Digging the Dirt / April in the Garden
Gardeners and farmers have tried to predict the weather since ancient times. Seers were once sought out in their high mountain retreats, while other folks developed systems for reading nature’s signs--both here on earth and up in the heavens. Eventually, we established the science of meteorology; however, with global warming and climate change, we might be better off with an old fashioned seer.
We are all hoping up for a nice warm growing season; yet, it might be wise to add a row or bed of adaptable cool weather crops to our summer plantings (think in terms of leaves and roots). They might not provide much produce if the weather turns broiling hot; but our beloved tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers may fail us if the sun takes too long to chase off all these clouds. In case you need some ideas for alternative crops, here is a great book—hot off the press:
Buried Treasures, Tasty Tubers of the World
This great title from Brooklyn Botanic Garden will spark your interest in all sorts of edible roots for the garden. Over 30 different root crops are covered, and not a single one of them is related to a parsnip, carrot, turnip, or radish. Some of these crops need warmer climates than ours, but nearly half of them are listed as adaptable to our area, and some thrive in wet boggy conditions. Buried Treasures features full color photos of the plants and their resulting root crops. Complete growing information is provided. Tips on available cultivars, nutritional value, and preparation are also included. This small book is well designed, affordable, and would make a great gift for gardeners who want to grow it all. Available from most on line book sellers and by request from bookstores everywhere; Buried Treasures, Tasty Tubers of the World, Beth Hanson – editor, published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, ISBN 978-1-889538-34-1
Plant now: Jerusalem Artichokes for Heat or Rain
Jerusalem artichokes actually have nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes. They are related to sunflowers, native to North America, and have been used for food by people native to the North East Woodlands and the tall grass plains since ancient times. Jerusalem artichokes are considered carbon-fixers, as they extract large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, which they use to grow their sturdy stalks and produce an abundant crop. They also scavenge nitrogen and are considered beneficial around compost and manure piles, and stock and animal pens. The excess nitrogen that may be found in these areas can leach into our ground water and our rivers and streams, where it is a pollutant that contributes to unhealthy algae bloom. Jerusalem artichokes absorb the nitrogen and turn it into organic matter. This is a great crop that is good for you and good for the environment also.
These tasty and productive tubers do fabulous here in the Klamath Trinity region. They like full sun but will still produce in partial shade. Watch out, Jerusalem artichokes grow from six to fifteen feet tall, and they have a tendency to sprawl. A sunny spot along a fence or a building makes a good choice, just be prepared to cut any stalks that lean the wrong way. Be sure to plant plenty, as our local gophers will want their fair share. However, they are so prolific that even when the gophers have free run you should have plenty eat and to give away. They can also be planted in raised beds with hardware cloth bottoms or in oak half barrels that have drainage holes. That way you don’t have to plant enough to share with those dastardly little diggers.
Jerusalem artichokes are propagated from their tubers, which can be planted right now. Check with your local nursery or your favorite health food store--many will have tubers or starts available. (If you have trouble finding them, drop me an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Use “JA” as the subject line. I will make sure you find some starts.) The tubers should be planted about three times as deep as they are thick, orientating them in the ground so the most pronounced eyes or buds are pointed up. (If you plant them too shallow they will be more prone to sprawling.) The plants will grow faster, taller, and be more productive in good garden loam, however, you can still expect a sizable crop if you grow them in heavy clay or sandy soil. They benefit from a little summer time irrigation if the weather is dry and the leaves start looking droopy, but they can withstand a fair amount of drought, and they should also survive and produce during cool wet summers. Leave the plants in place until late October or early November. If our fall frost arrives late, the tops will be decorated with tons of bright yellow to orange daisy like flowers. The flowers are great for arrangements, if you can reach them, and they attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Once the plants are done flowering or the tops have been killed by frost, you can begin to dig your tubers. Expect each plant to produce five to fifteen pounds! They keep best in the ground, so only dig as many as you want for a few days at a time. (Be sure to leave a few behind, for next year’s crop.) These tubers can range in size from a few ounces up to two pounds each. They are odd shaped and knobby and can be a little difficult to wash. However, they don’t need peeled, and they only have fifty calories per full cup. Jerusalem artichokes taste best raw. They are crisp, sweet, and crunchy. (Think water chestnuts or jicama.) I like to eat them just like an apple. They can also be diced or grated into salads. Cooked, they make great mashed potatoes, and they can be added to soups, stir fries, stews, and casseroles. After cooking they have a mild but distinctive flavor and their texture is similar to cooked parsnips or turnips.
I will offer one small word of caution. The starch in Jerusalem artichokes is in the form of inulin, which is considered very beneficial for diabetics. However, some folks find that eating Jerusalem artichokes feels like a belly full of beans; especially the first time they give them a try. So start with a snack. Later, if you like, you can think about working up to a whole meal. You will find a gourmet recipe in Buried Treasures, Tasty Tubers of the World, and lots more by searching on the Internet.
“No ray of sunlight is ever lost, but the green it wakes into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted to the sower to live to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith.” Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, 1952
Copyright 2008, Harvest McCampbell--original published in the Hoopa People News
Here's another tip--if you haven't already begun starting seeds for warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash--now is the time. They need a nice warm spot with bright light to get a head start. If your ground is ready to be worked, you can plant cool season crops like lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli right out side. Use the search function at the top left of this page to get more information on what you want to grow--and if you don't find all the information you need--please feel free to leave a comment . . . .