Rick Gush, Urban Farm contributor
Friday, December 2, 2011
Photo by Rick Gush
Jerusalem artichokes are easy to grow and the flowers make a great screen in the garden.
I just harvested my little experimental patch of wild-harvested Jerusalem artichokes, and I’m fairly impressed by the results. This plant, Helianthus tuberosus, though native to Northeastern America, grows wild all over Europe, including in the creek below our home.
I dug around in the dirt alongside the creek last fall and got some tubers the size of my little finger, and then planted them in a garden plot with good soil. The photo above is of the large tubers I harvested after a year. The other half of the tubers are all smaller; I’ll use those for replanting a new patch. Not a bad harvest (2 1/2 pounds), considering the little plot was not much more than 1 1/2 square feet! The incredible production of this plant is certainly one reason for small farmers to consider growing it.
This plant is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke, but rather a sunflower-family member. These days, the tubers are often marketed as Sunchokes. There are a few named varieties available, but gardeners can also just plant tubers purchased from the market.
Another reason to consider growing Jerusalem artichokes is that they’re ridiculously easy to grow. They like just about any type of soil except waterlogged heavy clays. Not good crops for the tropics, the plants tolerate very cold weather and can be grown anywhere in the United States except perhaps Hawaii. This is mostly because tuber formation is triggered by short day lengths. Sometimes, new shoots can be bothered by slugs, but otherwise, the plants have few pest problems, and even deer and rabbits don’t usually bother the plantings.
Like potatoes, the tubers should be cut into smaller pieces for planting. The plants grow big — as much as 10 feet tall — and don’t seem to mind being crowded. They are pretty flexible about planting times, and both spring and fall plantings seem to grow well. Surprisingly, even when planted in shady areas, the plants will make a lot of tubers, even if the tops don’t flower much in the shade.
Some gardeners use this plant to make a fast-growing and highly decorative annual screen, from which large bunches of bright-yellow flowers can be harvested in the fall. The tubers from Jerusalem artichokes can be harvested either in the fall or early spring.
Usually cooked like potatoes, the tubers taste great, sort of like a water chestnut or an artichoke heart, but they should be eaten in small quantities because their starch form, inulin, often causes intestinal gas, and eating a big ol’ plateful all at once can be a painful experience.
Jerusalem artichokes can also be sliced thinly and eaten raw in salads or pickled or dried and ground into flour. The tops are often used as livestock silage or for biomass and biofuel production. The French use the tubers for making beer and wine. Traditionally, this crop is grown to feed to livestock.
So, whether farmers are looking for a crop to feed themselves, a crop to feed their pigs or a crop to make diesel fuel, Jerusalem artichokes deserve serious consideration.
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