Two summers ago, we got lost trying to find a friend's wedding reception. We were late and hot and beginning to stick to the car seats-very distracting when you're trying make sense of a hand-drawn map. My job was to look out for straight bits in our route where we could try to claw back precious time. The scenery whizzed past but despite the urgency of the situation, we were both appreciating the wonderful summers evening. A lone cottage came into view as we managed to reach sixth gear and abruptly the sea of barley-green exploded into a wild blur of delphiniums, sweet pea towers, neat vegetable rows, sunflowers, zinnias and something huge and silvery. And so I saw the first thistle I've ever liked, a cardoon that had made me ready to risk whiplash to take a second look.

Quick! Plant them NOW to give them a good chance to get properly leafy before winter. February sowing is better, but even with an early May sowing they'll still be able to reach an appreciable size by the first frosts of autumn. Overwinter them (upturned bucket filled with straw to protect the crowns if you get snow) and next year they'll get indulgently huge with beautifully arching silvery leaves. Like these...

Cardoons and artichokes are among my most absolute favourite edible plants. If you've got a spare metre square they're worth a try. Photo by Oliblac
Shockingly, I have no really worthwhile photos of last years magnificent cardoons to show you. Believe me though, they were brilliant. I grew from seed a total of three cardoons and six artichokes, which all romped away from the moment they were planted. I planted the seeds in February and by Autumn they'd grown leaves over a metre long. Having moved, I must have more. Somewhere out there are actually named cultivars such as:

Gigante d'Ingegnoli with large, tender spine-free stalks and drought resistance.
Plein Blanc Inerme which produces smooth solid stalks and has a more compact growth habit than others.
Large Smooth, an improved strain which is does what it says on the tin.

However I still have seeds left over from last year and the ones sown last week are up and away.

For just a bit of space and a good mulch, they'll reward you with an impressive and lush display of striking foliage and fantastic giant purple thistle-like flowers. If you're hungry and feeling adventurous you can even eat the stems. Blanch them, then boil, braise or bake and they're delicious with cheese sauce.

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