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Groundwork: Homegrown artichokes

At Green Spring Gardens, Donna Stecker prepares soil mix for seeding by moistening it first. This allows the soil to absorb a good drink of water after the seeds are set. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The artichoke is the tastiest relative of the thistle and, curiously, one of the few human delicacies that eschew the leaf, the stalk, the root, the fruit, the tuber or the nut in favor of the flower. Or, more precisely (because any old squash grower can produce a blossom for battering), the unopened flower bud. As fans of the artichoke know, the bud scales contain a fleshy interior that is just light on the palate and delicious.

Artichokes, properly globe artichokes, are straightforward vegetables, even in the challenging climate of the Washington garden, if you follow the rules. What are the rules? I'll get to those in a bit, but let's first consider this plant.

Recipe Included

The artichoke is a perennial that prefers milder winter climates than ours. It's the quintessential gourmet veggie of the Mediterranean and, where it is grown on an industrial scale, in California. Both places are a long way from Washington, so imagine how different and fresh is the globe artichoke picked in your own garden.

Artichokes will overwinter in the ground as long as temperatures don't dip below around 15 degrees, which they can do in parts of greater Washington. A good much will afford sufficient protection, though many gardeners simply grow artichokes as annuals, buying started plants in March or April from local nurseries.

Onion and leeks in four-inch pots. Labels are crucial to distinguish the varieties of plants that at this stage look identical. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The second consideration with artichokes is that the standard plant doesn't begin to bud until its second year, after a required winter chilling. The solution is to buy a cultivated variety by the name of Imperial Star. It has been bred to bud in its first season. Its one vital requirement is that it receive about 10 days of night temperatures of below 50 degrees but above freezing, fooling it into thinking it has gone through a winter. These overnight temperatures are de riguer in late March, early April, but you need to have the plants in the cold frame or garden by then (ready with some covering if there is a late frost), so it is necessary to start them now from seed.

This is done in the potting room at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia by Cindy Brown, Donna Stecker and the volunteers. The procedure is pretty straightforward: The seed starting mix is placed in a mixing tray, water is added to make it uniformly moist but not wet, and the seeds are placed together in recycled foam coffee cups with drainage holes.

The seed packet looked like a pretty good value at $1.59 until Donna opened it and found seven seeds inside. Of these, probably five will germinate and three make it to bearing age. Happily, more seed is on the way.

The cups now go under lights for about three or four weeks, when they will be potted up into four-inch pots that will go to a cool greenhouse, and then on to a bench outdoors to harden off and get the chilling requirements they need.

Donna took me to see the onions, leeks and parsley that were started a month ago and potted up and sent to the greenhouse last week. They have survived the move as well as any jet-setting panda, and will spend the next few weeks developing really healthy and robust root systems.

Parsley seedlings in the greenhouse, just showing their true set of leaves. (Adrian Higgins/The Washingtont Post)

The first pair of baby plant leaves pretty much all look the same; they're just there to get a baby plant kick started by the light. You know you are over the hump when the true leaves emerge, giving each plant its own distinctive look. Next week, seed-starting season shifts into a little higher gear as we turn our attention to cool-season veggies that need a jump on the spring. But first back to the kitchen and that tasty thistle.

-- Adrian Higgins

(Cynthia Brown)

Roasted Artichokes and Potatoes
4 side-dish servings

Roasted fresh young artichokes are the featured vegetable at many summer Italian festivals. Gardeners here can host their own festival with a bit of planning and the right artichoke cultivar.

Though this may be an appropriate time to start the artichoke seed for your kitchen garden, it's not a great time of year to be looking for fresh artichokes. Frozen artichokes are fine substitute in the off season.

For those of us who aren't on a New Year's diet, a lemony aioli sauce drizzled over the roasted potato/artichokes would be divine. I must settle for the fresh lemon juice.

From Cynthia A. Brown.

4 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 pound small potatoes, such as baby Yukon Gold, washed and cut into 1-inch wedges
One 12-ounce bag frozen artichoke hearts
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (2 ounces)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sea salt
1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Add the potato wedges and toss to thoroughly coat with the oil mixture. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes to a medium roasting pan (about 8 by 11 inches). Add the frozen artichoke hearts to the remaining oil-garlic mixture, and stir to thoroughly coat them. Add the panko bread crumbs and the cheese to the artichokes, and toss to combine. Spoon the panko-artichoke mixture over the potatoes.

Transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the edges of the potatoes and the artichokes are brown. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the potatoes and artichokes. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 330 calories, 10g protein, 32g carbohydrates, 18g fat, 4g saturated fat, 12mg cholesterol, 786mg sodium, 5g dietary fiber, 1g sugar

Recipe tested by Cynthia A. Brown; e-mail questions to

By Adrian Higgins  |  February 8, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Donna Stecker, Groundwork  
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Thanks, Adrian, neat story. I'm so glad you emphasized cold treatment! Back when I was experimenting with artichokes in Maine I found that vernalization - the fake winter you explain - does seem to be crucial. Hoping for the best, we tried growing Imperial Star without it. No dice, even though we had a long warm growing season that year and the vernalized plants did ok.

I'd also add a third consideration: space. Artichoke plants are beautiful, but they're also BIG. If all goes well and you get a crop, it'll be 6-8 artichokes on a thistle that's about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Be a beautiful hedge, though, if you were needing one.

PS. My favorite edible flower bud is Romanesco cauliflower. Can you grow it there (as a fall crop, I mean) ?

Posted by: leslieland | February 9, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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