News flash -- here's a plant that is super deer proof, looks stately in the landscape, and produces an exotic food item. Long-lasting cardoon, which can thrive for several years as a semi-perennial, makes a great addition to the edible landscape and costs just pennies to get started. Simply plant...and get out of the way.
Even though deer savaged much of my in-town garden this year -- helping themselves to roses, Jerusalem artichoke buds and much more -- the cardoons came sailing through with nary a nibble. How's that for amazing? The silvery blue-green foliage of this Mediterranean native is soft and fuzzy, but the edges of the leaves have tiny prickles; the thick stems must be full of a taste that deer don't like.
The 2020 garden season was a "just try anything" year for me. So I planted some cardoon seeds in late spring. They popped up fast and by this October had reached about three feet in height. By next summer they may reach their full five-to-six foot size. Although many garden books suggest starting the seeds indoors in early spring and then transplanting them, I direct sowed the seeds in a new garden bed in my steep back yard around May. Cardoons like sun, rich soil, and good drainage.
What do cardoons look like? The plants resemble giant artichokes, and indeed the two species are closely related. Cardoon is sometimes called artichoke thistle. Some people say cardoon looks like a cross between celery and burdock. The big purple blooms of cardoon are just like thistles, but unlike regular artichokes, which have the flower buds as the edible part, with cardoons it's the stalks. And those stalks are packed with nutrition, high in vitamin B-6, potassium and magnesium.
Although cardoons are easy to grow, getting to the edible part takes considerable work. When the plants are about three feet high they should be wrapped with burlap in order to blanch them (keep them white). Before eating the stalks, remove the heavy strings growing up the outside. The soft part that's left then must be soaked and cooked for a long time. Thus they are perfect in soups and stews.
If deer are a problem for you, get going with cardoons!
By Nan Chase
Sow True Seed garden ambassador Nan Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! and co-author of Drink the Harvest.