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Jerusalem artichokes are very vigorous plants. On the left is 'Wilton Rose' and on the right 'Sugarball'
Jerusalem artichokes, (Helianthus tuberosus) are close relatives of sunflowers. They are herbaceous perennials and can grow anything up to 4m (lift) in height. The plants have tough, thick stems and large, hairy leaves. They produce yellow flowers like their more decorative cousins, but these are small in comparison and usually only develop after a long, hot summer. However, it is not for the flowers that Jerusalem artichokes are normally grown, but for their tubers.
For many years, the only tubers you could have grown were a muddy white colour, around 10cm (4in) long, 5cm (2in) thick and very, very knobbly (labelled as
This artichoke thicket is typical of many plots and shows just how far these plants will spread if left unchecked
'common' in S. E. Marshalls' catalogue) - like ginger root on steroids. Of course, the more knobbly they are, the more difficult they are to clean, so it is perhaps not surprising that the French cultivar 'Fuseau', with its smoother tubers, has become popular.
Apart from 'Fuseau' there were, until recently, other cultivars available: 'Wilton Rose' with elongated, red and cream-coloured tubers, 'Dwarf Sunray' reaching only 2m (6ft 6in) in height; 'Dave's Shrine' grew a little taller with long, carrot-shaped tubers, while 'Garnet' reached 3m (9ft 10in) in height and had reddish-purple tubers that were smooth and round. Sadly none of these now appear to be commercially available. However 'Gerard' is and is very similar to 'Garnet', while 'Sugarball', for which I found one supplier has white tubers.
Looking around my allotment site last summer, it was obvious which were the ones most commonly grown, with the tall types dominating a number of my neighbour's plots. Usually these formed dense thickets, highlighting one of the other uses Jerusalem artichokes can be put to: that of a windbreak. To be honest, I am sure the allotment holders didn't have this in mind when they planted their tubers, but unfortunately, Jerusalem artichokes have a second problem and the thickets are a clear representation of this: they can easily become weeds.
No matter how thoroughly you think you have searched for tubers, there always seems to be one or two small 'volunteers' which slip through. They have such a reputation of being difficult to eradicate from the soil, up until last year I only ever cultivated them in large pots.
Tubers need to be around 50g (2oz) in weight and while you can use larger tubers, research has shown there is no advantage. You must also only pick tubers which have two or three buds and show no signs of damage or disease.
Seed companies send out their tubers in spring, freshly dug (one hopes), but even so, there is always the possibility that your soil might not be ready to plant them. By keeping the tubers covered with moist compost, you can prevent them drying out.
Once the soil reaches a temperature of around 7C (44F), the tubers will start to sprout. Although it is best to plant the tubers as soon as you receive them, if you live in colder parts of the country, it may be wiser to delay planting until any chance of a late frost has diminished.
Jerusalem artichokes can be grown in virtually any soil, except heavy, waterlogged clay. The biggest yields are from plants growing in slightly alkaline, fertile, loamy conditions, although the tubers are more easily harvested from light, sandy soils. You can dig in farmyard manure or a general fertiliser before planting, and I also feed my plants with a home-made comfrey-based (i.e. potash rich) liquid fertiliser. The plants will tolerate some shade, but prefer full sun.
Each tuber should be planted at a depth of 4in (10cm) while the spacing between plants and rows is less critical. In general the more space they have, the greater the yield. If you can, leave a gap of at least 1m (3ft 3in) between plants in the same row and try to stagger each row so that the large plants won't shade one another.
Jerusalem artichokes need a long growing season, and only start to form tubers after the summer solstice - worth bearing this in mind if your plot is prone to early autumn frosts. From mid-summer onwards, you need to heap soil up around the base of the stems - as you would with potatoes - to encourage the young tubers to develop near the surface. They will also need watering regularly during dry spells.
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