Monday, 1 October 2012

The vine and the choke

Globe artichokes are basically big thistles. They're not related to the Jerusalem artichoke, which is a type of sunflower. They are, however, related to cardoons, another big thistle which is grown for its leaves. Globe artichokes contain the active ingredient cynara – this promotes liver and kidney function, which is the main reason why the globe artichoke has a reputation for being good for hangovers.
It also has taste inhibitors which will make everything you eat for a while after eating an artichoke seem sweeter. This is the reason why artichokes are difficult to pair with wine.

The part of the artichoke that we eat is actually the flowerbud. Once the bud has opened and is in flower the bloom is spectacular, but now inedible. You want to cut your artichoke when the bud is plump and firm, and the leaf scales are still packed tightly around the heart. You can pick them when small and cook as baby artichokes - when the choke is soft and undeveloped and can be eaten whole - or leave them to grow bigger so you can eat them in traditional style, pulling off each fleshy leaf before lifting off the hairy part of the choke and dipping the rest in dressing.

Globe artichokes are notoriously hard to overwinter. Seed-raised plants are particularly prone to dying in winter, while some varieties simply aren’t hardy and since you can’t bring them indoors you will need to protect them, usually with straw which will also keep off a lot of the wet. The last couple of winters when we’ve had lots of frost and snow in London have been hard on artichokes.

Even the hardier varieties may give up the ghost over winter – not necessarily because of the cold but because globe artichokes don’t like sitting in waterlogged soil.

Many if not most of the world’s globe artichoke plants are in California or France – lots of them in Brittany, but also further south, in a climate warmer and drier than ours in the UK. It’s worth protecting the plants to keep them going because they don’t always flower in their first year and  winter survivors flower more prolifically in year two than they may have done in year one.

Assuming you’ve covered the plants with straw or fleece and they’ve bounced back up green in spring, the good news is that established plants are tough customers. They’ll grow big, look spectacular and give you lots of flowerbuds which are delicious to the point of being addictive.

Starting off, though, you can either grow from seed, buy young plants, or divide up older plants to produce smaller new ones.
Seeds need more cosseting and are less reliable. Young plants are convenient but an expensive way to grow. Division is great, but requires you to know someone who is preparing to perform surgery on their plants – and you’ll get no choice over the variety.

If growing from seed, start by sowing indoors in March, then plant out after the last frost. In London you should be safe in April, but keep an eye on the weather forecast and some fleece handy. But if you get warm weather in April, as we quite often do, they’ll get off to a good start. This last season (2012) the winter survivors got off to a great start in March when we had two weeks of weather that was almost like summer. The new seedlings, however, which went out in April, all had a terrible time when it turned cold and we had the wettest April on record – followed, I think, by the wettest June (remember they don’t like sitting in the wet).

If you buy young plants, they will come in small plugs. Plant out again in April and look out for late frosts.

Artichokes are hungry plants so before you transplant them, get lots of good rotted organic matter into the soil. Really well rotted horse manure is good. Really well rotted kitchen compost is good. If you’re at all worried your soil isn’t quite up to scratch buy some liquid seaweed extract and give the ground a good soaking with that. This is also brilliant stuff for foliar feeds – basically you dilute the seaweed extract and drench the plants with it.

With young plants, you will also need to protect against slugs and snails. Once these spiky prickly leaves have developed they’ll stop being a problem, but the soft succulent new leaves are exactly what slugs and snails like. I use copper rings, placed around each plant. They can be removed once the plant is established and the mature leaves appear. Copper rings are effective because the copper reacts with the mucus on the underside of the slug/snail body and they dislike travelling across it. Make sure you don’t trap any beasties inside the copper ring – or they won’t be able to get out.

If you’re lucky, you should see your first flowerbud form, at the top of the main stem, in late May or June. Pick this as soon as it reaches a manageable size, because, 1) it’s delicious, and 2) cutting the main flowerbud will encourage side buds to form – which means you get more artichokes to eat.

Generally I find that I’ll get a batch of artichokes in June/July and then they’ll go quiet before producing another batch in September/October. Your plant may flower differently.

Once established, artichoke plants can be left alone to get on with it once you’ve successfully nursed them beyond the seedling stage, but there are a couple of things to look out for:

1. Watering. I try not to water established artichoke plants. Here in London the soil tends towards heavy clay even with organic matter dug in and drainage can be variable. Now what artichoke plants will do is send down long roots and eventually a long-lived healthy plant will have roots deep enough to find moisture in the soil.

But if the weather is very dry, better to mulch around the plants rather than water. I have also successfully grown artichoke plants through plastic, which of course retains moisture in the ground by preventing evaporation and also keeps the rain off, so the soil doesn’t get waterlogged.

2. Aphids and ants. Once the slugs stop finding the plants attractive, the blackfly moves in. How badly your artichokes are affected really depends on how prevalent blackfly is in your area. On an allotment site, you can probably count on an infestation, although on my allotment I have blackfly on some artichokes and others which are quite free of it. Here in the Secret Garden we have none at all.

