Jerusalem Artichokes for TEOTWAWKI Gardening – Part 1, by Soli Deo Gloria

A lot has been written on this blog and elsewhere about the importance of gardening in order to grow your own food in a post-TEOTWAWKI world. When you think about a survival garden, the first question you need to ask is “What should I grow?” I’d like to suggest that most people are missing some important factors when they try to answer that question.

I’m going to walk you through some serious ideas to consider when it comes to survival gardening. If you are new to the whole idea, I hope this will get you started in the right direction. If you’ve been successfully gardening for years, I hope this will give you some new perspectives and perhaps lead you to consider some new crops next spring.

Along the way, I’m going to introduce you to what I call ‘the wonder crop’ and explain how it is an amazingly good candidate for inclusion in a survival garden.

Consideration # 1: Producing Calories

I’ve been gardening for years now and have also spent time talking to other gardeners. Unfortunately, most of us garden for fun. We grow crops that are exciting or things we love to eat fresh. We usually don’t approach our gardens with an eye toward feeding ourselves, only toward producing something that tastes great. For example, ask almost any gardener what they grow year after year and tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce are almost certain to be on the list. To get enough calories to sustain ONE hard-working man for a SINGLE day, you’d need about 187 tomatoes (2” diameter whole raw tomatoes), 67 cucumbers (8” whole raw cucumbers), or 375 cups of shredded lettuce (iceberg)(1). I don’t know about you, but I’ve never produced that much in an entire year.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against these foods. They provide some vitamins and minerals, but they lack calories. When the stores are closed, you’ll die from a lack of calories long before you’ll die from a lack of Vitamin A. How many calories do you want to invest in preparing the soil, weeding, watering, and picking bugs off that row of cucumbers when you know you’ll never make up those calories with the food you eventually harvest?

In my part of the country, the one big exception to the rule of low-calorie garden veggies is sweet corn. It has been estimated that corn yields more calories per acre under cultivation than any other crop. Sounds great, right? But there are very serious drawbacks to corn, which I’ll discuss throughout this article. So I’m going to recommend that people who really care about survival gardening consider an alternative: the second highest yielding crop per acre(2). This is the wonder-crop I hinted at: Jerusalem Artichokes (a.k.a. sunchokes, sunroots, or Helianthus tuberosus). As a side note, Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with the city of Jerusalem or with artichokes… but over the years that is a name that has stuck.

What makes Jerusalem artichokes a “wonder crop”? Well, they do have some vitamins and minerals in them (especially potassium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C). They’ve also got some protein (3g per cup). But more importantly, they have calories – 114 calories per cup to be exact (22 calories per ounce)(1). That is comparable to corn or potatoes and is far beyond most garden veggies. Sunchokes are well suited to be a staple crop (and, in fact, were a staple crop in Europe many years ago). A day’s worth of food translates to only about 9 lbs of Jerusalem artichokes. Of course, you couldn’t live on any one single food 365 days a year, but a couple pounds a day would be a powerful supplement to your stored/hunted/gathered foods.

Consideration # 2: Continuing Harvests Year After Year

Another big concern for people looking to survive a serious collapse is the ability to sustain food production year after year. Almost all commercial crops and most garden plants are “hybrids” – which means that the seeds those plants produce won’t necessarily grow true to match the parent plant. To successfully save the seeds from most annual crops you must use heirloom or open-pollinated seeds. If you handle such plants carefully, they will breed true and allow you to keep gardening year-after-year. But it isn’t easy.

Corn is an annual plant grown from seeds (corn kernels). If you want an ongoing harvest you need to grow the right number of plants to get good genetic variety (typically 100 individual plants are recommended). The ears need to be left on the plants until the right stage of development (typically 4-6 weeks after you’ve gathered the ones you intend to eat), then harvested, dried to the right level of moisture, and carefully stored to prevent moisture, mold, heat, cold, or rodents from destroying them. Certainly, it can be done, but it is a lot of work and a lot of risk. A bad storm, an unexpected frost, an insect infestation, or a disease could easily wipe out your seeds leaving you with nothing to plant the following year.

Jerusalem artichokes, however, are different. They are perennial plants grown from tubers (underground root-like organs). Because they grow from the tubers of an existing plant rather than seed, there is never any concern that the plants grown in one year will not match those of the previous season. The tubers you produce will always grow plants that are identical to the very first ones you grew. They also survive perfectly well on their own just sitting in the ground all winter – no need to gather and carefully protect precious and fragile seeds.

Imagine that for any number of reasons you have to leave your property during planting or harvesting time. With annual plants, if you can’t get the seeds in the ground at the right time, the plants won’t produce. Your seeds will sit unused for a year (with the germination rate steadily declining) and there will be no food growing for another 12 months. If you miss the harvest, not only did you miss out on collecting food but you also missed out on collecting seeds for the following year. In either case your entire gardening plan could collapse.

