Monday, March 16, 2015

Sunchokes: Introduction and Spread Control

Sunchokes, or Jerusalem Artichokes as they are often called, are the newest health-food darling.  Rather than breaking down into sugary starch like potatoes they are gluten-free and break down into inulin, with a delightful sweetness and crispness all their own.  I describe them as a cross between the texture of a water chestnut, the flavor of the mildest turnip you ever tasted, and some of the sweetness of a sweet potato.  But that just doesn't do them justice.  You must try them if you can get your hands on some.  And let me tell you, if you can meet someone who grows them, they will probably be more than happy to share. They're one of the few true native vegetables of America and one thing's a fact: they know how to survive.  That makes them excellent as a preparedness food source and great for feeding a family of boys.
The catch, as you can read about in many MANY online forums and gardening sites, is that sunchokes are SO prolific, they can quickly get out of control.
Here are a few really great reference sites with history of the plant (including its important colonial-era history) and recipes:
So yes, from experience I can say that if you grow these you will not starve.  You will also find yourself with less and less usable garden space if you're not careful.  And I mean within a season.
So here is my current solution, involving lots of work but a better alternative than letting these lovely edible sunflowers take over your entire yard.
Behold the original sunchoke bed, planted with about, oh, 20 starter tubers.  I planted fairly late in the season--May, I think.  You can't even guess how much I harvested from that one plot.
Close to 50 lbs. of tubers, folks.  That's how prolific these things are.
Here is the foliage at high summer.  It seems like the ugly duckling of the garden until about August.
The plants go up to 11, 13, or even 17 feet high with clustered spikes of yellow sunflowers that turn into a real show-stopper.
Alas, I cannot find a picture at present.
But this year, although I am very much in love with this gregarious vegetable, I feel a distinct need to let it know its limits.  All would have been well had I just planted them in galvanized livestock troughs to begin with.  But here is my solution.
First I doubled, tripled the size of the original bed.  It was so full of seed tubers even after harvesting that I knew it would continue to enlarge beyond that.  So after a good rain when our famous Carolina clay is workable (for the only few weeks out of the year that it can be considered 'workable'), I dug a thorough 12" deep, 6-7" wide trench all around until I was sure I had gotten around all the dormant tubers.  None left at the edges and none outside.
If you have experienced wet Carolina clay before, you will appreciate the backache I had afterward.
Phase Two:
I built a box.  Pressure-treated to keep out the wood worms.  They've done studies, guys.  Pressure-treated lumber leaches only trace amounts of chemical into maybe the 1 or 2 centimeters within the box, and the plants don't pick up any of those chemicals from the soil.  Trust my experience here.  Termites are not to be messed with and are a real and tedious threat if you are considering raised garden beds.
Use pressure-treated lumber.

These are 2x12's, cut at 4 ft and 8 ft.  I join mine together with the beefiest brackets I can.
If you're going to make it, make it to last.
It was heavy.  I suggest getting a partner to help you position this thing in your leveled trench if you ever decide on a similar solution.

Make sure you level your trench before you set it in.  Use a flat shovel to make this easier, of course.
Keep all the sunchokes WELL in the center of the mound so that none of them can get close to the edge, especially the bottom edge.  I actually removed as many as I came across during the digging process and set them aside, to replant higher up in the bed.

Line it up with your existing beds, if any.  Crooked lines will bother you for months and years to come.  Chalked mason line works well, or just use a good eye.

That's phase one.  Phase two is go inside for some ibuprofen and to put your feet up.
Or, in my case, wash hands and then cut out a quilt.
Phase three is soon to follow.
Happy gardening all!