You don’t want to be spraying your flowerbuds, but one quite effective way to get rid of them is to get your garden hose and nozzle, turn it to 'jet', or it smost powerful setting and blast the blackfly off. You may have to do this more than once, but you will eliminate them eventually.

If you get a bad attack, you may also find your plants become riddled with ants. This is not coincidence, although the ants aren’t preying on the blackfly, they’re farming them. Aphids suck in the sugars in the plants cells and then secrete a sticky sweet substance called honeydew – you can see it and feel it on an affected plant. Ants are always attracted to sugar and they come to eat the honeydew. They will protect their aphids from predators, indeed they will even ‘milk’ them by stroking the aphids to stimulate them into excreting more honeydew. They have been known to move the aphids from one plant to another if the first plant becomes sickly.

None of this does the artichoke plant any good. It looks unattractive, it loses sugars to the aphids and the honeydew blocks up the plant pores. If you can identify where the ants are coming from you can try destroying the nest; otherwise persevere with the jet-blasting. If you get rid of the aphids and their sweet secretions, the ants will lose the motivation to invade your artichoke plants. 

Growing grapevines
Some vines are meant to be grown indoors, some are happy outdoors. When grown outdoors here in London, a south or west-facing aspect is best and against a wall rather than a fence – the wall will be slightly warmer – is even better. Take time to determine the best planting position: grapevines can live for up to 100 years. Before you plant your vine, try to imagine which part of your garden is most like France!

If you are planning to make your own wine from your own home-grown grapes, go and buy a vineyard. Or accept that you will get a few bottles at most. Better, really, in a domestic garden, to grow for dessert grapes from which you can get a good crop.

The key is to spend some time on soil preparation before planting. The soil should be dug as far down as you can get, and lots of well-rotted farmyard manure incorporated into it. In the wild, vines were historically forest plants: their roots planted in the cool of the woodland floor, and the stems climbing through and around the branches to reach sunlight. So as well as manure, try mulching your newly-planted vine with leaf mould to remind it of the forests of long ago - leaf mould is always good for your soil structure too.

Alternatively you can help to keep the roots cool by surrounding the bottom of the stem with large stones or rocks, as you do with clematis, another climbing woodland plant, if you think the planting site is too exposed.

You can just buy a grapevine and leave it. In the right place it will grow vigorously and provide lots of foliage, wall/fence/pergola cover, and leaves for making homemade dolmades. But in order to maximise its fruit production you will need to train it.

Vine training
Buy your vine in either autumn or spring. It will look like a rather unpromising stick. Before you plant it, drive in a sturdy stake that will form the support for your growing vine in its first year. Then plant the vine in the prepared planting hole, refill, and firm.

In the first year, the main stem of the vine will grow. Keep this on the straight and narrow by loosely tying it to the stake. Use a soft tie rather than plastic wire.

In autumn, you can start training. You are aiming for a cordon effect, where strong lateral branches grow horizontally at  right angles and at regular intervals, like a espalier apple tree. Once trained the vine will be balanced on either side, with the  lateral branches receiving maximum available sunlight to encourage the plant to produce plenty of fruit.

Remove all the existing lateral stems, and cut the main stem back down to the healthy wood. Tie it in again using a soft tie.
Be ruthless about pruning out weaker stems – you will not kill the vine.

There are lots of grapevine pruning guides on the web but the basic method is the same. This is one of the clearest and easiest to follow.  

The next year, you’ll have many more side-shoots. Prune the main stem back but as before but also choose two lateral shoots to train horizontally and along a fruiting wire, pegged into the back fence or wall. The next year, you can let shoots from the laterals grow on. Prune away everything else.

After three years you’ll have a hardy grapevine and should get grapes which get plenty of light and sun to ripen.

Harvesting vine leaves 
As well as growing vines for grapes, don't forget that the leaves can also be eaten, wrapped around a rice filling as in dolmades, for example.

  • Pick leaves in spring when the leaves are young, tender and pale green.
  • Pick reasonably sized leaves, big enough to wrap around a filling.
  • Pick whole leaves, nothing damaged or with holes in them.
  • Be 100% sure that they have not been sprayed with any pesticide/fungicide/pesticide.
  • Be 100% sure that they are grapevine leaves and not the next plant along.
They need to be blanched before you can use them. Rinse under the tap to make sure you get rid of dust, dirt or even any little creepy crawlies.

Lay the leaves in a bowl or a wide shallow dish like a lasagne dish. Pour boiling water over them and leave them for three minutes, a bit longer if they weren’t quite so young and tender after all. They can now be used but you can also freeze them for use later in the year.

To freeze grape leaves they must be dry. You can dry them very carefully after the first rinse, then lay them one on top of another and slide them into a plastic bag. Seal and freeze. They’ll keep for six months and after three months may not need to be blanched before use.

Or dry them thoroughly after blanching, then freeze as before. Use within a couple of months.

For more on preparing and using vine leaves, see MsMarmiteLover's comprehensive blog post here.

1 comment:

  1. I love artichokes - so I found this all very interesting. Also saw your daughter has left - hope you don't feel her absence too much and feel down. I remember when my boyf left home when I was 16 and his mother got very weepy... But it seems you are keeping yourself busy! xxx


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