The sunchoke, also called Jerusalem artichoke, is surprisingly not from the Middle East; it’s actually endemic to the eastern and mid-western regions of North America. Although they might not be as popular as strawberries or tomatoes in the home garden, we think sunchokes are a great addition to your herbaceous ‘hood. A delicious and hardy perennial within the sunflower family, plants produce beautiful, tall, yellow flowers in the spring and summer. Similar to the Globe artichoke, the sunchoke possesses an edible tuber which is similar in appearance to potatoes and in taste and texture to water chestnuts. The sunchoke can grow in most regions of the US but will do best in Zones 2–9. Because this is a non-fussy plant and rapid grower, it can easily become a bully crop and invade the rest of your plants, so we recommend giving it space and keeping a watchful eye on its pushy habits, or planting in a container.
Clearwater is a sunchoke variety that originated in Maine. Very tall, it can reach heights of up to 11 or 12’ and will flower in the fall. The 2–4″ long tubers are white and fairly smooth, making them easy to clean and process. Tubers store well without sprouting, and plants have an average to high yield and good cold tolerance.
Seed: Does not grow from seed.
Vegetative: Can be propagated using pieces of tubers. Be aware that any tubers left in the ground from previous seasons will likely sprout and may need to be thinned throughout the season.
Tuber Depth: 4–5″
Space Between Plants: 12–18″
Space Between Rows: 3′
Germination Soil Temperature: 45–80°F
Days for Sprouting: 15–20
Sow Indoors: Not recommended.
Sow Outdoors: Plant in the spring when soil temperatures have reached a minimum of 45°F.
While plants are able to sprout at temperatures as low as 45°F, they will grow best in the 65–80°F range, so it may be best to delay planting if you are experiencing an unseasonably cool spring. Tubers can be planted as late as mid-summer for a fall or early winter harvest: cooler climates in the later stages of growth can actually improve the flavor of the tuber. Dormant in-ground tubers can survive in wintertime temperatures as low as -25°F.
Natural: Full sun.
Soil: Can grow in most types of soil but prefers loamy or sandy, well-drained soil. A pH of 5.8 to 6.2 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Will germinate in a medium of well-rotted manure or compost.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. When first planting tubers, make sure ground is kept moist; however, once your plants have sprouted, they will become relatively self-sufficient and can survive on natural precipitation (barring extreme dry spells).
Nutrients: Although not necessary, soil may be amended with organic compost or a general fertilizer prior to planting. Soil can be re-fertilized each year if experiencing stunted growth.
Foliar: An application of compost tea or kelp every month or so can help tubers grow.
Pruning: Not required to encourage growth; however, you may need to cut the plant back to keep it from taking over your garden. Trim stalks with scissors to avoid damaging the plant down to the desired size.
Mulching: As the sunchoke will grow quite tall, mounding soil around the base of the stalk will help it stay upright in windy or rainy weather.
Companions: Grows well with cucumbers and most beans, which will use the stalk as a support.
Harvest: Tubers can be harvested once the stalks and flowers start to die back, which in most climate zones will be around late fall. Dig around the base of the plant to loosen the soil and feel for tubers by hand. For the best taste, it is recommended to wait until after the first few light frosts of winter to harvest.
Storage: If kept underground and covered with an organic mulch such as straw, they can stay fresh for the duration of the winter. This variety stores well in a cool, dark, and dry environment, such as a root cellar.
Fun Fact: The Clearwater sunchoke variety is from the collection of Will Bonsall, the director of the Maine-based Scatterseed Project, a genetic conservation project that aims to preserve a diverse array of crops that are well suited to Maine’s climate.
Preserve: Sunchokes can be pickled for later consumption.
Prepare: If not cooked, tubers maintain a flavor similar to water chestnuts. To eat raw, simply wash, peel, and slice. May also be cooked by steaming, boiling, or sautéing. Some people complain that eating large amounts of sunchokes results in excessive flatulence, although this effect can be reduced based on how you prepare them.
Nutritional: Sunchokes are frequently used as a substitute for potatoes by those with sensitivities to sugars as they contain inulin rather than starch. Tubers contain significant amounts of vitamin C and the minerals phosphorous, iron, copper, and potassium. They also contain helpful prebiotics, which can improve probiotic counts in your digestive system.
Preserve some of the bounty of this plant for year-round consumption with this Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle recipe.