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Dividing Artichokes

Artichokes are a nice addition to the perennial vegetable garden. In all but the coldest zones artichokes will die back each year and re-emerge with increasing numbers in late fall. The plants can begin to crowd themselves if left untouched so it’s a good idea to divide healthy artichoke plants every three years. This is also an excellent opportunity to increase the size of your artichoke patch or give them to a neighbor that hasn’t established their own patch. If you don’t have any artichoke plants in your yard you should seek out other local gardeners who have successful artichoke patches early in the fall and ask them if they would be willing to let you get a few divisions when the time is right.The optimum time for dividing artichokes will vary depending on your local environment. Most plants will die back in the early winter and send out new shoots when the ground has begun to warm in late winter. Look for plants with six to twelve inch new shoots emerging around the dead stalks from the previous season. The plants pictured in this article are verging on the late side of this procedure but they all survived to produce artichokes the following spring. The soil also needs to be workable and not muddy so waiting for a patch of dry weather in the winter might be the determining factor of when the time is right. The plants are ready for transplanting from the time you can see the new shoots until they are about 16 inches tall. Pushing the extremes of this range is possible but will be more likely to fail.

Clean the artichoke bed of debris and weeds. It’s important to get a good look at the artichoke plants base. This is where you will be performing surgery on the plants. In the example plants used in this article the artichoke plants are being divided and used to fill in the existing bed. This bed is 3 years old at this point and will go from 3 plants to 6 plants, filling the artichoke bed and easily doubling the yield for the year. In a few more years the plants will need to be divided again, at that point the new plants will be given away to others who don’t have artichokes growing in their yard.

Clip any dead leaves off of the plant, also cut any dead stalks from the last year’s plants. Use a clean pair of clippers or scissors and cut the dead material as close to the base as possible. Don’t worry about the little fringe of dead leaves that remains, it is most important here to not damage the tender new shoots or the base of the plant. Another important consideration when using any clippers or scissors on multiple plants is spreading disease or pests from one sick plant to the rest or your crop. If you have any diseased or “off” plants the best idea would be to cull it out and remove it from your garden. The danger of infecting the rest of your plants is very real. Rubbing alcohol can kill any infections or parasite from you cutting tools.

Using a long spade, position it straight up and down where you want to divide the plant and give a good hard shove to break through the stalk and get past the woody roots. Continue this operation all the way around your desired shoots, cutting deep enough to get past the roots. Some people use a large knife to perform this operation. A regular shovel would work in a pinch. The basic idea is to take about half of the plant, roots and all, and leave the rest of the plant in its spot as untouched as possible. Spend some time on this step because you only get one chance to divide the plants and you need as much of the roots as possible for the half that will be removed. You will need to cut about 12 inches down into the ground in a circle about 12 inches in diameter from the center of the plant and all the way around the half of the plant you will be removing. After you get a good circle cut around the division you can begin to work around the plant while prying back. You are trying to get the remaining roots to pop free and pull the divided artichokes out of the ground with a good wad of dirt around the remaining roots.

In the above picture you can see the removed artichoke division laying next to the plant it was taken from. Notice the large root cut on the bottom of the plant. The remaining smaller roots will slowly develop into the main roots and feed the plant. In the mean time the plant will grow slowly and needs to be kept with soil that is damp, fertile, and well drained. These plants are being used to fill in gaps in its own bed. If you needed to transport the divisions you could put the plants into a bucket with a little bit of water in it. You could also wrap the root wad in newspaper that is moist. The important thing is to not let the roots dry out or the new shoots to wilt or get damaged. A little vitamin B-1 added to the water wouldn’t hurt the plants either.

Before you get you artichoke plants you should prepare the future planting site. Remove any weeds or debris and dig the soil deep. A foot of well dug soil will allow you to get the roots at their original height. Any amendments should be added lightly so that you don’t shock your already stressed transplant. Once the plants show signs of recovery and new growth you can feed the plants again. Dig a hole in the desired spot and then step back and imagine the artichoke plants at full size. This could be up to 5 feet tall and 5 feet around after several years. If you are planting against a fence or wall be sure to take the space from the back of the plant into consideration.

Take your dug up artichoke plant and gently set it into your prepared hole. Make sure that any roots on the plant are pointed down when you are done. As the plants grow they will set very deep roots and these help the plant find the moisture it needs to fuel its tremendous single season growth. Pack the soil around the root was so that the plant stays upright and when you are satisfied with its position you should water the plants in to settle the soil around the roots and to reduce transplant shock. If weeds are a problem in your soil you might add a bit of mulch around the base to keep them at bay.

Here is a picture of the finished bed in this article. The bed now has 6 plants and will make a nice backdrop for this part of the yard. After the first week you will probably notice that some leaves on the plants will wilt and fall over. You can cut these off as they occur. Watch for new green shoots developing on your new plants. These will develop slowly the first year and may take a few years before you have a crop of fresh artichokes. Patience is paramount when setting up a perennial garden. It is important to think in the long term.

Now it’s just a matter of keeping the new plants sufficiently moist but not sitting in standing water as this can cause root rot. Artichokes are very thirsty plants when they get big and the weather turns warm. The plants also respond well to feedings. High nitrogen fertilizers boost young plants. As the season goes on you will see the young artichokes develop and you can begin to think of all the ways you can prepare your next batch of artichokes. One of our favorite ways to eat fresh artichokes is to grill them which you can read all about in our article Grilled Artichokes.

Try this out and let us know how it went for you. Any questions or suggestions are greatly appreciated. Grab our contact information from our Contact Us page and drop us a line.