Some gardeners breathe a sigh of relief when the first frosts of winter arrive – the hard work of the season is over and they can tidy the garden up and leave it dormant until spring. There’s plenty to do inside, studying the seed catalogues and planning, in the dry and the warm.
If, like me, your green fingers get itchy and want to keep on gardening then your vegetable plot may already be filled with wintry crops – Brussels sprouts for Christmas, winter cabbage and kale, leeks and over-wintering onions. They’ve all been in the ground for a while now, though, and you may be casting around for something else to plant. Planted the garlic? Sown the broad beans? Then it’s time to think about Jerusalem artichokes.
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus, also known as sunchokes) are one of those vegetables that only vegetable fans know about. They’re not easy to find in shops – I first encountered the knobbly tubers in an organic vegetable box.
They’re a pretty common crop on allotments (community gardens), because they’re fabulously easy to grow – they are rampant beasts that thrive in tough conditions. In fact, if you let them loose in your garden you may never be rid of them again.
Growing Your Own
To grow your own you simply plant a tuber in the ground. They’re not very fussy, but aim for around 6 inches deep and 50 cm apart. I’ve seen various spacings mentioned, so it can’t matter too much. Plants with plenty of space will probably give bigger tubers.
These are tall plants, so put them where they won’t cast shade on other crops. They make a nice wind break during the summer (they die back in winter) and are sometimes used as screens as they grow quickly. A happy stand of plants may flower, with small yellow heads that look like sunflowers but are nowhere near as impressive.
You can start to harvest your tubers after the first frosts have killed off the top growth. Dig them up as and when you want them – they store best in the soil.
The problem lies (as with all tubers) in the fact that any left in the soil will re-grow next year, so unless you manage to dig them all up your artichoke patch may start to spread beyond its original boundaries. However, there are no disease issues to worry about, so it’s merely a question of keeping them under control.
You can replant some of your own tubers to keep the crop going, or pass them on to neighbours and friends who want to start a patch. Keep the smoothest ones for replanting – you don’t want to encourage too many knobbles, as it makes peeling a chore!
Growing Jerusalem artichokes in containers
If you don’t have a vegetable plot, or don’t want them to run riot, you can plant Jerusalem artichokes in a tub on the patio for a very low-maintenance crop.
I planted four tubers from my vegetable box (you can plant tubers intended for eating with no problems) in January 2006 into 12” tubs of compost and they sat on my patio throughout a long, hot summer. I watered them sometimes, when they were wilting. I also staked them when they got tall, as in pots they never grow thick enough to become the windbreak they’re famed for being. But mostly I just left them there – they’re that easy to grow.
In January 2007 I tipped out one of the pots and each little tuber had turned into half a dozen large tubers, enough to make Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato soup. They weren’t even that knobbly, and eaten fresh there was very little waste. It might not have been the largest yield ever, but considering the lack of care and attention they got, it was very energy efficient.
I chose the smallest of the tubers and replanted it in the same pot, with fresh compost. I watered it in and gave it a mulch of bark chips and put it back on the patio for next year.
I have continued growing Jerusalem artichokes in containers, without ever buying another tuber. The only problem I had was in 2009, when a long dry autumn caught me out and nearly killed off the plants – they just about survived, but there was no harvest that year. They’re drought tolerant, and nearly unkillable, but I just about found their limits!
If you order Jerusalem artichokes from a seed catalogue they may well be ‘Fuseau’, which is generally thought to be the least knobbly variety. They arrive for planting in February/ March, but if you have some earlier than that you can still plant them out – they’re very hardy and as long as they don’t get waterlogged they should be fine.
Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin – an indigestible starch that a) makes you fart, b) makes them very low calorie and c) is considered to be a ‘pre-biotic’, helping to feed colonies of good bacteria in the gut.
Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten raw in salads, but are generally used in much the same way as potatoes. They can be mashed or made into chips. They’re excellent in soup, giving a creamy texture and a slightly smoky taste.
Vegetable soup in our house is a bit haphazard, made of whichever vegetables are handy. Artichokes go very well with carrots and, we discovered after another vegetable box delivery, sweet potatoes. The soup reheats well, but doesn’t keep for too long – if you want to keep it for more than a couple of days then freeze portions rather than leaving them in the fridge.
Over at Green Change they say that Jerusalem artichoke leaves and tubers are suitable for feeding to chickens, but it’s something I haven’t tried yet – my container-grown harvest is too precious ;)
And Radix has been experimenting with eating blanched Jerusalem artichoke shoots – he calls the result artichicons :)
Written by Emma Cooper. If you enjoyed this article then you’ll love The Allotment Pocket Bible, which is also now available on Kindle.