Ask a Master Gardener: Get familiar with the sunchoke

We sure have had beautiful fall weather, although we are still pretty dry. A few years ago while at a gardening festival I purchased some sunchoke tubers. They are one of my perennial crops the was not affected by last summers drought.

If you are not familiar with the sunchoke, they are not related to artichokes, but actually to sunflowers. They are a perennial plant that can grow 6-10 feet tall. While they do have pretty yellow flowers, they are grown for the roots which is the edible part.

A sunchoke is a tuber, like a potato, and is prepared and eaten as a root vegetable. The tubers are light brown and pretty rough or bumpy on the outside and white inside, the sunchoke looks somewhat like a small potato or maybe even like ginger root. It is native to North America and was cultivated by Native Americans prior to the arrival of European settlers. With a nutty, somewhat sweet flavor, some people enjoy adding bits of the crunchy, raw vegetable to salads or salsas, others prefer the tubers roasted or mashed.

Plant about 5-10 sunchokes for each household member. Plant the sunchokes in full sun. Like most garden crops, sunchokes prefer loose, well-drained soil but will grow almost anywhere. Add aged compost or even some sand to planting beds before planting; loose soil will make tuber a little bigger harvesting easier. It is best to put sunchokes in a dedicated bed; once established they will spread rapidly and may require some effort to remove. The sunchoke can be planted densely to form a screen or windbreak.

Sunchoke tubers can be planted in the garden as early as 2-3 weeks before the average last frost date in spring, around the first of April in Mid-Missouri. They are best planted in soil that has warmed to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But, sunchokes require 110-150 days to reach harvest. Sunchokes grow best in temperatures ranging from 65-90 degrees, so they might be more suitable to grow in the fall in our area.

Some varieties known as "clumpers" are less likely to spread beyond 1-2 feet per year. These are basically a large ball of tubers growing close to the central stem. Other varieties are more of a "runner" type and will produce on long stolons. In general, the long stolon types are close to the soil so a small 6-12 inch deep barrier will be enough to prevent their spread. Keep in mind, a small piece of sunchoke whether it is part of a stolon or tuber, will produce a full flush of tubers during a growing season. If there is one negative aspect of sunchokes it is their tendency to spread, I do remember that about them.

Plant sunchoke tubers about 2 inches deep, 12-18 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.

Most plants grow best with an even, regular supply of water about 1 inch a week and sunchokes are not any different, but they can survive long periods of drought once established. Sunchokes will require no extra feeding

Unlike potatoes, sunchokes lose their moisture quickly and cannot be stored long. With that in mind, harvest what you need when you plan to cook them. Tubers harvested in early fall are said to have have a mellower flavor, if you want to harvest the plants later in the season a hard freeze will make them a little sweeter. Early spring harvested tubers are said to be better flavored and sweet too. This is due to the small changes that take place in the tuber during dormancy. So you can cover them with a 8 inch or more layer of straw and harvest them through out the winter in to the spring.

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].