Artichokes are at risk of becoming one of the gardeners worst kept secrets. Still considered to be a true gourmet food, artichokes once commanded such high prices that only kings and members of the aristocracy could afford to eat them. Today things are a little different with hundreds of varieties available - even to the passionate, amateur gardener - with many of them suitable for growing as an annual or perennial crop - even in the cooler northern European climates. If you are prepared to do a little research you can still buy a few of the old historic varieties such as 'Violetta di Chioggia', and 'Gros Vert de Laon'.

.The unavoidable fact and so called ‘worst kept secret’ is that artichokes plants are just so easy to grow from seed. While they will not all grow genetically ‘true’ to the parent plants, because they are so easy to germinate it is just a matter of growing a few extra plants so that any rogue specimens that turn up can be removed later on without the worry of losing some of your future crop.
Artichokes can be started from seed in a greenhouse, conservatory or even in a well lit, warm room by the windowsill. Starting anytime from around late February, plant a couple of seeds into 9cm pots using a good quality soil-based composts such as John Innes ‘Seed’. You may wish to mix in a little horticultural grit or perlite to help with the drainage. Give the seeds a further, light covering of compost, then water in well - placing them in a greenhouse or warm room once the excess water has drained off. Water as necessary from that point on, but at no time should the compost be left sodden or be allowed to completely dry out.

The seeds should germinate between 2-3 weeks but they will need to remain in their protected environment right up until the threat of late frosts are over. Wait a couple of weeks after germination before removing the weaker artichoke seedlings from each pot. They can now be placed outside, but they will still need 2-3 weeks to harden off before planting out into their final position, so try to keep them under some sort of cover such as a cold frame or plastic tunnel. Starting them off early in a protected environment like this is a vital step in producing artichokes during the first year, whether they are grown as an annual or as a perennial.
Artichoke seedlings need lots of nutrients as they develop, so feed them once a week with a good quality liquid plant fertiliser. They will be ready for planting outside once the soil has warmed up and - as said before - once the danger of frost is over. Typically the transplants should be around 8 to 10 inches tall, with stocky stems and two sets of true leaves. Because they grow quite large, they should be planted at least 4 feet apart into a rich, deep, free-draining soil. For best results place them in a sheltered position where they can receive full sun for most of the day.

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