Monsters in the Backyard

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yes Virginia, artichoke plants do grow well in the Sacramento Valley. Castroville and other coastal valley locations still have a big advantage over us when it comes to "perfect" weather for growing giant sized artichokes, but it doesn't mean we can't have a little fun ourselves. And judging by the size of these plants in the backyard, it looks like Venus and I are in for a pretty good year.

At some point, in a few weeks, tender artichokes will form inside the center of this gargantuan plants and slowly grow upwards. I've learned some tricks through the years when it comes to growing artichokes in Sacramento, and it looks like this year that knowledge is really going to pay off. To put in bluntly, I've never seen artichoke plants quite this big before.

I'm in uncharted territory.

This is our second year for growing artichokes in the new North Natomas Back 40 (backyard), but the rootstock is actually quite a bit older. The roots of these plants came out of the old backyard at the old North Natomas home, located about ten minutes away from the new home. I had them confined in a very small area (all backyards in North Natomas are tiny). The first plants were put into a very small planter area in 2003 or 2004. And they grew well enough I suppose, although I had to force them to grow UP rather than OUT because I simply didn't have the room.

You can't tell by the photos because it's completely covered, but these artichoke plants are sitting in a 4X8 foot planter box constructed with cheap redwood fenceboard from the Home Despot. The box probably cost less than $30 to build (remember, I said CHEAP redwood fenceboard), and the nice planter-mix soil I put into this box probably cost a tad more than the box itself.

One of the first moves I made after building this box was to visit the backyard of the old home, which is now a rental. And I dug out every artichoke plant that I had growing in that small bed. We started with four in the first year -- but they had since expanded to about six or seven different rootstocks. After digging the plants out, I stuck them in some one gallon pots, put them in the back of my car, disassembled the old planter bed and raked decorative rock over the top.

If you were to visit the old home today, you'd never guess where the planter area had been.

Do you know what happened when the wife and I moved the rootstock and above-ground plants over to the new bed at the new home? If you're guessing "they thrived," WRONG. The plants immediately fell flat to the ground and started to shrivel up and die. I thought I had killed them. I was very upset. But then, a week later, I noticed a fresh, green sprout coming up from the center of a plant that had shown its distress by deflating completely. Then, I saw another -- and another. Pretty soon -- every rootstock was growing again.

The first harvest last spring was one for the ages. We got far more artichokes than I expected, and the plants kept on producing into early summer, when it gets hot and artichoke plants shut down from heat stress. You would never believe that these green monsters completely die back in the summer and everything has to be chopped away and removed, but that is exactly what takes place.

If last year's harvest was "one for the ages," I can't begin to imagine what we'll get this year. The plants have never been this big before -- EVER. And, the larger the plant, the larger the choke. The first artichokes of the season will be the largest, and judging from the size of the plants, they'll be the size of a catcher's mitt.

One thing you can't tell by the photos, and this really delights me to no end, is the number of ladybugs on these plants. The ladybugs love them, and I'll need them later this spring when the whiteflies and other bad bugs start attacking this plant. Ladybugs are the best natural control I know of, and if I make the mistake of spraying to control the bad bugs, I'll kill off the good bugs as well. And that is something I do not want to do.

I always thought that this 4X8 bed would offer more than enough room for artichoke plants. WRONG. As you can tell -- they're taking up every bit of space and more. Some plants are even leaning over the edge. That spells trouble, because these plants will fight to the death for room to grow, and I could lose a few if the base is put under so much stress that it snaps in half. That has happened before. And, since the plants are already starting to lean, I can see it happening again.

To prevent this from happening I will attach some eyelet screws to the 4X4 posts holding the fence up, then run string or twine around the bed, holding the plants in place. This has worked in the past.

This is just the first artichoke bed. I do plan on building a second bed this spring, and may consider adding a third. We have the room for it. And, by this time next year, we'll probably have artichokes coming out of our ears.

I can't think of a better fate, can you?


Carri-The Queen Bee said...

OMG- when you said they were big you really weren't joking! I added six artichoke plants to our backyard this year- I am now rethinking it after seeing what they can turn into!

Bill Bird said...


They are a little bigger than I thought they would be. Not sure what I'm doing right, but the fresh layer of Osmocote that I sprinkled in this morning will help after all the expected spring rain. These are bigger than I've ever seen them get before.

Carri-The Queen Bee said...

Do you have any problems with bugs eating them? I have an awful lot of holes in my little plants- can't figure out what is eating them. It doesn't appear to be slugs/snails since I don't see any trace of their slime around. These typically don't produce their first year in the ground- right?

Nels said...

Bill: I am glad you are having success with your artichokes. I have stopped raising them in my garden. Earwigs can sometimes be a problem in artichokes, but it is my understanding that it is the snails favorite meal. You have published a lot of good articles on your blog this month.

Keri said...

I've been wanting to start some artichokes. Do you recommend starting them now or waiting til fall? Full sun, shade? Does it matter?

Bill Bird said...


You'll find starter plants in the nursery this spring if you want to go that route. Or, you can also order seed packets and start them from seed if you want. You won't get anything this year (unless you buy a really large nursery plant that's already producing -- and I've seen those before at Lowes) -- but if the plant rootstock doesn't completely die in the summer, you should get new plants in the fall. Those new plants will grow through the winter, and you'll get a first crop next spring. The plants you see on this blog started as nursery starter plants, with the exception of one that I started last winter from seed. You just don't get anything from artichokes the first year. You should in the second year. And by the third Keri -- you'll be doing alright.

Krista and Aidan said...

I am looking for some artichoke root stock. Does anyone have any ideas? Believe it or not they grow well in Phoenix too....I had a huge plant after purchasing artichoke root stock.

Bill Bird said...

Krista & Aidan,

Good time to ask. If you were in the Sacramento area -- I'd have some for you and so would a few other back and front yard growers that I know of. But, since you're in Phoenix? Best case scenario is a good nursery I think...

Holly said...

I had two plants but I somehow am missing one. I live between Rio Linda and Elverta and I have had the plant 2yrs have never had an artichoke, but the plant is huge as big around as my well and low and behold yesterday I found my first artichoke. Needless to say I am tickeled pink. I only wish I had more plants, especially on my two acres. If you ever need and dirt of fertilizer let me know. I have plenty.

Bill Bird said...

Trust me Holly, in two or three years that one plant will have expanded into ten. Artichokes spread very quickly. I am intrigued by this offer of fertilizer. What kind?