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Serving: Central

Column: Gardening follies with artichokes, tomatoes

Why, I wondered one spring, seeing thistles tall and thick along the roadways, couldn’t one grow artichokes in the Delta?

After all, an artichoke is just a thistle on steroids. If one’ll grow and thrive here, my warped reasoning went, so should the other.

Thistles are strange plants (and artichokes more so), almost prehistoric in appearance, with wildly serrated clusters of leaves covered in needles so sharp they’ll puncture you in a millisecond. I have often thought one could plant a dense hedge of them around one’s property and no evil-doer, stray dog, or marauding possum (intent on purloining food from the worthless cat’s bowl) could penetrate it, thus eliminating the need for costly home alarm systems. Thistles do have large, quite lovely, complex purple flowers which you dare to pluck at your own peril.

So, dolt that I am, I ordered some artichoke plants from a mail order garden catalog and when they came, early spring, plopped them in the ground, mentally salivating over the fresh artichokes I would harvest for my summer salads.

Hardy, har. The plants grew reasonably well in the cool days of spring, but when our horrid summer heat and humidity began, they sulked for a while, then ran shrieking to botanical heaven. I also observed, after my artichoke investment went belly up, that thistle plants were similarly unappreciative of our summers, quite quickly dying out when broiling, humid days arrived.

Since then, on any number of visits to California, I have been to the Castroville area, where thousands of acres of artichokes grow abundantly in the year-round cool conditions of the Monterey coast. Even had my photo taken, as most passers-through do, in front of the 15-foot high plaster artichoke that proclaims Castroville the artichoke capital of the U.S. And learned firsthand why there’s no way artichokes will ever be an alternative crop in the Delta (unless maybe, global cooling sets in instead of global warming).

More horticultural naïveté: I came here, 30-odd years ago, with visions of the bountiful vegetables and flowers that would spring forth in the lush Delta environment.

Whereupon I ran smack dab into the rude awakening of gumbo clay soil and every insect/disease known to man (not to mention rapacious squirrels, birds, chipmunks, raccoons, slugs, possums, and assorted other Wild Kingdom critters that have become enamored of the easy life in town). In perhaps two of those 30-odd years did I get a decent crop of tomatoes; the other years, it was wasted time and effort.

And has there been a worse tomato year than this one? I’ve not heard a soul claim a good tomato crop this season. Even the offerings of the occasional roadside produce entrepreneurs are pretty awful.

Returning home from Mississippi State University a week or so ago, I stopped on the outskirts of a town south of here for a guy peddling tomatoes from his pickup. “Where were they grown?” queried I, with a suspicion acquired over the years. “Hamburger, Arkansas,” was the somewhat geographically-muddled response. Always the sucker for tomatoes, I bought half a dozen.

They were horrible: mealy, tasteless. I never learn...


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