Planting sunchokes and potatoes

I’m trying many new things in my garden this year, and growing sunchokes (Helianthus  tuberosus) is one of them. Also known as Jerusalem artichokes, this North American native sunflower produces knobby but edible tubers that taste a little like artichoke hearts. I’ve never grown them before, so this is an experiment.

Apparently there is no trick to growing sunchokes because they grow like weeds. They look like weeds too, so ideally one doesn’t plant them in a prominent place in the garden. These rambling, branching, spindly sunflowers grow to heights of 6-10 feet, and are best situated in a back corner or other out-of-the-way spot.

Well, ideal and my yard don’t go together. We have very little space in our southern California urban yard and even less sun. The sunniest spot in the yard is the driveway. So that’s where I’m growing my sunchokes and potatoes this year.

How’s that possible, you ask. Isn’t your driveway covered in concrete? Yep. That’s where the Smart Pot comes in.

This 15-gallon Smart Pot container is made of a porous felt-like material. I got them from Garderner's Supply Company.

I filled three Smart Pots with potting soil to within about three inches of the top, then mixed in some E.B. Stone Sure Start organic fertilizer that is inoculated with mycorrhizae and other good microbes. I used one pot for sunchokes and two for some blue potatoes that had sprouted in my potato bin. Those pots are going to sit in the driveway where they’ll get sun all day long.

I got these yellow-skinned sunchokes from the grocery store, 1 lb for $1.99. They were much cheaper than if I had purchased them from a seed/bulb company, and there was no shipping and handling fee.

Sunchokes will grow in just about any type of soil and weather conditions. They like full sun, but tolerate shade, and grow from Alaska to Mexico. The problem comes in trying to harvest the tubers. A loose soil makes it easier to dig them up. But apparently you never get them all, and they tend to naturalize in the soil. That is why I decided to try growing them in a Smart Pot.

After the sunflowers die back at the end of summer, I’ll shift through the potting soil and see if I got any tubers. I planted 5 tubers, a bit over half a pound, in one pot. I have two leftover and may try growing them elsewhere in the yard in another container.

Sunchokes are planted in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. They’re planted at the same time as potatoes, which in coastal southern California is January through early June. They’re supposed to be planted 3-4 inches deep. I wasn’t sure if that was to the top of the tuber or the bottom, but the way I did it, the bottom of the tuber was 4 inches deep and the top was 3 inches deep. I couldn’t tell what was top and what was bottom, so I just laid the tubers flat in a hole in the soil and covered them up.

In most areas, harvesting is in August or later, or about 4-5 months after planting. I expect to harvest them in July here. The tubers should be eaten as soon as they’re dug up because they dry out quickly, so most people dig them as they want to eat them. I’ve heard that there is no need to replant if you grow them in the ground because you never find them all.

Read more about sunchokes at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Helianthus_tuberosus.html

Blue potatoes that sprouted in the bag.

I also had some organic blue potatoes that sprouted while sitting in the potato bin. I decided I might as well plant them since they were too far gone to eat. Ideally, one would cut up the potatoes with a couple of eyes to each piece, but like I said, ideal and my gardening style aren’t related. I had six potatoes, so I put three in each Smart Pot. I planted them about 3 inches deep.

I only filled the Smart Pots to within 3-4 inches of the top, and will add more potting soil as the plants grow. I’ve heard that potato plants grow new potatoes between the seed potato and the surface and that if you keep raising the surface, or hilling them up, you get more potatoes.

I’ve tried hilling up potatoes with straw in previous years and it didn’t work. I’ll try adding more potting soil to the pots with this year’s experimental potato crop. I’ve never grown them in Smart Pots, or indeed in any kind of container, but I’ve heard good reports about the technique. We’ll see.

(To read more of Lou Murray’s environmental writing, see her weekly column, Natural Perspectives, in the Huntington Beach Independent at www.hbindependent.com /blogs_and_columns

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