Yacon is one of the lesser-known vegetable plants that can be sucessfully grown in the UK. Sometimes known as the Peruvian Ground Apple, the tubers taste rather fruity, with hints of apple and pear, but possessing a satisfying crunch similar to that of water chestnuts.
They can be eaten raw or cooked, and so offer an unusual and versatile crop to prepare and eat. While growing them can be challenging in my experience, if you’re looking for something a little bit different to grow then yacon may be well worth considering.
Yacon is still a very niche crop, and not one that can be easily sourced in your local garden centre. As a result, you’ll likely need to order online. In my experience over the last few years supplies are still severely limited, with the handful of current growers selling out early in the season. It’s important therefore to plan ahead if you want to grow Yacon, ordering nice and early in the spring to avoid the “sold out” messages!
Examples of suppliers who sometimes offer Yacon for sale include both Otter Farm in Devon and Thompson & Morgan. I personally ordered mine from The Real Seed Catalogue and received excellent service so highly recommend them.
Yacon is typically purchased in the form of small tubers, rather like seed potatoes. While the little conker-sized tubers may look anything but exciting, with the right care these will grow significantly over time, and will also produce their own little baby tubers.
Properly cared for, this is a crop you should only need to buy once, as your plants will keep growing and reproducing for years into the future.
Planting Yacon Tubers
Yacon is a reasonably sensitive plant, and in the UK it’s important to protect it from frosts. If you receive your tubers or slips before the frosts typically pass (May time) then you’ll want to give them a little protection.
Start off by preparing a plant pot of moist compost, and plant the little tubers some 3-4″ below the surface. You don’t want the compost to be sodden, where the tubers can rot, but instead just moist enough to keep them healthy.
If planting in early spring I place the pot into my shed or garage, as no sunlight will be necessary until the slips start to appear above the surface. Check on the container regularly, to ensure the right moisture level and keep an eye on any plant growth.
As the weather starts to warm up, so your yacon plants will start to grow. At first you might notice just a few green sprigs of life, but this is the time to move your container into the light.
Placing it on a windowsill, or in a greenhouse, tends to work well. This sudden abundance of light after a cold, dark winter serves to kick-start growth, and provide the light your plant needs for photosynthesis.
Over time your yacon will become established, and once the frosts pass they can then be planted out in the garden. Yacon may also be grown under glass or in a polytunnel for an even more rapid and luxurious growth phase.
Growing Yacon Plants
It’s May. The weather is getting warmer and the experts are telling you frosts are a thing of the past. Those rather sad-looking tubers or slips that arrived in the post are now taking on a life of their own, with their lush green leaves growing by the day. Now is the time to plant your yacon tubers out, in their final growing place, so they can really start to grow without limits.
Yacon tend to enjoy a sunny and well-drained position, but aren’t overly fussy. Wherever you plant your crop, be aware that in time Yacon can grow quite tall (it’s distantly related to sunflowers) so you may want to consider how you’ll support it in time.
Pleasingly, Yacon doesn’t seem to be affected by too many pests and diseases, though it would appear that snails have quite a passion for the fresh young leaves. Interestingly, as the larger leaves start to grow, so I have found that the slugs and snails lose interest.
A second factor to be aware of is that Yacon can take some time to get established. While the plants can grow to some 4-5 feet in height, the first year I grew this crop it barely reached a foot in height. Maybe I just just unlucky (the weather was pretty bad that year) but over time you should find your plants getting bigger and more verdant by the day!
Yacon requires very little care or maintenance while growing, apart from keeping them weed free and perhaps applying some well-rotted garden compost.
Besides this, the plants can pretty much be left to their own devices for the summer period, and only in the autumn, as the weather starts to turn, do you need to consider doing any work.
As Yacon can take some time to grow it makes sense to leave your plants in the ground as long as is possible. You’ll want to dig them up before the frosts come in – which can damage the tubers – but besides this there is no set routine. I have harvested mine in mid-October the last few years and feel this offers the best compromise between a long growing season but protection from cold.
Lifting the tubers is much like digging up potatoes; just gently ease the plants out of the ground with a garden fork, taking great care not to damage the tubers. A tuber that gets scratched, scraped or skewered with your fork probably won’t keep very well at all.
Upon digging up your plants you’ll find that there are two kinds of tubers. In the centre will be the biggest tubers, in which the plant has carefully stored all it’s gathered goodness. These are the ones you eat.
Around these, however, are smaller “mini” tubers, which can be replanted the following year. In this way a single plant can produce a whole crop of new Yacon tubers for the following season.
Yacon tubers should be stored in moist soil over the winter in a cool yet frost-free place. As stated, I keep mine buried in a pot in my shed, and I haven’t had any problems yet with this routine.
Images c/o John and Anni Winings, Fluffymuppet, Søren Holt