Introducing Nancy Klehm With Tips on Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

Photo by Ann Summa

We’re very proud to welcome to the blog our good friend Nancy Klehm. Nancy is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Most importantly, unlike Kelly and I here in Los Angeles, she lives in a place subject that odd meteorological condition called “winter”, namely Chicago. We asked her to write posts for us for on gardening in a four-season climate and to add her expertise to Root Simple. Nancy’s website, where you can find listings for her upcoming classes and events is http://spontaneousvegetation.net/.

She keeps a garden in her yard, an empty lot next to her house and on her roof in addition to lots of indoor seedlings. She has 5 chickens (one is rooster) and 7 quail (5 bobwhite and 2 coturnix). She also grows and gathers in her neighborhood and maintains a half acre food forest west of the city. In her first post for Root Simple Nancy introduces her climate and offers some tips on growing Jerusalem artichokes:

Welcome to Zone 5
I live in what is known by the USDA as Cold Hardiness Zone 5. Chicago is 5B and my food forest is in 5A. If you don’t know, the map is based on minimum average temperatures and helps as a guideline for first and last frost dates: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html. In the Midwest, where winter is a serious endeavor, a zone 5 growing season’s frost dates are May 15 and Nov 1, meaning that is the bracket for growing more tender annual plants such as basil, tomatoes, melons, etc. We have had a mild winter and a very early Spring this year – almost a month ahead according to any record. As a true farmer said: ‘This is the warmest April on record.’ And it was still March when he said it.

In the past 10 days, dodging rain and wet soil, I have planted out potatoes, asparagus, peas, collards, chard, kale, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, salsify, and cress. I have many vegetables, fruits, culinary and medicinal herbs sown and growing under lights indoors that have weeks ahead of them under 14 hours of artificial sun. But thankfully, I have already been eating out of my garden which is a loose collection of the cultivated and the forageable: asparagus, stinging nettle, dandelion, chickweed, dock, wild and French sorrel, parsley, pea shoots, garlic mustard, ground ivy, wild onion, horseradish leaves, wild carrot, hawthorn flower and burdock root. The hops are almost four feet high, the fruit trees are in heavy bloom and my pawpaw birthed 14 blossoms for the first time since I planted its seed seven years ago!

The problem with this early spring is that it is likely to freeze between now and may 15. Everyone I know who grows tree fruit commercially is a bit worried about the fast blooms so early in the season. We could lose our fruit if the weather snaps to 30 degrees.

Jerusalem artichokes – PLANT NOW!
I was given a lunch bag full of dirty Jerusalem artichoke roots a handful of years ago and now I have a stand that is at least 500 square feet. It is in the center of my food forest. The stand acts like a giant sponge to absorb the extra water that floods my growing area now that the natural hydrology has been interrupted by a nearby housing developer. The stand provides shade for toads and in wet times, muddy crayfish tunnel into the mud around its tubers. In August, the flowers are 10 feet tall. Every spring, I dig out 30-50 pounds of chokes from my ever expanding bed to keep them from overwhelming my young quince and apple trees, which they would if I didn’t.

Muddy chokes and a few worms.
Chokes are a delicious wild perennial food. Darn easy to grow, but can be a lot of work to dig and wash and are really tough to store well. They either mold or dry out quickly once out of the ground and, even if I keep them nice and muddy, I haven’t had the luck or skill to store then over two weeks. In other words, use them or process them immediately.

Washed chokes and wild carrots drying.
I almost broke my mother’s Kitchen Aid when I tried to make Jerusalem artichoke flour, an answer to my father’s diabetes and new anti-gluten faddists. I sliced them, dried the slices and then tried to use the Cuisine Art to chop them up. Wrong tool, so I went to the mixer. It beat on and on for 10 minutes. I threw a towel over the top of the entire machine to keep the fine clouds of dust down. I got flour as well as some hard bits which I sifted out. It was tasty, but given the work I had to do, I had to think of another approach. And this is coming from someone pretty intrepid athlete with food processing. Making sunchoke flour takes second place for me just after creating my own dried pectin from wild crab apple skins.

