Saturday, 13 June 2015

The joy of Winter crops

I like Winter, there are a lot of crops that are never seen in the shops so by growing them myself they are available seasonally and can only be eaten over Winter.  We have just started to harvest a few of them so I thought I should write a post about them.
Skirret - first year plants

Skirret (Sium sisarum)
Now here is one of the greatest, most under appreciated, under utilised and practically forgotten crops ever.  I wrote a post about how I was growing skirret plants from seed earlier.  I should probably write a separate post on them later.  Now it is time to harvest the and eat the skirret.

It has been a long time since I have eaten skirret, I forgot how great it is.  I grew some plants from seed, I over crowded them in a pot which I watered each day by submerging it in a bucket of water, and today I dug up, divided and harvested the skirret.  Normally first year plants have a woody core, none of mine did.  I can not imagine that I happened to chance upon an improved variety, I think this total lack of woody core was due to the huge amount of water they received.

The skirret did not grow a large crop this year, considering the growing conditions that is not unexpected.  However, I was still able to eat a few of the larger roots.  I scrubbed them, chopped them and ate them raw.  They taste a little like carrot but super super sweet.  This is sweeter than anything else I grow, so sweet that I am considering digging up the plants and nibbling on the tiny roots that I initially left on them because they were too small to be worth harvesting.  Truly magnificent.

I have some issues with sugar, I am probably on the edge of diabetes and I often find that fruit juice can tip me over the edge as it is too high in sugar.  I wonder if skirret will cause me any problems here or if the sugars are ok for me.  I guess only time will tell as I only got to eat a tiny amount of skirret today.

Someone in Australia needs to take on skirret as a breeding project and develop a variety with thicker roots.  An improved skirret with thicker roots would be an excellent plant for people to grow in home gardens.  As skirret is not particularly well suited to growing in my climate I do not think that person should be me right now.  If you grow improved skirret let me know, I would love to buy some plants from you.
Skirret offsets divided and  ready to be planted

Dahlias (possibly Dahlia pinnata but more likely to be some crazy un-nameable complex hybrid)
Dahlias were grown as a major food crop by the Aztecs, after Spanish conquest the dahlia was taken to Europe in the hopes that it could be a food crop.  For a few years it was apparently grown as a minor food crop, then the flowers caught people's eye and they were grown and bred as a dual purpose plant for a little while.  It did not take long for this valuable food plant to be grown purely as an ornamental and lost its use as food.  These days most people do not recognise dahlias as being edible at all, it is too bad.  Some people are breeding edibility back into the dahlia, but not many unfortunately.

Over the warmer months I nibbled on the flower petals, they taste like weird celery, not all that special but not bad either.  Over winter the tubers were traditionally dug and eaten.  They look a lot like yacon, so it makes sense to eat it like yacon so I dug a tuber, skinned it, sliced it thinly and shared it with the kids.  It wasn't bad, but hundreds of years of selective breeding for the looks of the flowers has certainly detracted from its edible qualities.  It tasted like a bland celery, or a tasteless carrot with no sugars, or a yacon that got lazy and forgot to taste like anything, it was also a bit stringy.  It wasn't bad, but it also was not great.  It was also a dwarf variety that was grown in a pot so not surprisingly the tuber was a bit on the small side.  I dare say that they would go well in a stew to bulk it out and take on the taste of whatever it is in with as it did not have much of a taste by itself.

I would love to track down an edible variety and see what they taste like as I think it has a lot of potential.  Perhaps one day someone will breed some tastier dahlias and they can be grown once again as a dual purpose plant.  If you grow any tastier dahlias we should talk.
Yacon tubers ready to be eaten
Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius formerly Polymnia sonchifolia)
Yacon is not really suited to my climate, it grew amazingly well near Canberra but it is too hot and dry here for it to flourish greatly.  That being said, yacon is a survivor, it will grow and crop pretty much anywhere.  The crops are larger under some conditions and smaller under others.

This year we got high yields from the yacon, I grew it under a foot of straw and watered it with a green soaker hose that was under the straw.  Apparently it was rather happy growing like that and the plants grew taller than me and even started to flower before the frosts came.  Each plant seems to have produced a lot of large delicious tubers, I like digging yacon in Winter as the smell is unmistakeably like yacon.

I love yacon, I think more people should grow it.  I have yacon growing in three separate parts of the vegetable gardens and I harvested a tiny bit of the corner of one plot.  It gets sweeter if left for a week or so after harvesting before we eat it.  Today I shared one yacon tuber with the kids, they love it even more than I do.
Chinese artichoke tuber
Chinese artichokes (Stachys affinis)
These fun little guys are crunchy, mildly sweet, and look like white grubs.  Unfortunately they did not really produce any crop for me this year, I think they may not have got enough sun during the growing season.  It was also a bit dry where I grew them this year.  As I can not buy them from the shops, this means that I do not get to eat any Chinese artichokes this year...sigh.

Duck potatoes
Duck potatoes (Sagittaria sp) and Chinese Water Chestnuts (Eleocharis dulcis)
These guys both take no effort to grow, crop like crazy and are used in much the same way, I can't believe how rarely people grow them.  I grew them in buckets again this year and they were a bit too crowded so they produced numerous small corms.  I am told that 3 corms in a path tub full of soil/manure/water is the easiest way to grow them large but unfortunately I lack the space to grow them like that so am sticking to small buckets for now.

I probably wont eat many of these as they are a bit small this year, I will feed some to the animals and keep some to plant next year.  Being small this year is not an issue as they are genetically identical to the large ones, planting smaller corms will most likely result in fewer but larger corms being harvested next year.

Jerusalem artichoke flower
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus)
Some people love them, some hate them, some are indifferent.  I am indifferent, they crop well so I grow them each year.  I can't really taste them and find them too bland, but Tracey finds them a bit over powering.  They are used like a potato, we have even used them as mash mixed in with potato.  They do not store well when dug so are best left in the soil until they are needed for a meal.

I think they are a great survival food as they are not bothered by diseases, are very prolific, and have many uses.  Our alpacas, sheep, poultry etc seem to enjoy eating the leaves and tubers.  The leaves are apparently very allelopathic so can be used as mulch around perennials to prevent weed germination.
Jerusalem artichoked growing in dappled shade

I am sure there are a few other things ready at the moment that I have not mentioned (such as perennial leeks).  If you are interested I do sell many of these vegetables on my for sale page.


  1. Interesting post. Thanks. I grow yacon, have done so for a couple of years, but keep forgetting to dig them up, so the patch gets lusher and lusher. Re diabetes, I think yacon is supposed to be good for diabetics, isn't it? I'm very interested in trying skirret. Will look around. Wondered if a place like Edible Forest Gardens in Wonga Park in Melbourne might have some kind of edible dahlia. He's into many unusual plants.

  2. Hi Parlance,

    I love yacon. It is high in inulin which tastes sweet but is not digestable by humans so does not alter blood sugar. I have read studies into yacon leaf being used in a 'tea' and it evens out blood sugars. I have made the yacon leaf tea a few times, it seems to work ok for me.

    I have never heard of Edible Forest Gardens, I will track them down and ask them about edible dahlias. Thanks for suggesting them!