Globe Artichokes

Short version:

Large perennial grown for its flower buds. Choose a variety that is hardy for your conditions. Can be grown from seed or easily propagated from suckers. Preparation and cooking can be easy and eating, leisurely.

It’s probably only when you see the mature flower of an artichoke that you can see the connection to thistle flowers. Mine never get that far because we love them – and I do me we. I have never failed to get my fussy 3 year old to eat when serving artichoke. If you have very little space in the garden, then artichokes may not be for you. They do take up a substantial amount of space for the amount of food they provide (a bit like pumpkins). They block the light out at ground level so much so that I don’t usually have to weed around them.  They do make a nice front garden statement though if you want something big and showy.

Growing artichokes

Seeds

One of the cheapest ways to start artichokes is to sow seeds. Seeds are easy to get hold of from retailers. The variety I see most often is Green Globe, popular for being hardy, reliable and prolific. I, therefore, figured it would be the easiest to grow. I planted 3 seeds and 2 grew. I’m sure experts could tell you what specific mix of compost, temperature and light conditions you need to ensure germination but my approach to all seeds is chuck them into a pot of  whatever big bag of compost I happen to be working my way through, whack it in the porch, water it regularly and wait for it to grow as I’ve written in my ‘Sowing Seeds’ post.

Plug Plants

Tiny plug plant

If you only want one or two plants and don’t have the patience for seeds, then you can buy artichokes as plug plants, though one will probably cost more than a pack of seeds. I bought the variety Tavor which is supposed to be hardier than Green Globe and matures in the first year.

I sowed the Green Globe indoors in February and then bought the Tavor plug plant in July. Both provided their first crop the following May. To be honest I can’t tell the difference in taste between the two. Both have given us a wonderful crop for a couple of years now. They’ve also survived the winters fine, even the freezing one that seemed to break half of London’s water pipes.

Propagating artichokes

So seed was only ‘one of the cheapest ways’ because in fact the totally free way of growing an artichoke is knowing someone who is growing artichokes who want to give you their offsets!

See – when I have my way and half of the people in cities are growing their own food, imagine how easy it would be to ask someone on your road for a cutting of their perennials. Or in a barter system, do a ‘swapsies’.

Anyway… Artichokes, as they mature will start sending out suckers. These are little side plants that would grow into a new plant. Generally, it’s good practise to remove these so that they don’t end up competing with your established plant.

Growing conditions

Good sun is important and provide plenty of water during hot days. Yes, I’m sure there is plenty of information on how a soil rich in organic matter is best for your artichokes but the soil you have is the soil you have. Pretty much all of London (so I’ve read – I haven’t actually gone around testing samples) is clay. Mine is heavy clay and it would be too time consuming or expensive to amend it before I planted my artichokes. I have been slowly adding organic matter to the whole garden and will continue to over the next few years.

Harvesting Artichokes

This is the very small bud come after the side buds and probably won’t grow much

Size is supposed to be a deciding factor on when to harvest, but the size of your buds will depend on variety and whether it’s the main bud or a side bud. Therefore, I’d say when the bud looks like it’s beginning to open it needs to be harvested. If the plant isn’t watered enough the bud will try and open prematurely and it will be tougher. I have found that my plants stay quite tight budded for a good couple of weeks and the first year I found myself harvesting them far too early for fear that I would leave it too late. That’s not a problem though as I found in these cases that the ‘choke’ wasn’t so spikey and was actually edible. You will get one big main bud and then slightly smaller side buds. I have also found that there can be some even smaller buds that appear a little while after.

The main bud in the centre is ready for harvest. The secondary ones will not grow quite as big and will be mature about 2 weeks later.

To harvest, cut the stem a few inches below the base of the bud with a sharp knife or secateurs.

Preparing Artichokes

It doesn’t need to be complicated.

This is what I was told:

  • Wash thoroughly
  • Cut the stem from the base of the artichoke
  • Peel the stem
  • Remove the first layer or two of leathery scales
  • Remove the top inch of the bud with a knife
  • Using a pair of scissors cut the top of each petal to remove the thorn
  • Boil in a large pan of water with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon to avoid discolouration

These are the only necessary steps.

  • Cut the stem from the base which includes the 5 smallest petals (the first layer)
  • Wash thoroughly
  • Boil in a pan of water for around 20 mins or until a leaf comes away easily when you pull on it.

Seriously, the rest is just minutiae. If you think the rest of the artichoke is a faff then you really won’t think the stem is worth it. If you’re trying to squeeze every last bit of eating out of the plant, then you can peel the stem and add it halfway through cooking – but it is only the very central core that isn’t fibrous. How many petals you remove is preference, but you can just cook them and try and eat them. The worst that’ll happen is you’ve left a couple of tough leaves that don’t have anything worth eating on them. Removing the top inch of the bud and the tips of the leaves is to remove the thorn but I’ve found that with most artichokes the thorn isn’t too sharp and/or the thorn becomes soft in the cooking and isn’t an issue. The last bit with the lemon and salt – sometimes I can’t find any lemon (not even bottled kind) in the fridge, or in fact I’ve forgotten both lemon and salt and it’s fine. If your bud is covered in aphids then just soak the bud in salty water for 10 mins and then rinse, pulling back the petals a little to wash in the gaps.   

