Irish potatoes are a critical part of my self sufficiency diet plan. They are a great source of calories and an important crop. However I do get a bit nervous about being so dependent on one crop for so many calories. History tell us that potato famines can happen, and with the onset of a crop disease, the best plan is to have a diversified crop strategy.
With that in mind, I decided this year to try a number of other tuber crops to see what it was like to grow them.
Sunchoke: taming the beast so it can feed you.
Before I grew sunchokes I would hear people say strange things about them. An intense young lady at the Ecofarm conference warned me, “Grow them in a container or they’ll take over. Be careful!” And when I asked the gentleman at the seed swap table what size container I should grow sunchokes in, he mysteriously replied “Pick the container size based on how many sunchokes you want.” Seriously?
It turns out, yes, seriously. Sunchokes are such an aggressive grower that it’s kind of unsettling. I put three sunchokes in three 2-gallon buckets, and dug those buckets into the soil in the back of my space, where it’s hard to water. I wanted the containers in the soil because I knew that doing so would help the container soil to hold more moisture than it would if it had the sun heating the side of it. Even though I put the sunchokes in relatively small containers, the plants grew to be about six feet high, and each yielded many pounds of tasty tubers.
Harvested sunchoke in the bucket I grew it.
One cool thing I discovered this year is that the buckets, in addition to preventing the “escape” of wayward sunchokes, make it very easy to harvest and store the tubers. I just loosen the soil around the container, pull the whole container out of the ground by the sunchoke trunk, and then cut the trunk down to about 1″ out of the container. This gives me a “handle” by which to carry the container, and the soil in the container is an effective way to store the sunchokes for a while. To get quality tubers, it’s important to cut down the plant when (or before) it starts to decline towards winter.
A caveat about sunchokes is that they are said to give some people pretty bad gas, and so it’s worth trying some first to see if you can eat them. We like them sauteed or steamed–sunchokes have a unique flavor that is reminiscent of a tuber, but more interesting.
As a footnote, this year I noticed that in a corner of the unused plot next to me, there is a volunteer sunchoke that’s grew. I think the only water it gets is runoff from the park’s sprinklers. It grew well.
It’s funny now to look back and see that although I thought that sweet potatoes would be my best alternative to Irish potatoes, it looks like sunchokes have claimed that spot. Nonetheless, I think that sweet potatoes could become a regular part of my mix.
I tried growing sweet potatoes a few years back, from a plant that I bought at the local Japanese grocery store in August, however it didn’t do that well. The plant grew initially, but then it got cold before any tubers could develop. When I dug it up, there wasn’t anything worth eating.
I did my research this year and determined that soil temperature is a huge deal for growing sweet potatoes well. Given that it tends to be a bit cool around here, relatively speaking, that is an inherent challenge. I’ve had poor results in the past from trying to grow hot crops like Ocra and Musk Melons in my cool climate, but nonetheless I wanted to give sweet potatoes another try.
A gentleman in Canada wrote a book called Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden which talks about growing in non-tropical climates. I bet he gets pretty decent heat in the summer, compared to me, but I was still interested in the book. I didn’t end up buying the book but I did find a helpful article on sweet potatoes that he did for Mother Earth News that gave me some hints.
For heat, I ended up preparing the soil, covering it with a thick black garbage bag liner, and then cutting holes in it to transplant my sweet potato slips. I had to be careful to water a lot in the early days, because I knew the surrounding soil would dry out. I made the mistake of putting some of the plants behind my quinoa, and so they get shaded out. However most of the plants have done quite well.
As is my common practice, I planted two different varieties of sweet potato. One has done better than other. I grew my own slips from store-bought sweet potatoes from the Japanese grocery store. I actually wouldn’t recommend this approach because it’s easy to end up with a variety that doesn’t actually grow well in your climate. But given my failure to grow sweet potatoes a few years back, I was reluctant to spend the dollars to buy slips through the mail.
Sweet potato flower blooming during Indian summer
Here in the San Francisco bay area we have a weather phenomenon called “Indian Summer” whereby it heats up around September and stays fairly warm right through to November or even later some years. We have had a few colder days, which means as cold as 50F, but certainly we haven’t come close to a freeze, even at night. What this means is that my sweet potatoes that I put in this spring are still happily growing. I’m hoping this means I’ll have a real harvest, but we’ll see.
If you are willing to spend the money to get just the right sweet potato, you should consider the Sand Hill Preservation Center. They have an extensive catalog that gives information on short season varieties, which is important for non-ideal climates. They also list how viny vs. bushy the plants are, which is helpful if you have a small growing space.
I did filtering on their list using Excel, to find just the right short season, busy or semi bushy, excellent yielding varieties. Here are 3 of them that I identified, and which I’ve seen sold by a few other companies as well: Ginseng Red, Copper, Jewel. I didn’t grow these this year, but maybe I will next year. Ideally I’d be able to find these varieties at a farmer’s market and just grow my own slips.
Andean Tubers: Oca, Yacón, Mashua
Andean tubers, fighting it out in the back
The Andeas in South America host many varieties of tubers which are mostly unknown to us here in the United States. These crops can be quite expensive to find around here. However I was very fortunate to find local gardeners who gave me some tubers so I could give them a try.
Oca did the least well this year. I received three tubers from a generous gardener in the Santa Cruz area. One of them did OK, one initially emerged and then died off, and the third was never seen again after initial planting. When Oca first emerges, it looks like a clover with a very stocky stem, so be careful with how you weed! My one Oca plant isn’t that big but looks healthy, and has produced some tubers. I’ll keep trying with Oca, but I’m realizing that even on a thriving plant the yields aren’t going to be that high compared to Irish potatoes.
Yacón proved itself to be an aggressive grower. I put it in the back, which is the toughest place to water, and let it compete with the Mashua for sunlight and space. It grew to about six feet high and even in November continues to put out nice orange flowers. I’ll be interested to see how the yields are when I dig it up.
Mashua was a true wild-card this year. I’d never heard of it, but the gentleman who gave me the Oca grows it, and so he offered me a couple of tubers. It turned out to be a robust vine that readily covers other plants if given the opportunity. I removed it from my tomato supports several times.
Visually, the shape of the mashua leaves offered a nice variation to other plants in my garden. Again, we’ll see what I get when I go to dig it up. Based on how aggressively it’s grown, I imagine it’ll be a good harvest.