My focus for years, since I realized in ’03 what was happening to our financial system and government, has been to live off my land and be able to have a great store of homegrown food. Canning, drying, root cellaring and pickling are all great ways to do this… but my very favorite way on insuring a supply of calories in an emergency is through keeping those calories stored in the ground.
Back when I lived in Tennessee, I did this via a great big patch of Jerusalem artichokes. Now that I’m in Florida, I do it through a great big patch of cassava. There are very few similarities between these two plants. One is in the sunflower family… the other is in the spurge family. One bears roots year-round… one does not. One has pretty flowers… the other has graceful canes and palmate leaves. They do have a few notable places where they overlap, however.
1. Both Jerusalem artichokes and cassava grow like weeds and produce in less-than-ideal conditions.
2. Both produce an abundance of calories.
3. Both are tall plants and not readily recognizable as food sources.
4. Both will mess you up if you don’t prepare them right. Raw cassava contains cyanide precursors… and Jerusalem artichokes will give you gas so bad you’ll beg for the sweet embrace of death.
5. Both are exceptional survival crops.
6. Both are bothered by very few pests.
7. Both are excellent chicken/pig feed.
For the northern half of the US, Jerusalem artichokes are king. For zones 8 and higher, cassava is king. Unfamiliar with these perennial staples? Let’s get acquainted.
Jerusalem Artichokes: Tough as Nails, Pretty as a Picture
I planted buckets of these things in my yard in Tennessee. I started with a handful of tubers a friend gave me in early spring, planted those, watched as they grew into magnificent plants and burst into glorious bloom in the fall. After the frosts took the above-ground growth, I dug down to find many, many pounds of tubers beneath the clay. I harvested a big pile of them the next spring and planted them (with my then 4-year-old daughter’s help) in a great big patch of rough land along a drainage ditch. By the next summer, the ditch was completely obscured by a lush wall of green; and in the fall I had terrifying amounts of tubers.
This was amazing to me. I never watered these things… I never sprayed for bugs… I never weeded… I never prepared the soil. Some were growing in rocky clay that had been torn up by construction equipment and inverted so the topsoil was basically gone. In other places, I hacked through grass and planted them. One spot was in the shade – and they still produced, albeit on a less-impressive level.
Jerusalem artichokes are survivors. And if you grow them – you will be too. They’re a perennial that does better if you harvest regularly. People like to say “watch out – these things are invasive!” I’ve come to think that the word “invasive” is just something people say about plants you don’t have to baby along. Somehow, if it grows well on its own, watch out! It’s… INVASIVE! Whatever. Sure – if you plant them in the middle of your lettuce bed, they’ll fill it up… but come on… you wouldn’t plant a chestnut tree in the middle of your driveway, would you? Just put them at an edge and let them grow. This is the plant that will live when your other plants have a bad year. It could end up a buffer between you… and being really, really hungry.
In order to grow these babies, you first need to get some roots. This can only be done during the winter and early spring. Once the plants begin growing in mid-spring, the roots rapidly deteriorate to feed the new growth. Plan accordingly when you decide to seek out tubers locally or mail-order them. In some places, you can find Jerusalem artichokes growing in the wild… but must of us are stuck begging them off a neighbor or shelling out some beans to a seed company to get started.
Plant them a few inches deep in the fall, winter or early spring and don’t forget where you planted them. It’s easy to miss the new growth amongst the first flush of weeds and grass – but once the plants get taller, they’ll rapidly out-compete everything around them. The roots are formed in a big clump at the base of the main stalk. This clump is usually about 2′ across or less and consists of a bunch of lumpy little tubers all jammed together. I would pick out the nice fat ones for the table and plant the rest around the yard in an ever-expanding patch.
During the winter you can dig Jerusalem artichokes anytime – provided your ground isn’t frozen solid.
I really loved these plants in October. That’s when they’d burst into a profusion of blooms. The flowers look like small sunflowers and even stand up well in vases. With a plant so pretty, it’s easy to forget you’re survival gardening, rather than just beautifying your land – and that’s a good place to be. It’s almost like God was thinking “You know, I’ll give man something productive to sustain him through tough times… but I’m going to make it beautiful to keep his spirits up.” These will definitely cheer you, no matter what the circumstances.
Cassava: Staple to Millions
Most people have no idea what cassava is… even though it’s eaten throughout many of the equatorial nations of the world. Have you ever eaten tapioca pudding? Then you’ve eaten cassava.
Cassava plants are tall, graceful and tropical in appearance. Its palmate leaves and graceful cane-like branches are attractive in the landscape or in the garden. Cassava’s pseudonyms include yuca (with one “c,” NOT two: “yucca” is a completely unrelated species), manioc, the tapioca plant, and manihot. In science-speak, it’s Manihot escuelenta.
Whatever you call it, it’s a serious staple crop. Virtually pest-free, drought tolerant, loaded with calories, capable of good growth in poor soil – cassava is a must-have anyplace it can grow. And it’s MUCH less work than grain and much more tolerant of harvest times. In fact, once it’s hit maturity, you can basically dig it at any point for a few years (though apparently the roots may sometimes get too woody to eat).
