Jeff Lowenfels: Add yacon to your Alaska garden, but order now

It is the curse of the weekly garden columnist: You have to live with what you leave out. Given the unforgiving nature of a sort growing season when things have to be started on time or else, this is a particularly hard curse for an Alaska garden writer to bear. Sometimes I simply forget to tell readers to do something important and then it is too late. I lose a lot of sleep over those moments.

I mention The Curse because last year, after testing and bragging about my success growing a fantastic Andes mountain tuber called a yacon the previous year, I failed to note the week that was the time to order them. Here was a new plant that produces food, a rarity for the Northern Gardener. How could I forget? This is a mistake I vowed not to repeat, hence this column.

First, what is a yacon? It's a relative of the sunflower, a large and spreading plant that has 1- to 2-foot leaves and achieves a height and spread of 3 to 4 feet if given the room to grow. Its root system develops two types of tubers: a storage tuber which is very sweet and edible and a growing tuber which produces new plants the following season. Think dahlia when you dig these up. They look very similar.

Yacon flowers are quarter size, nothing to brag about. It's the huge and vibrant green leaves that will have people asking about it when they see one in your garden or on your deck. I am pretty sure only a handful of Alaskans have ever seen one. I am also pretty sure that most will want a couple of their own.

Once the season is over, however, and the storage tubers are harvested and used, they will be the topic of conversation. They are sweet and crunchy and can be used in salads or simply eaten raw. Some folks pulverize the tubers to produce a sweet syrup. Frankly, there are all sorts of ways to eat them: raw, dehydrated or cooked.

An interesting side note is that these tubers and leaves contain inulin, a sugar that we can't digest. Sweetness without calories. Some even claim the juices from yacon tubers are a great diet supplement. You can Google all that. I am much more interested in growing a wonderfully different plant in the garden that affords something new to eat.

OK, so this is the week to order your yacon(s). They are available from Nichols Garden Nursery (nicholesgardennursery.com) and run just under $10. How many to order? You will be buying a growing plant shipped in a 4-inch pot. (A great friend RoseMarie Nichols tells me that not only will they disregard "ships to continental United States only," they will ship Alaska orders a week or so later than others to make sure as best they can that the plants won't freeze.) The great thing is that once you place this order, you will never have to buy another yacon plant again. This is because you will have the growing tubers to plant each year.

Once you get your plant(s), treat them exactly like dahlias. Grow them indoors, transplant up if necessary using well draining compost. You will have to harden them off a week before planting out day. Then transplant into the garden or large containers.

In the fall, retrieve the tubers by digging up the plants. What previously fit into a 4-inch pot will now be a banana-sized clump. You can separate the two types of tubers. Or, you can even keep them going indoors for part of the fall. They are, as noted, a lovely, large plant.

There. I remembered. Go away Curse.

Jeff's Alaska Garden Calendar

• Lawns: Probably still too wet to walk on.

• Seeds to start for vegetables: Head lettuce, cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower. Remember, you need to start one row for the hungry.

• Seeds to start for flowers: Brachycomes, Dianthus, stock, lock spar, asters, Nicotiana, cleome, iceplant, zinnia and salpiglossis.

• Organic Food Gardening Course: Alaska Botanical Garden, May 20-June 3, Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Cost, $125 for members, $150 nonmembers (join!). See alaskabg.org for details and to sign up.

Jeff Lowenfels