Eating Artichokes

So… this is where it’s fun/tedious depending on what kind of person you are.

Using a thumb and a fingertip(s), with your thumb on the inside of the curve pull off a petal. When you lift it to your mouth, the thumb will be on the bottom. Use your teeth to scrape off the ‘flesh’ in the base inside of the petal. Do this for all the large petals. The petals get smaller and thinner as you get to the centre. For the very thin petals you can bite off anything that isn’t too fibrous. You then reach the choke in the centre. This is spikey and not edible. Scrape it off with a spoon and you’ll be left with the heart. In our family our hearts get devoured by the 3 year old.

My 3 year old has her own way of eating it. Aficionados will note that she is putting the petal in her mouth upside down. It’s easier to eat the other way round and scrape the flesh away with your bottom teeth than your top. We pile petals that have cooled enough and that she can easily eat in front of her. Just FYI that isn’t all from one artichoke.

The heart tastes a bit like taro but the artichoke (all of the bits you eat) has a funny way of making everything you eat afterwards taste sweet. It’s quite fun eating different things in between eating the petals. Try a sip of wine straight after a petal. This is because something called cynarin in the artichokes inhibits your sweet receptors. As you stop eating the artichoke and eat or drink something else the cynarin is washed away and everything taste sweet.

So literally, artichokes will make your life taste sweeter, if only for a couple of seconds.

Things kids can do with flowers

Short version:

Pick them, eat them, press them and bathe in them. It’s safer to do all these things with edible flowers to avoid poisoning or dermatitis. Beware of even the ubiquitous daffodils!

Pick them

The harder thing is stopping my 3 year old from picking them. We’ve made it a blanket rule that she can’t pick flowers beyond our garden without checking with me first. This is both out of common courtesy and for safety. Please be warned that there are many common flowers that are poisonous or have noxious chemicals. Bluebells, snowdrops, hyacinths, crocus and daffodils are flowers often seen in gardens, but they all contain toxins. When we first moved into our house my little one took a shine to the daffodils. I didn’t think anything of letting her pick and play with them – like I did as a child in my own parents’ garden. She developed a rash where she had rubbed it on her skin. After a bit of research I found that daffodils have calcium oxalate crystals in their sap which irritate the skin – something well known to daffodil pickers and florists. We grow all flowers that are safe to touch. The next challenge was to teach her which of the flowers would turn into fruit and was therefore off limits.

We pretty much continually have a glass on the kitchen table that has the kid’s latest pickings. It’s good for her to get to know the local flora and she likes the colours and smells and textures. She has also learnt to exercise caution as even edible flowers, like borage and roses, can have defence mechanisms like little prickles and thorns.

Eat them!

It took a while to ensure that she only picks the safe things to graze on. Whilst we grow mostly edibles (we have grown sweet peas on the roof out of her reach and we also grow star jasmine – both for the fragrance) it’s worth nothing that edibles like tomatoes and potatoes have poisonous leaves, passiflora caerulea does have edible fruit, but the leaves, flowers and unripe fruit are poisonous, and asparagus has poisonous berries.

She loves the flowers from borage, winter purslane, mint, dill and basil, though to be honest these last 2 barely make it to flower as she also loves eating the leaves. With nasturtiums she will pinch off the nectar containing cone to suck. She’s not keen on the cornflowers, calendula, watercress, coriander or brassica flowers when they grow. She loves the artichokes and chard flowers when cooked. This is the first year that we’re trying to grow violets, red clover, daisies, chamomile and bellflower in the lawn. I’ll have to let you know how they fare and how tasty they are (or aren’t).

In addition to education on what is edible, it’s important that they learn that flowers may sometimes be covered in pesticides so they cannot go around eating flowers outside your own home environment.

It sounds like the risk isn’t worth it but any adult who forages had to start learning it at some point. I believe it’s important for our kids (and everyone) to make the connection between what they eat and how it’s produced. With our little one sometimes she eats enough borage and winter purslane flowers (and leaves) that I don’t have to worry about her vegetable intake.

Press them

This was something we did as kids. Life is very different these days. Our kids are initiated into technology so early. I won’t lie (please don’t judge me), my one was already tapping away on my phone by her 3rd birthday. So, it’s nice to do activities with her that I did during my own childhood. You just need to arrange them between pieces of paper (something that is a little absorbent is best), enclose that in a heavy book, stack more books on top and leave for about 2 weeks.

Bathe in them

My little one has eczema that stems from allergies. This means a bath every night in plain old water with a soap substitute but sometimes to make it interesting we’ll throw in something from the garden. There are plenty of things that look and/or smell good. Here’s where you must do a bit of research and exercise caution (see details about daffodils above). Generally, we follow the rule, if you can eat it, you can probably bathe in it and don’t go overboard. If unsure put a bloom or two in for the first bath. Excess may cause issues (like a bath with half of my mint patch would certainly cause eye irritation, if not skin irritation) and besides I’d like to keep some of my flowers in the garden.

Bee Happy

So as a last thing, it’s quite nice for our little one to get to know about bees, how amazing they are and how much we rely on them for pollination. She’s learnt not to harm them or be scared of them and she’s rather fond of them.