That said, if temperatures drop to freezing, your cassava will freeze to the ground. This won’t usually kill the plant (assuming the ground doesn’t freeze too), but it does mean you need to plan your growing accordingly. I mulch over the roots in fall to make sure they survive.
In the tropics, cassava will live for years. The plant never dies back unless you live north of zone 10, then the occasional frosts will knock it down. Growing it in any zone beyond 8 is likely an exercise in futility. Cassava needs plenty of warm days and nights to make good roots. And speaking of roots… the cassava’s roots contain roughly twice the calories of a comparable serving of potatoes. Bonus: they’re easier to grow.
Unlike many plants, cassava is not usually grown from seeds except perhaps for breeding purposes. The only way to grow it is via stem cuttings. Roots from the grocery store almost definitely won’t work since they’ve lost their growing buds. To grow from fresh cuttings, chop a sturdy stem into pieces about 1.5’ long, stick them in the ground on their sides about two inches down and cover them lightly with soil – or, as I plant them, stuck in vertically with the growth buds pointing up – and within a week or so they’ll be growing new leaves. 6-12 months later (depending on care and rainfall), they’ll be ready to start harvesting.
To harvest, you machete down the entire plant a foot or so from the ground, throw the branches to the side and start digging. Be careful, though – the roots are easy to chop through. Some careful exploratory digging with a trowel is often a good idea. The roots you’re looking for grow down and away from the main stem and are generally located in the first 1-2’ of soil. They’re deep brown with flaky skin. Don’t dig them too long before you’re going to process them as cassava doesn’t store well at all.
Once you harvest the roots, you’ll want to chop up the rest of the plant to make a new set of canes for planting out. I snap off all the leaves and compost them, then cut the bare canes into planting size. Canes that are too green tend to rot rather than root, so throw them on the compost too. Sturdy, 1-2” diameter canes are perfect. (If you can’t find them locally, you can buy cassava here). Plant them a third of their length or so into the ground and stand back so the new growth doesn’t knock you over. Just don’t plant them upside-down. Ensure they’re right side up by looking for the tiny little growth buds by the leaf bases (or where the leaves were before they hit the compost bin). That little dot should be above the leaf’s base, not below.
To keep cassava growing in areas with frost, bury cut canes in a box beneath the ground for the winter… or let your current plants freeze to the ground and just wait for spring to bring new growth back… put cuttings in pots and bring them inside on freezing nights, then plant out in spring… or you can get a greenhouse and always keep a few plants in there for propagative stock.
Preparing Cassava for the Table
Now comes the fun part: eating your crops! Let’s start with cassava. People freak out about cassava because it contains… wait for it… CYANIDE! OMIGOSH OMIGOSH OMIGOSH CYANIDE!!!11!1!!!
Don’t worry. Breathe! Breathe! You just need to cook it. Preparing the roots for the table isn’t hard. They have an outer peel that you simply slit and strip off.
In the middle of the roots is a thin woody core that can be removed by chopping them in half and cutting it out. In order to remove the toxic cyanide precursors, boil cassava until it’s soft. Then, if you want something that tastes really great, take the boiled cassava, mash it, make patties out of it and fry them. Add garlic salt and they’re awesome served with your favorite dipping sauce. Imagine dense, fantastic, crispy hash-brown cakes. Mmm. Cassava is also good in the crock-pot, in stews and apparently, in Africa, as a fermented porridge. I’ve also boiled, then dried it, then ground it into flour. That was way too much work. I mostly just boil them now.
Preparing Jerusalem Artichokes for the Table
Jerusalem artichokes, unlike cassava, are not toxic raw. You can chop them up and throw them in a salad or nibble them in the garden. They taste somewhat like mild carrots, with a nice crunchiness. However, they do contain an indigestible sugar called “inulin” that may make you regret eating them in any quantity. They can cause EPIC intestinal distress. If you’ve never eaten them before, I recommend you start slow. Don’t eat a bunch at once. It’s possible for your intestinal tract to build up to the challenge. Let it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Add them to your diet a bit at a time and you ought to be fine.
Beyond building a gradual tolerance, you can also slow-cook Jerusalem artichokes for at least 12 hours to get the inulin under control.
They’re good pickled, mashed, fried and chopped raw into salads.
Start Your Calorie Savings Account NOW
I’ve thought again and again about how to survive a complete crash. If you have either of these plants available to you, plant them. I’m growing both on my homestead. When I lived further south, I had a big plot of cassava… and I told you about my big plot of Jerusalem artichokes in Tennessee. If you want to be safe, plant as many as you can. Stick them in rough areas of your yard. Plant them in empty lots. Give them to friends. And – if you really can’t stand them – feed them to your chickens and eat the resulting eggs. Or use them for pig feed. Just get a sure-fire bank of calories in the ground now… before you need to make a withdrawal.