Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

A few years back a gentleman at the Tucson Organic Gardeners (TOG) was offering free Jerusalem Artichoke Tubers out of a bucket. He was touting how good they were to be eaten raw. Though I reluctantly listened to his presentation and thought the crop looked interesting, I decided not to take any tubers because I had no idea how perfect this vegetable would turn out to be for my garden. My experience at TOG turned to regret when I learned from the book Perennial Vegetables how great this vegetable would be in my garden.

A typical Jerusalem Artichoke tuber

Though Americans call the roots of this sunflower a “Jerusalem Artichoke” a more appropriate name would probably be “Suntuber”, hence the nickname “Sunchoke”. As a native to the United States, the Jerusalem Artichoke grows throughout the country. However, based on my own experience, some varieties may do better in specific climates then others.

The seed root that resulted in my recent Jerusalem Artichoke crop came from Sonoma County. A farm there was selling two different varieties: one red and the other, white. I brought home a small paper bag of each variety and promptly planted them in January of 2011. That summer I planted some Chinese long beans in the same area as the Jerusalem Artichoke and the long beans crowded everything out. Though the red tubers perished, a few of the white rooted varieties managed to grow a little, despite the minimal sunlight. This last spring was the first time that I noticed a Jerusalem Artichoke flower stalk growing with vigor. It grew relatively well early in the summer then died back – partially due to lace bugs – in August. I was expecting the plant to “take over the garden” as I had read others report – but with this being Arizona – perhaps I was expecting too much.

Jerusalem Artichokes (Sunchokes)

The plant itself was much more “bushy” than I had initially expected. Compared with other sunflowers it has a large footprint. My plant, which was covered with rough leaves and small yellow flowers, reached to the height of 5-6 feet and a width of at least 4 feet in diameter.

Jerusalem Artichoke Plant

Before cooking the tubers of the Jerusalem Artichoke I read up a little. Based on their shape, I knew that the roots were a pain to peel – so I decided to pick a recipe that required no peeling. Another bit of helpful information I gleaned from my online and book reading was the warning that many people gave concerning the root – which gives it the nickname of “Fartichoke”. It seems that people cannot digest the carbohydrate “inulin” which is found in the tubers. Apparently, this lack of digestibility can lead to those who eat the roots to stomach cramps and gaseous tendencies.

The recipe I used (minus the brandy) was a Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup from Allrecipies.com. So here are the results of this recipe: Adults love it – kids were okay with it. The main problem my children had with the soup was the texture. The tubers were harder than all the other ingredients by the end of the cooking process, which translated into how the recipe turned out. Perhaps I would suggest that the tubers be provided several minutes of cooking in the oil before adding the onion and potatoes. Though my children didn’t care for the soup, the very next night I was able to cunningly substitute the Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke soup for a white sauce required as an ingredient for a casserole. Good thing my kids don’t read my blog – yet!

Jerusalem Artichoke cut up with potatoes

So the soup turned out to be a success. I noticed very little problems with gas, which I can only ascribe to either cooking it with potatoes or to my substantial raw vegetable consumption. The main affect I noticed from eating Jerusalem Artichokes was improved digestion – which is a very positive effect given that my difficulty digesting meat has lead me to become almost completely vegetarian.

So my overall rating for this vegetable is good. I’ll keep it in my garden as a perennial and add it to my potato-based recipes. Perhaps I’ll even try to obtain other Jerusalem Artichoke Cultivars.

If you would like to know more about rearing Jerusalem Artichokes, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) has a good planting guide. In addition, both Wikipedia and Mother Earth News have some nice articles about the Jerusalem Artichoke. 

Even with many different varieties of Jerusalem Artichoke available, very few websites sell more than one variety or even know what variety they sell. Despite this, I have discovered two websites that provide multiple Sunchokes varieties. The first offers two varieties at Fedco Seeds Moose Tubers and the second site offers various varieties online at Oikos Tree Crops.com.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cleaning up Summer

Over Veteran's Day my wife lovingly provided me with the time to clean up my summer garden and harvest my sweet potatoes. The crop experienced a light frost a couple days beforehand and I reasoned that I would not have any time between then and when a hard frost came to spend cleaning up my summer garden.

My Summer Garden Back in August

A light frost and time off provides clean-up opportunities

My 2012 Summer Garden has come to an end

Due to the extent of the vine growth, most of my time was spent cutting back Purple Hyacinth Bean and Sweet Potato foliage.

A few of the composted vines - my wife humored me in taking this picture

It is difficult to see the end of a season, though, especially in warmer climates – the death of plants in one season means the life of plants in the new season.

~With this thought I say goodbye to summer and hello to winter!~

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Trip to Apple Annie's

When Tucson Unified School District changed the school calendar, we received an added “Fall break” in October – so decided to spend some quality family time together. After packing our children up, we drove over to Apple Annie’s, a Orchard and Farm located in Wilcox, Arizona. Among the activities we participated in included using clues to help guide us through the corn maze, harvesting apples from an orchard, harvesting tomatoes from a small tomato patch, and picking out a pumpkin to use for Halloween. 

Corn Maze at Apple Annie's

Red Delicious Apples at Apple Annie's

Harvesting Tomatoes with the Family

Amazingly, the pumpkin did last until Halloween – though I didn’t save any of the seeds. We really enjoy salted and baked pumpkin seeds.

My family removing seeds for Carving a Pumpkin

So what does this have to do with scientific gardening? While we were at Apple Annie's I was able to harvest some Milo to try as a cover crop next summer. Additionally, I called and inquired about the bush bean cultivar that Apple Annie’s farm was growing so well in the heat. The flowers looked like tepary bean flowers, though the beans remained tender until a large size. Despite inquiries, no one from Apple Annie’s has returned my phone calls. I suppose I’ll have to keep working on my search for a tender, nearly heat-proof English-type bean cultivar to grow in my garden.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Defining a Weed

As I visited a local garden I noticed some plants that were not producing the way they should. In the past, I have noticed plants like these in my garden. Although unproductive plants are not necessarily weeds, it is noteworthy to recognize plants that fit the mould of a weed. When these plants are left in the garden to take up space, they extract the garden’s resources without giving the gardener the pleasure of a “good” crop.

According to Merrium Webster, a weed is a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants. For me, a weed can be a cultivated plant that is “not wanted” or a plant that as takes up space (and light) that could be better used for productive plants.

Though it sounds cruel, there are many good reasons to pull up or cut down a weedy garden plant. Here are a few:

1. If a plant dithers.

A Watermelon vine that is just not growing well

2. If a plant does not produce well.

Many of my peppers didn't get posted about because of poor production

3. If a whole plant becomes diseased.

Some kind of mosiac or curly top virus on a tomato plant

4. If a plant grows too large, without producing much.

Tomatoes are great - except if you have a huge plant with no tomatoes on it

5. If my family doesn’t like the veggies I produce.

My family doesn't care much for Brussel Sprouts

With my garden consisting of a small plot, it is important for me to cut down or remove ineffective plants that shade out useful plants. Though any cultivated plant may be fun to grow for some people, productive and useful plants are those that bring me the most joy.