Consideration # 4: Pests & Diseases
Pests and diseases are a concern for any crop. They can drastically reduce your yield or even destroy your plants completely. Most people who grow corn plant special hybrid varieties that are resistant to many diseases and then they also spray their fields with various treatments throughout the season. This is because crop diseases are a huge problem when it comes to corn. The huge fields of it that are grown across much of the country every year mean that diseases can rapidly spread across vast swaths of land. Of course, the hybrid varieties are continually updated to handle new threats. But heirloom varieties don’t have this option, so they often suffer.
Because perennials are designed to survive year-after-year in the same spot, they usually have better disease resistance than annuals. Sunroots are no exception. They generally suffer from few if any serious plant diseases. This becomes especially important when access to modern chemical treatments goes away. I know there are all natural treatments that can work against certain problems, but only as long as you can stockpile the ingredients or produce them yourself. As they say “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
An important strategy that most gardeners employ to reduce diseases is to grow plants from a variety of botanical families. For example, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants are all members of the Solanaceae family. Many diseases that attack one of these plants can spread to attack the others as well. (This is why when you are practicing crop rotation, tomatoes shouldn’t be rotated into a bed that contained potatoes last year). Jerusalem artichokes are members of the Asteraceae family. The only other commonly grown food plant in that family is sunflowers. So adding this crop can add to the diversity and resilience of your food supply.
Insects can also do a lot of damage to crops. I wish I could say that sunroots were immune to this type of problem, but I can’t. I will say that this wonder crop doesn’t seem to be a target for slugs, Japanese beetles, caterpillars, or stink bugs (all of which are abundant in my garden). But aphids seem to like young sunroots better than anything else I grow. Early in the season I find clusters of them underneath the leaves on a regular basis. Left unchecked they slowly drain energy from the plant. Sevin™ spray seems to take care of them and the dust works even better. I also set out little trays of Terro™ to kill the ants that bring the aphids in. Given enough time, you could manually walk through your patch and crush the aphids by hand on the leaves. I’ve done that and the leaves are plenty sturdy enough to handle this. By mid-summer the plants seem to toughen up and the aphid problem starts to fade away.
Besides pests of the microscopic and insect kinds, we must also deal with larger four-legged ‘friends’. Because many plants are designed to use animals to spread their seeds they can function as magnets for unwanted predators. As food ripens it often becomes brightly colored and gives off attractive smells that are intended to get the attention of animals. Now in a truly desperate situation, that wouldn’t be all bad. Attracting deer, rabbits, squirrels and other animals could be a bonus as long as someone in your group can stand guard over your garden 24-7 to harvest these animals. Smaller animals like chipmunks and birds, although edible, wouldn’t offer as much of a return as larger ones. But even these little guys can still do a lot of damage.
Until the day comes when you can shoot deer and rabbits at will any time of the year, pests are a huge headache. My nephews have gone so far as to sleep among the rows in their sweet corn field to try to keep the raccoons and deer away. A deer can saunter through the field munching off corn tassels and ruin hundreds of plants in a single night. Unfortunately, Jerusalem artichokes can also suffer from deer and rabbits. But they do have a remarkable advantage in this area. With corn and most other crops the animals and the gardeners are fighting for the same part of the plant. But because the edible part of sunchokes from a human perspective is the underground tuber, the food is naturally more protected from most predators. I suppose the tubers could be susceptible to moles or other subterranean pests, but I can’t be sure since I don’t have those animals where I live.
The pest problem I most frequently face is deer (and sometimes rabbits early in the season) wandering through the garden and eating off the tender tops of the plants. Fencing and deer repellent sprays help. Post-TEOTWAWKI a good rifle would also do the trick. But even if the tops of the plants do get eaten, it doesn’t mean a total crop failure as it would for corn or many other things. Side shoots will grow out near the top of the remaining stems and the plants will continue to grow and stockpile energy underground. They may not have enough energy accumulated by September to flower and fruit, but I’m not interested in the flowers or fruit anyway.
Pro Tip: Since sunroots are designed for vegetative propagation by tubers, most varieties don’t have any appreciable food value in their tiny seeds. Some don’t even produce viable seeds (which is just as well since you want to maintain the properties of the parent plant).
Consideration # 5: Storage
Storing foods to eat out of season can be a serious problem without access to modern refrigerators and freezers. Some foods can be canned, dehydrated, or stored in a root-cellar. These different methods all have advantages and disadvantages in terms of equipment, energy, time, and spoilage risk. Without electricity to run a freezer, corn must be pressure canned or else carefully dried for storage. To save enough to make this a part of your family’s year-round diet would require an awful lot of canning jars and a lot of hours standing over a wood stove. A solar dehydrator could work but if you need to dry the kernels in the sun you’ll have to have someone standing guard all day to keep the birds and other critters away.
