Not greedy, but beautiful - the globe artichoke

 

URBAN FARMER:Although a difficult customer, gardeners’ eyes quickly light up at the mere mention of the globe artichoke, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

THERE ARE a select few vegetables that have managed to capture the imagination of even the most discerning or hard-to-please urban farmer, and the globe artichoke is definitely one of them.

Bored by beetroot, broccoli or Brussels sprouts and indifferent to the charms of celeriac or cabbage, those gardeners’ eyes quickly light up at the mere mention of this plant. Not put off by critics who say that the vegetable is a demanding, greedy, space-hogging giant, which in cold gardens can be a martyr to frosts and chilly winds, they’ll insist that the globe artichoke is a vegetable worthy of special care, and perhaps they’re right.

The late, great Christopher Lloyd, who was almost as keen a cook as he was a gardener, admitted to a lifelong passion for growing and eating the vegetable. Never a man to mince his words, in his book Gardener CookLloyd was characteristically dismissive of non-artichoke lovers as “stuffier adults who are nervous of and unfamiliar with artichokes but don’t like to admit it”. Others, such as the 19th century food writer, ES Dallas, felt very differently. His only comment on the vegetable was: “It is good for a man to eat thistles and to remember that he is an ass.”

Whatever way you feel about eating it, there’s no denying that the globe artichoke is the statuesque beauty of the vegetable garden that effortlessly commands centre-stage. In ideal growing conditions, the plant’s jagged, silver leaves can stretch up to a height and width of 1.5m x 1m while any unharvested buds (the edible part) will develop into handsome, deep-blue, thistle-like flowers.

For this reason it looks as much at home in the flower border as it does in the vegetable garden.

In the OPW’s walled garden in the Phoenix Park, globe artichokes are growing both in the back of the herbaceous border and in their own patch next door to the spinach and endives.

“We lost quite a few plants to hard frosts over last year’s winter, but that was unusually cold,” says OPW gardener Meeda Downey, who still recommends giving globe artichoke plants some form of seasonal protection (fleece or straw mulch) in chilly areas.

Mulching with manure every spring also helps to produce strong vigorous plants, says her colleague Brian Quinn, but even so, it’s generally best to replace them every three to four years as productivity declines with age.

If, like Christopher Lloyd, you have set your heart on growing globe artichokes, there are several things to keep in mind.

Firstly, give each plant plenty of space (roughly a square metre), and a sunny spot with fertile soil enriched with plenty of manure, fertiliser and added grit, which helps with drainage.

Confusingly, while globe artichokes love a well-drained soil, they also like plenty of available moisture (hence the reputation for being demanding) so won’t prosper in dry gardens. They do, however, do particularly well in mild, seaside areas.

Don’t grow from seed, as the results are extremely variable – instead buy one of the named varieties of Cynara scolymus such as Green Globe, Romanesco, Violetta di Chioggia and Gros Vert de Lâon. The names, just like the vegetable, are quite a mouthful.

The plants are also prone to aphid attack, which can quickly destroy the developing globes. If you do need to spray, use a natural insecticide such as the pyrethrum-based Herba Vetyl, which will kill aphids and whitefly but not bees, as long as it’s used at the correct dilution rate (it also breaks down quickly without leaving residues). It’s available by mail order from Fruithill Farm in Bantry, Co Cork (tel. 027 50710, www.fruithillfarm.com).

In the OPW’s walled garden in the Phoenix Park, the artichoke’s edible buds or globes are just now becoming ready to harvest, starting with the biggest, central one. To ensure ripeness, the buds should be large, tender, swollen, and just barely on the point of opening. Use a sharp knife to cut them off, along with about 15cm of stem.

There are many and varied ways to both cook and eat the fleshy globes. Christopher Lloyd ate his boiled and chopped with scrambled eggs, or picked very young and left raw in a salad – but they also taste mouth-wateringly good when just barbecued or grilled and served with a vinaigrette dressing.

Pollinating Insects

Just as ornamental vegetables, like globe artichokes, look quite at home in the flower garden, there are many flowering plants that also look decorative in the vegetable plot while still serving a very useful purpose.