Note from Kelly for folks in dry climes: Jerusalem artichokes grow in LA, too. We blogged about them here, where you can see a picture of one growing (they look like small sunflowers on enormous stalks). Our patch didn’t grow for more than one year because we decided we didn’t want to water them.  I believe in a wetter place they can grow without inputs–indeed, they’re hard to stop once they get going!– but in a dry climate they do need some water.

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10 Comments

  1. Have you thought of chopping/grinding them as fine as you can get before dehydrating them, then dehydrate the paste? Or, you could cook them and then mush them and dehydrate that. If they’re softer when wet, and you can keep the thickness of the paste consistent, you could spread it out on a pan like you were making a fruit roll-up. What I don’t know is, will that in turn stick together and be hard to grind anyway? But it’s worth a try…

  2. I recommend using a vita mix mixer, it’s a super heavy duty mixer that’s meant to chop up dry ingredients such as nuts, so I’m sure it can work for making artichoke flour ! It is a bit on the pricey side though.

  3. We have a beautiful Diamant flour mill from Denmark which we purchased thirty years ago when it was still affordable. It grinds everything. However, when I have a small amount of something that I need to powder and don’t want to mess up the Diamant, I use a small electric coffee grinder. It was cheap and so far it’s worked admirably to grind up dried burdock and dandelion roots for tincture and powdering Tums (calcium carbonate) to make our toothpaste. I’d slice the Jerusalem artichokes thin and then dry them completely before putting them in the coffee grinder. Putting the resulting flour through a fine sieve will allow you to give the larger bits another whirl so everything is consistent.

  4. I think you use the word hydrology incorrectly. Makes me worry about the accuracy of the rest of your article.

  5. re: suggestions and a clarification to my use of the word: ‘hydrology’

    I just dug out another 30# of chokes yesterday so closer to 100# dug already. I tend to grow enough to use myself and share broadly. I have been sharing them, boiling and blending them into soup base and freezing that. I have also been making loads of chips in with my mandolin and dehydrater (high humidity and cold still, so no passive work here) and am happy with that solution.

    Thanks for the idea to dry mash into a paste first then dry! I have a mill, but it is better for rough milling. Ahhhh, the Vitamix… don’t think one is in my future, but I know they are wonderful!

    ‘hydrology’
    the natural flow of the ground and surface water of the 500 acre farm that used to be next to the 1/2 acre I am working is now a 500 acre sculpted housing development. The land I am working on has been periodically flooding ever since the farm was sold. I had two years of ease and ever since, this challenge. It is part of my larger education – how water and soil work together.

    • @Mother: Nancy says go ahead and try the pots. The rhizomes themselves don’t store well, so your best bet is getting them into soil asap.

      Where do you live– or are you going to live? Are you planting them at the right time? I assume you’ve looked into it. If not, check how long it takes them to mature vs. when it starts freezing in your neck of the woods–if it does freeze. In Chicago, Nancy’s plants are already well along–4 feet tall. Here in LA, we’d probably plant them later, say in October, to catch the winter rains. But as I said, I don’t know where you live, so you may be right on schedule.

  6. I’m afraid I have to agree. I believe that the word ‘hydrology’ means the study of the flow of water, hence the “ology” suffix. I think what you describe is a water balance issue that is hydrological in nature. If you check with your local Zoning Commissioner, the developer should have filed an application with them and may be under supervision of a local resource unit such as a Soil & Water Conservation District. There are 98 in Illinois. They may be able to help you deal with the periodic flooding and/or remediation of the flooding due to the development. If it isn’t reported, nothing can be done. They and the U of I Extension office can help you determine what kind of soils you have on your land (most likely timber from what you have said) and determine if they are considered Hydrologic soils. Each County should have either a book or a disk containing information on each soil in the county and helpful information on the soils. These should be free for the asking or at a minimum cost for disk duplication.

    Here is another extremely helpful link: http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm
    Good Luck!

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