Sunchokes Abound!

Gardening! The summer grow season is just about done and I’ve been pondering whether or not to start a fall garden. I’m limited by our impending move and not really knowing what the soil at our new place is like. But, I have been so blessed by the opportunity I got to garden share with one of my friends.

We started with 5 raised beds. They had  laid down some top soil in them that had sat over most of the winter, and around January or February, I acquired some alpaca poo from our cousins’ farm to let compost on top. The beds got nice and happy and the soil benefited from the preparation.

Initially, we had planted one bed of strawberry and borage, one bed of tomatoes, one bed of peppers, one bed of broccoli and cauliflower, and one bed of sunchokes. The sunchokes absolutely took off. But the cruciferous veggies got too hot because we were a little late in getting them in the ground. So, with the broccoli and cauliflower out of the way, I planted some squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Those all did marvelously, although I never actually tasted them.

As is typical in our area, we had a nice thunder storm blow through and there was a surprising amount of damage done in and around the garden. That coupled with intense heat and humidity, many of the veggies were scorched and lost. The peppers however did splendidly.

So I went out today to check out the beds and the trees that had literally been uprooted in the storm almost prevented me from getting down to the beds… almost. I got to the tomatoes and saw lots of red… But I was sorely disappointed when I realized that they ALL had split and rot, or were stunted and had blossom end rot. I’ve dealt with both of those issues in my own “garden” before and I found that consistent watering, and thinning of the plants will prevent those issues from taking over. The leaves get too crowded, the plants fruit prematurely, insufficient water leads to spastic growth and poor quality fruit, etc, etc. So obviously I didn’t get out there as often as I would have liked in order to maintain the plants.

I was bummed about the loss out on tomatoes and squash and such, but I came back to the sunchoke bed- it had just gone to seed and the plants’ stalks had begun to lay down. Yay! All was not lost! I had such an enjoyable time digging them out! It is so satisfying finding the tubers and digging them out of the soft earth.

Some of you may be wondering what sunchokes are good for. Well, being gluten allergic, they hopped into my radar as an alternative flour source- dehydrate them, grind them, and bake with them. I haven’t done that yet, but I plan to. You can also cook them as you would potatoes. I scrubbed some up, cut them in to 1/2 inch pieces, and roasted them at 350°F for 40 minutes in bacon grease (I know, it’s sometimes nice to be fat deficient because bacon flavor is delicious) with salt and pepper, garlic powder and to be quite honest, they were nearly indistinguishable from a russet potato. I didn’t peel them because I’m a firm believer in eating all edible skins for their nutrient content, but the firmer skins crisped up nicely in the oven. Before too long, I’ll probably end up mashing them and serving them that way as well. They were quite tasty, and also filling!

I had enough to leave some unfallen for my buddies, and get some tubers to plant next spring. All in all if nothing else, the garden sharing experience allowed me to have some hands on education in a couple areas:

  1. Soil preparation- raised beds were nice, but if not maintained by mulching and composting, the nutrients are depleted quickly, weeds take over, and the soil compacts. 
  2. Irrigation- I haven’t had to water my tomatoes in my tiny test plot Back to Eden garden more than 4 times all season, and if I had mulched the topsoil (I’ve been way too busy packing) post-transplant, I believe that number would be even less. Properly mulched gardens retain moisture in drought and displace water in abundance. Really, woodchip mulching and composting would greatly diminish the need for irrigation, especially if done each year over a period of time.
  3. Composting/Fertilization- alpaca poo works, but I have to drive 45 minutes to get it, shovel it into buckets, and then cart it back to wherever I’m planting. Ideally, you want to use something you have readily available, which is one of the reasons for our rabbit, Maggie. She poops prolifically and when I clean out her kennel of all the newspaper, hay, and poo, I have the perfect combination of carbon, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. I haven’t had to fertilize my home grown tomatoes once and my pest problem is virtually nonexistent. The idea is that the poop and hay break down into the soil and the newspaper keeps down weeds and retains moisture. Rabbit poop doesn’t really have to cure which was part of the draw in using it in my own garden as opposed to something like chicken, cow, or horse manure that you want to make sure is composted well. We also plan on having chickens at the new house to help us out with obviously, egg and meat production, but also calcium from egg shells is great in compost, and their poo makes a great fertilizer.
  4. Maintenance/weed and pest control- like I said earlier, maintenance in a properly mulched garden is so incredibly low, it’s a true joy to spend time in the garden- there are very few weeds and the ones there pull up effortlessly. Obviously with the shared garden tomatoes, there should have been more attention paid to thinning the plants, removing any diseased fruit, and consistent water provided. Again, all things I’ve done well in my own tomato plot, but wasn’t able to spend as much time doing at the shared garden site as I would have liked. Mulching the beds  at the end of the season to let them “get happy” all winter would be best in order to alleviate some of the strain on the plants next year. When plants have enough water, their roots flourish, they aren’t under any stress so the fruits are bigger, and the low stress, high water content leads to a sweeter flavor as well as more nutrition in the produce.

I recently watched the Back to Eden Official documentary and I was really amazed and also encouraged to see that I’m on the right track for sustainable permaculture within my garden and homestead. I highly recommend it, and it can be streamed free of charge on Vimeo by clicking here

It truly is amazing how God sustains his creation without our interference. Look at nature! It thrives with minimal effort. We toil and stress trying to prep, water, fertilize, control and manage instead of just copying nature. My number one take away from the whole experience is to lay down a cover on your soil– 4-6″ of mulch or readily available organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, hay, straw, woodchips, and let that sit and decompose into your soil. You will not be disappointed.

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