Space invader: Give your heart to an artichoke

They'll take over a border, occupy sun spots and cackle in the face of herbs in window boxes – but, oh, to fall under the yoke of the artichoke
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The Independent Online

Most gardeners try a few herbs in a window box, or tomatoes in a tub. It works, and they settle for that. A very few though, gaze dreamily into the distance, wondering what lofty horticultural horizon they can tackle next.

It is these gardeners who will take on the soily Otto von Bismarck of territorial expansion, the artichoke. These plants are undeniably huge. They will take up room, and then ask for more. But growing your own artichokes is well worth doing. For a start, they taste so good. But in addition, if you are anything of a cooking buff, you can have artichokes in sizes, shapes and colours you've hitherto only glimpsed in foreign marketplaces.

They are also fantastic-looking plants, which is another reason to give them enough Lebensraum. They'll look you in the eye once they flower, and their huge, indented silvery leaves arch towards the ground with grace, each one up to 4ft long, which means a grandiose footprint to the plant itself.

A member of the thistle family, their genealogy is proved by the purple flat top produced if you don't get around to cutting the spiky chokes. These eventually turn to pale fluff around about October, providing a stunning silhouette on frosty days, and giving birds the perfect nesting place come spring.

They are one of the best vegetables for growing well in a border, though you'll get even better results growing them in bare soil, where the artichoke can hog all the nutrients it needs. They'll also want the absolute sunniest spot you have to offer, which you may have been hoping to save for your own pleasure. But forget about your sun cream, towel and lounger – all this must be given up when you put yourself under the yoke of the artichoke.

Manure, manure, manure is the final element for artichoke success, though they also need protection from slugs and snails, especially when they're small. By the second year, they should be pushing up regardless, while laughing an evil, nonchalant, imperialist laugh.

As for varieties, most supermarkets only ever sell the large "Green Globe" artichokes familiar from 1970s dinner-party styling. These are fabulous boiled, with garlicky butter salted beyond all health advisory, or perhaps a hollandaise sauce or aioli, but these days many of us possess recipes that require a wider range of artichokes.

For the traditional Roman dish carciofi alla giudia, for example, you need baby "Romanescos", small enough for the hard central "choke" not yet to have properly formed. And there are gorgeous dishes using tiny bud artichokes, fried in batter. After all, if you are going to be enslaved, you might as well do it in style.

All choked up

Artichoke Green Globe Improved F1

This hybrid will give you the best version of a tried-and-tested performer. £2.69 for 40 seeds, thompson-morgan.com

Artichoke 'Violetto'

Sow now for tasteful purple-leaved buds with a fantastic flavour. £1.89 for 70 seeds, seedsofitaly.com. For an even more eye-catching clump, opt for a close relative, the cardoon, whose soft white stems open up a whole new set of recipes. 'Cynara cardunculus', a two-litre pot plant, £6.99, crocus.co.uk

Divide and conquer

Even within a batch of plants grown from the same packet of seed, there are taste variations. So once you find a good-tasting plant, divide off sections of it in autumn to double its growing space

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