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Jerusalems were once a popular crop before falling by the wayside for several decades. There are a number of good reasons for the decline in popularity, one of them being the fact that the plants grow like weeds. Treat them like weeds though and you end up with an unruly mass of roots that spread everywhere and produce tiny contorted tubers that are too difficult to clean and prepare for eating.
While in the kitchen, another problem with Jerusalems is the fact that if they are boiled, there is only a small time lapse between being nicely cooked, and having a pan full of glue. The final trouble comes from the fact that until the body gets used to them, they can give you wind. Not the genteel silent ones ladies are famous for but trumpeting like a marching band of squadies. Greengrocers call them 'Hearty Jokes', not artichokes.
With all the anti-social elements out of the way lets look at the good qualities. If grown well the tubers are much larger and far less knobby making them much easier to clean. They are best cooked in the skin so do not require peeling unless damaged. They are nutritious without being fattening and good for anyone with Diabetes. Tubers are best left in the ground and only dug out as required and all in all they remain free from pest and disease troubles.
The work involved with growing Jerusalem artichokes is pretty much all in the preparation as during the summer they take care of themselves. These plants can grow extremely tall, 5 metres or more, so substantial supports should be provided. For this reason it is better to grow them in the same spot for many years.
Dig and fork the bed to a crumbly structure removing any stones or lost tubers from the previous year before adding a generous quantity of manure. This manure should be worked into the lower depths with a fork, and the bed levelled and allowed to settle.
While Jerusalems are tough survivors and will grow in very poor soil conditions, the results will be far greater both in yield and quality if the soil is made as fertile as possible. All summer long you can simply look at them growing safe in the knowledge that weeds have no chance to compete with these plants.
Select good quality tubers from last seasons crop and plant these about 7-8cm below the surface and space each one about half a metre apart in all directions. There is no point trying to squeeze more into the space as each crown will produce lots of small tubers. The aim is to grow a good yield of super tubers that can be utilized with minimal waste.
Once planting is complete, top dress with another load of manure and your work is finished until harvest time. The bed may require covering for a few weeks to keep animals from digging, but once shoots emerge, all clutter should be cleared away.
With the tubers planted and tucked up all that is needed is patience. Tubers will happily sit in cold soil simply waiting for warmer weather and in cold districts sometimes do not show until late May. Once they start to grow they do not hang around. One week you are frantically searching for emerging shoots but turn your back and a forest appears.
When new shoots emerge, they suffer a bit from slugs and snails but while these are a nuisance they do no real harm and a bitten shoot will regrow. Soon they get too tough to be palatable and grow unhindered any further.
For the next few months there is nothing further to do apart from admiring them and giving them a spash with the hosepipe in a prolonged heatwave but few summers pass without a regular rain shower. Otherwise check they cannot fall over by making sure the supports are fit for the purpose. Jerusalems can get extremely tall towards the end of the summer and strong winds following a wet spell can have them all uprooted or partially rocked out of the ground.
There are many ways of supporting these plants and I will leave it to the growers initiative but will just remind you that it is far easier to create a sturdy support before they all fall over rather than trying an emergancy repair later. I have used secon-hand fence posts with a square cross section of 100mm sunk into the ground 600mm deep. Old roof batterns act as rails with more added if required.
If all else fails and there is still a danger of the plants becoming unstable the top metre of the plant can be lopped off without causing much loss of crop. Better to lop a bit off rather than allowing the root ball to break loose. If the plant were to topple, the juicy young tubers will be at the mercy of every crawling low lifeform in the district as well as reducing the supply of energy and nutrients that make the tubers swell.
Even good summers come to an end and and slowly all those tall stems begin to die. Tubers are developing strongly now aided by the nutrients from the stalks draining down for recycling into storage. Dead stems should be first reduced in height then finally cut low down leaving about 150mm or so to show where the crowns are buried.
From now on dig a crown or two as required. Do not be tempted to dig them all up as many of them will still be swelling, and once dug they rapidly dehydrate and spoil. Dig only what is to be eaten within a week. The season for harvesting is from November to early March when they will start to root and shoot. If your district suffers from severe frost it pays to cover over with a loose mulch to prevent the ground becoming too hard for them to be forked out easily.
Overall when first growing Jerusalems allow for a yield of 1-1.5kg per planted tuber but double this is easily achieved. In the end though you will get more than enough but if they are all small and fiddley, many may end up rejected by the cook.
Jerusalem artichokes are a versatile food and may be cooked in many different ways. Sliced and fried in oil is one of my favourites and I make a lot of soup for freezing. If you are in a hurry a few large ones can be nuked in the microwave for a few minutes, sliced and topped with butter and cheese for a quick ding dinner. The list is endless.
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