharp spade and replanted to make a new plant that has two advantages over seed.
The first is that it is a year ahead of the seed process so will be ready to harvest in earnest in its second season. The second is that it will be exactly the same as the parent plant, whereas one of the disadvantages of growing artichokes from seed is that they do not always come ‘true’.
In other words, you can sow a packet of seed of a variety like ‘Green Globe’ and a quarter of the resulting plants
will be mavericks.
Talking of varieties, I’m growing just ‘Violetta di Chioggia’ at the moment. These make smallish chokes on huge plants – which in itself is a handsome combination. They are not the best artichokes for eating in the conventional way – boiled and served whole, then consumed by slowly peeling off the scales and removing the nub of soft heart from the base of each scale with your teeth – but they are perfect for harvesting small, then eating whole as a side dish or in pasta.
‘Green Globe’ are handsome, large and delicious, so make a great starter to any dinner. ‘Gros de Laon’, ‘Romanesco’ and ‘Violet de Provence’ all deserve to be grown, and are easy to get hold of as seed. But these are large plants and do take up space, so not many of us can grow the full range of varieties we might like.
Their size does mean, though, that they can be used to decorative and structural effect outside the confines of the allotment or veg patch. Growing artichokes in a border makes good sense, providing a really dramatic backdrop for flowers as well as producing a delicious harvest. I normally grow cardoons for this, which are a close relative of artichokes but seem happier in cooler, wetter conditions.
However, artichokes will do the job just as well. But wherever you grow them, they will need staking from early summer onwards as their stems tend to crash and fall in bad summer weather. Despite the distinctly Mediterranean appeal of the artichoke, and despite the blazing sunshine outside my window as I write this, bad weather at some point over our summer is absolutely certain!
Monty with some of his artichokes