The other day, when an approaching cold front suggested a hearty soup or stew would make it onto the menu, I ventured into the garden to dig up several pounds of Jerusalem artichokes.
Along with carrots and parsnips, artichokes are a regular harvest at this time of year. Besides going into stews and soups, my wife sometimes serves them as she would boiled potatoes. Diced raw, they go well in a tossed salad; sliced raw they can be served with your favorite dip.
If that's not enough for them to warrant a place in your garden, consider this: Even in moderate soil they are heavy producers of creamy white tubers and, being native to the Northeast and Canada, they snap their fingers, so to speak, at the cold.
The Indians have enjoyed them for millennia and the early colonists were quick to learn from them. But it was the Europeans, intrigued by yet another edible root from the New World, who cultivated them to a considerable extent. Indeed, many an American has been introduced to the Jerusalem artichoke on the other side of the Atlantic.
During the 1970s, however, the sunchoke, as it is sometimes called, has made a modest comeback in the land where it originated. It now appears occasionally on supermarket shelves and is offered in some seed catalogs as well. And, now comes news of a new and superproductive breed of 'choke named Stampede.
Jerusalem artichokes send up sunflower- type stalks (the two plants are related) during the summer and flower in late September and early October when edible tubers develop on the roots.In contrast to the old, the newbreed flowers a whole month earlier, giving the tubers a considerably longer period of warm weather in which to develop. The result are mammoth tubers.
The new breed was discovered a few years ago on an Indian reservation in northern Ontario. The Indians, historically breeders of superior strains of crops by natural selection, had been doing similar things with the artichoke in this area. They replanted only the earliest-flowering varieties until they had speeded up flower development by a full month.
In the spring of 1978, two tubers of the new variety were sent to Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. From those two tubers alone, the company harvested 100 pounds of 'chokes by November of that year. Impressed by the increase, Johnny's reproduced enough the following year to offer them in its current catalog.
You can plant artichokes in the late fall or early spring. Cut the tubers into golf- ball-size pieces and set them 4 inches deep and about 2 feet apart in rows 4 feet apart. They grow well in virtually any soil but dobest of all in a light sandy loam.
I have found they also do well if planted an inch deep and covered with a mound of leaves. The decaying leaves, it would seem, provide all the nutrients the 'chokes might need. Water moderately in dry weather; otherwise, they are remarkably capable of taking care of themselves.
Begin harvesting after a hard frost has withered all the top growth and stopped any further root development. To ensure continued harvesting all winter long, cover with a deep mulch of leaves.
Don't harvest more than a week's supply at any one time as their thin skins make them very subject to dehydration. You might, as I also have done, put artichokes into a bucket, cover them with moist soil, and store them in a cool cellar or shed. Should the soil freeze, bring the bucket indoors, allow the soil to thaw, select the tubers you need, and return the bucket to storage.
If you are interested in the new Stampede Jerusalem artichoke, write to Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, Maine 04910.