Sunchokes are much easier. To store them, just leave them in the ground. They are easily retrievable from there anytime the ground isn’t frozen solid. Any tubers that aren’t eaten by spring can be simply left in the ground to sprout. If your ground does freeze hard enough to prevent digging down 6 to 8”, you can harvest the tubers ahead of time and store them in buckets covered in sand inside a workshop, garage, or other place that stays fairly cold (if you put them in your basement they might warm up enough to start sprouting early).
If you want to keep eating the tubers through the summer, you should harvest them in mid-to-late spring (shortly before they sprout). At that point they can be washed, sliced, and dried (or frozen if you have electricity available). Though you’ll still need to keep an eye on them, sliced roots sitting in the sun to dry won’t be nearly as attractive to wildlife as seeds.
Consideration # 6: Operations Security (OPSEC)
While all the foregoing considerations really apply to anyone who gardens, this consideration is special for those of us who are preparing for potential social collapse. A crop that could be easily hidden from prying eyes would be great. Again, consider the contrast between sunroots and corn. I’d venture to say that almost every man, woman, and child in the US knows what corn looks like. Almost all of them like the taste and know how to prepare it, too. Most people would recognize it as food long before it was ripe – and if they saw some as they were walking along the road many would know roughly when to come back to try and steal it.
But sunroots? Most people have never even heard of them. The flowering plant doesn’t resemble cultivated sunflowers at all (cultivated sunflowers have single large heads full of edible seeds, but sunchokes have a loose cluster of small yellow flowers at the top). Very few people could differentiate them from wild sunflowers at a distance. Plus, the wonder-crop doesn’t grow in nice, neat rows that look like they were planted on purpose for food. Jerusalem artichokes like to grow in untidy clumps. They give the appearance of an abandoned field overrun with wildflowers. And especially at the time when they are best to harvest (late winter through late spring) there is nothing alive above ground to attract anyone’s attention. It doesn’t get much better than this in terms of OPSEC.
Photo 4: Would any of your neighbors recognize these plants as food? This is the garden bed a couple weeks after I naïvely thought I’d removed all the tubers.
Consideration # 7: Guerilla Gardening
One final consideration for some people is a plant’s usefulness in so-called “guerilla gardening”. Guerilla gardening is the idea of secretly growing edible plants in abandoned areas or public spaces where they will go unnoticed. But since you planted them, you’ll know to come by and harvest them at the right time. Because Jerusalem artichokes need a good bit of sunlight, they wouldn’t work in the deep woods of a national park. Because they spread so easily and shade out other plants, you should never introduce them into the edge of another man’s field. Because harvesting them involves digging up the soil, Jerusalem artichokes aren’t something you could quietly harvest along the edge of a busy public park (although if you plant them there, they might be able to thrive until a time when people aren’t concerned about a minor infraction like digging in the park).
The place where sunchokes could work well is in relatively clear spots along railroad tracks, logging roads, or places where the electric company occasionally mows down brush near power lines. This is a natural habitat for wild sunflowers, so very few people will notice your sunroots and they should cause no real harm to the local ecosystem. In fact, you might even find that wild Jerusalem artichokes are already growing in these places. Of course, you would want to avoid places where herbicides are sprayed. Please note that I am not advocating that you plant anything on land you do not own, but merely pointing this out for those who may make that decision.
Since I mentioned wild Jerusalem artichokes I should say a brief word about them here. Wild Jerusalem artichokes are to cultivated sunroots what wild grass seeds are to corn. In ages gone by, people selected and bred both sunroots and corn to produce more abundant food. There is nothing wrong with the wild versions of sunroots or grass seed, but they aren’t as productive as cultivated varieties. Wild sunroots tend to have smaller tubers which are thinner, more elongated, and spread out farther from the parent plant. If you have them on your property, then by all means eat them. But if you are choosing something to consciously propagate I would go with a cultivated variety.
I hope after reading this article you’ll give Jerusalem artichokes a try. And even if you don’t, I hope this article will help you think of gardening in a little bit different light and consider new factors when deciding what to plant next year. Look for plants that produce abundant calories, that come back every year on their own, that are low maintenance, that resist disease and pests, that are easy to store, and that don’t obviously look like food to passersby. The Lord bless you all!
“Indeed, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its produce.” – Psalm 85:12
(1) The source for all calorie and vitamin estimates was calorieking.com. I used 3,000 calories per day as the estimated requirement for an active adult male.
(2) Kays and Nottingham, 2008; cited by Samuel Thayer in “Nature’s Garden”, 2010