With perennials you don’t have to plant them every year – new growth will come every spring whether you are there to see it or not. If you miss the harvest it is a shame, but it has no impact on next year’s production. In fact, with sunroots your harvest the following year should be even bigger since all the unharvested tubers have sprouted into new plants. Now when you gather the tubers of sunroots you are eating the parts that are needed to grow new plants the next year. In theory, if you gathered them all there would be nothing left to reproduce and you would ruin your future harvests. But as anyone who has ever grown this wonder crop knows, in practice it is nearly impossible to gather all the tubers. In fact, some people complain that after planting it they can’t get rid of it no matter how hard they try.

While annoying to traditional gardeners, this is an almost unbelievable asset for survival gardening. The first year I planted these, I put 5 tubers in half of a raised bed. I had some deer trouble and the plants didn’t appear to do very well. In early March of the following year I decided to give up on them and plant something else in that space. I dug through the half bed and took out all the tubers, recovering a pound or so which I ate. A few weeks later more than 50 new sunroot shoots had come up (roughly doubling the garden area the original plants had covered). Some of these even came up in the extremely heavy clay soil outside of my raised bed.

I had also planted a few tubers directly in the clay soil alongside my workshop. I didn’t disturb them until the second spring, when it finally occurred to me that if I were to dig up the ground alongside my workshop every year I’d run the risk of compromising the slab foundation. I dug out the clay soil to about 8 inches around the outermost plants and went through it with a figurative fine-toothed comb – carefully removing every single tuber. Sure enough, about 40 shoots came up that year. I actually mowed them down three times over the course of the summer and they kept coming back.

And one last example in case you are still not convinced. I grew one plant in a tractor-tire raised bed. The next year five plants came up in the tire. The following spring I took the tire away to a new spot so I could plant a berry bush in it. Now this was fairly loose soil so it was easy to filter my hands through it pulling out all the tubers. I carefully removed them all, took the soil to a new raised bed I was making, and then went so far as to scrape away a few inches of the heavy clay soil all around the area – trying to remove every last trace of sunroot. I still had 19 shoots come up in the bare spot where the tire had been and 4 or 5 in the raised bed where I had taken the carefully cleaned soil. This is one tenacious plant!



Photo 2: The tractor-tire raised bed where I removed the soil & scraped away the clay to try to remove all the tubers.

Pro Tip: As you might imagine from the paragraphs above, you need to be careful where you plant Jerusalem artichokes. Don’t plan on being able to contain them in a small space without a physical barrier of some kind buried to at least a foot deep. Don’t put them near or among any other plants that you want to grow. I recommend a dedicated garden bed or, better yet, a dedicated sunny corner of your yard.

Consideration # 3: Effort Expended

Besides generating calories, we should also think about conserving calories. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, ‘A calorie saved is a calorie grown’. The main calorie expenditures associated with growing food are preparing the soil, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, and processing.

Sunroots are a very ‘low maintenance’ garden plant. Depending on your soil, you may not even need to plant them in a garden at all. The main thing they need is lots of sun. Though they won’t thrive in barren sand or pure clay, this plant can do well in a variety of soils and many people could establish a colony in a sunny spot in their yard. Just break up the soil a bit and pop the tubers in the ground at about 3-4” deep.

I’ve already described the effort saved by not having to plant perennials every year. Hand-in-hand with this is the fact that you don’t have to prepare the soil every spring. No need to spend precious gasoline using a rototiller or precious calories using a shovel. Harvesting the sunroots provides all the soil disturbance they need to thrive. Speaking of which, harvesting this wonder crop is also relatively easy. The tubers like to sit 3-6” below the soil. They don’t bury themselves deep with a tap root or cling to the earth for dear life like some root crops. Just dig up a shovel-full of soil and pick out the tubers by hand.

These plants don’t need special fertilizers and don’t need watered except in serious droughts (these are both big advantages over nitrogen-and-water-hungry corn). Jerusalem artichokes are large plants (mine grow to about 7-8’ tall in a raised bed, about 5-6’ tall in heavy clay soil). They also have big leaves that do a great job shading out weeds. Once established, the stems actually grow so thickly that you really couldn’t get in between to weed them even if you wanted to.

Pro Tip: Obviously, they can also shade out other crops that are planted nearby, so again keep them separated from the rest of your garden.

Processing sunchokes is also as easy as it gets. Wash and cook them. That’s it. No threshing, winnowing, grinding, milling, leaching, shelling or any of those other things that can make it so difficult to get from harvest to table.

Ideally, sunroots should be harvested in late winter or early spring. People say they can be eaten raw, but I prefer to boil them for about an hour. They are a nice neutral-tasting food that goes well with butter and salt. They are often compared to potatoes, but I find the texture to be quite a bit different.

Pro Tip: Harvested earlier in the season (fall or early winter) they are said to cause serious gas – though this can be alleviated with longer cooking times. I’ve always waited until early spring to harvest mine so I can’t attest to this through personal experience.





Photo 3: This represents about half the tubers I gathered out of a 3 1/2’ diameter raised bed made out of a large tire. They’ve been washed and placed in a 4qt pot, ready to be boiled. The ‘sliced’ ones were cut with a shovel while harvesting – no real harm done.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)