In the walled garden in the Phoenix Park, the double herbaceous border that runs through the vegetable beds, while undeniably beautiful, plays a vital role in attracting pollinating insects such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Drawn to the walled garden by its rich variety of sweetly perfumed and brightly coloured flowers, they then get busy pollinating many of the fruit and vegetable plants.

Some of these, such as apples and pumpkins, depend completely upon pollinating insects if they are to produce any crop. Others, such as tomatoes and peas, are classed as self-pollinating (meaning they don’t need insects to produce fruit), but yields are still significantly increased where pollinating insects are present (which is something to keep in mind if you’re growing tomatoes indoors or in a glasshouse).

Last year, a survey by French and German scientists estimated the economic value of insect pollination worldwide at €153 billion, representing 9.5 per cent of the total value of the world agricultural food production. Without any insect pollinators, the report concluded, the world would be unable to grow enough food to meet present demands and food prices would rise quickly and steeply. Which just goes to show you how useful and important insect life can be in a vegetable garden. But perhaps the real difficulty for gardeners lies in encouraging the beneficial insects while discouraging damaging pests. It’s a dilemma that the OPW gardeners (like all organic gardeners) struggle with every day. While severely limiting the use of pesticides and insecticides and using only organically- approved types is crucial, planting a few flowers throughout the vegetable garden is another, enjoyable way of giving nature a helping hand while adding the extra colour and scent.

Many flowering plants that are attractive to pollinating insects, such as nasturtiums and lavender, are also edible. Those that aren’t, such as the butterfly bush, Buddleja, still more than earn their keep in terms of attracting both butterflies and bees.

If you’re unconvinced, take a slow walk through the OPW’s walled garden in the Phoenix Park and try to work out how many bumble bees and wild honey bees are busily buzzing around the powder-blue catmint and oriental poppies in the herbaceous border. I just bet you lose count.

Spinach Crop

As mentioned last week, the first leaves of the spinach crop are already being harvested in the walled garden in the Phoenix Park. “We’re growing two varieties of true spinach this year, ‘Reddy’ and ‘Hector’,” says Meeda. “Reddy has really dark red stems and almost triangular leaves – it looks very pretty growing in the veg garden. Hector is a plain green type with rounded leaves that can also be used as a cut-and-come again crop. Both are quick to crop from seed.”

While the OPW gardeners began sowing their spinach seed back in early March, you can continue to sow these varieties at intervals from now right up until mid-July (repeat-sow roughly every three to four weeks). From mid-summer on, choose varieties such as Galaxy F1 and Palco F1. The latter of these can also be sown under glass from September to November.

Give the plants a sunny spot with a very fertile, heavily manured and moisture-retentive soil, thinning out seedlings to spacings of 15cm-20cm.

Remember also, that it takes a lot of spinach leaves (as much as 2kg) to produce anything worthy of a meal, so don’t be mean when it comes to deciding how many plants you’re going to grow. Harvest the plants by cutting individual leaves with a sharp knife and discarding the stalks (don’t, whatever you do, uproot individual plants). But I’ll leave the last word on harvesting spinach to the always-forthright and ever-candid Christopher Lloyd. “Don’t,” he warned, “send an ignoramus out to pick your spinach. Do it yourself.”

What to sow and plant this week

Sow outdoors

Broccoli (raab&sprouting); Beetroot; Beans (French, runner); Peas; Cabbage; Calabrese; Carrots; Cauliflower (Mini); Chicory; Endive; Komatsuna;SummerPurslane; Kohl Rabi; Lettuce; Kale (Mini); Swedes; Turnips; Sweet Corn;Cucumbers (Ridge); Radishes; Spinach; Courgettes; Rocket (Salad); Raddichio (module raised); Pak Choi;Many CCA Seeds; Pumpkins

Plant outdoors

Asparagus (from seed, module-raised); Tomatoes; Brussels sprouts; Cabbage (summer, autumn & winter types); Cauliflower (late summer, autumn, mini, types); Lettuce; Leeks; French Beans; Runner Beans; Broad Beans; Celery; Celeriac; Hybrid broccolis; Sprouting Broccoli; Courgettes; Fennel; Kale; Peppers; Pumpkins;SummerPurslane; Sweet Corn; Swiss Chard


Urban Farmer in Property

- Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer