9 things i needed to learn about sweet potatoes

IKNEW THEY WERE ONE OF BABY’S FIRST FOODS, and one of nature’s most nutritious of all. But as a relatively novice sweet-potato grower, there were nine things–well, maybe 10 if you include that they taste great in a bowl of quick curry, above–that I had to learn for myself.

Hurrying Doesn’t Help

1. That all the mail-order providers I have used send me my “slips” (pieces of vine sprouted off their stock sweet potatoes) much too early. Yes, I may have few hard frosts after late April or early May…but the weather is by no means as settled nor the soil as warm as a sweet potato would ideally have it. I want my slips to arrive a month later than some stupid automated calculation at the growers is apparently indicating, triggering my too-soon shipment. Just say no to early delivery; hurrying doesn’t help.

D.I.Y. for Starters?

2. If I had healthy, firm stock left from the previous year—and no sign of any disease or troubles last growing season—I could technically sprout my own slips, and it may just come to that. I’d need to get some of the stored potatoes to begin to sprout in the dark, which they eventually do as you may know if you have forgotten one in the pantry. I’d plant them in the equivalent of a hotbed (whether under lights on a heat mat, or in an actual hotbed out in a coldframe outdoors). This National Gardening Association article on slip-growing is on my beside for careful study.

Storage Is No Picnic

3. On the other end of the timeline, storage is a crapshoot in the average home. After a week of curing the just-dug crop at 85 degrees and 85-90 percent humidity or thereabouts (where exactly is that perfect spot, I ask?) they want to be tucked in at 55 to 60 degrees with 85ish percent humidity.  The house in winter is hot and very dry; the basement is too cold, and so on. Tricky business.

Freezer to the Rescue

4.Cooking and freezing some of the crop at peak condition, before storage, may be a good solution to storage limitations. I prepare then freeze mashed or roasted sweet potatoes; a pureed soup with a sweet-potato base; and even this curry-in-a-hurry, top photo (but leave out the mushrooms until reheating time). Many delicious and inventive sweet potato recipes from my food-blogger friends are in the box down the page a bit farther. Do go sample.

Harvest Right on Time

5. Again on the perils of storage: I’ve learned that behaving as if these were white potatoes that can be left in the ground just a little longer as fall comes on, may sharply reduce storage life and even the flavor. Don’t wait until frost hits the vines to take your cue; mark down when you planted, and what the presumed days to maturity are for the variety (usually about 120; at least 100) and check a sample plant for readiness then. Triage: If frost beats you, cut the vines at ground level right away (to limit damage underground) and harvest promptly.

What They Like to Drink

6. Watering these guys is tricky. Overwatering is no good, and a wet year can result in poor root formation, and long, stringy sweet potatoes. They like it hot and dry once their vines have filled in and covered the ground. Particularly dicey: a serious wet spell in the month before harvest, and big rains after dry spells late in the growing, which can cause splitting and cracking (as with various other crops). Next year I must try to better approximate what they apparently want: less frequent deep waterings, allowing the soil to dry down 6 inches or more before watering again.

They’re Overly Ambitious

7. Letting these lusty vines spread out and root in along the way as they please might look like a certain bumper crop’s in store—but it doesn’t work that way here. I suppose if you had more frost-free months than I do that would be OK to let them stray a bit, but I need to “tell” the plants to concentrate their efforts and make good-sized potatoes—not run and run and run, setting down and starting to make more young plants and small potatoes far from the parent plant. To that end…

Black Plastic Helps

8. …Black plastic does more to help a Northern grower like myself heat up the soil to the warmth that sweet potatoes like. It can also keep the vines from rooting in everywhere (as can cultivating between rows). Lay it down as early as possible for maximum early warming.

Please Don’t Eat the Ornamentals

9. Technically you can eat your ornamental sweet potato vine’s “potatoes,” but don’t. This last fact I learned because readers who wrote in to ask me about it, and I did some homework: Yes, the Ipomoea batatas we grow for show—like ‘Blackie’ with purple leaves or ‘Margarita’ with golden ones, and all their cousins—is the same genus and species as ‘Beauregard’ or ‘Jewel.’ But remember this: It was probably treated in the nursery where it was propagated with one or more of a number of chemicals that are not intended for vegetable-growing use. (Apparently they also don’t taste anywhere as good as the vegetable-garden varieties, even without the nasty dose of chemicals.)

Sweet-Potato Deliciousness: The Recipes

What’s a Fall Fest?

FALL FEST IS A cross-blog recipe and tip swap–and you’re invited to participate. Simply post your link or recipe or idea in the comments below my post, and also on the blogs of the other participants listed in the recipe links box just above.

Want more information on how it all works? Get the details, including our shift into Fall Fest after many weeks of Summer Fest, with a new logo but the same recipe-sharing routine). We’re continuing right into the Thanksgiving holiday.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jill. They are very ambitious growers, whose foliage by high summer will totally fill a bed, so I don’t think that other plants in the same bed will like the experience. :) My main issues with them is that their foliage is VERY attractive to woodchucks and rabbits (and I am in a rural area where such creatures like to visit). To get the best yield many Northern growers swear by black plastic as a “mulch” (which warms the soil and also prevents the vines from rooting multiple times as they scramble around). Like this. Another reason other crops might not love the situation.

  1. tropaeolum says:

    I started growing sweet potatoes in 2010 after I received some white sweet potatoes as a gift. I had never had a white sweet potato before and I loved them. They’re hard to find in a store, so I grow some each year and save a few tubers for planting the next spring.

    This year might be a struggle because the person storing my sweets did not understand that they do not like cold temperatures. Here’s hoping that mine come through because I don’t want to lose my stock of white sweets (and the story behind them).

  2. TR says:

    I’m currently trying to figure out how to protect my sweetpotatos from voles. Baited traps don’t work because the voles go underground to feed on the tubers. I lost an entire crop of sweet potatoes, perhaps 50# worth, on my new garden from voles eating every last tuber. The vines above showed no sign of the chomping going on underground except perhaps a bit of wilting sometimes. Its very disheartening to go digup your taters only to find big holes in the ground where they were. Sometimes’ I’d find two ends of a tater with the middle all eaten out. A couple times, I inadvertantly speared voles whilst digging for taters. Any thoughts are well appreciated. Burying metal barriers isnt exactly what I call a sustainable approach and filling the bed with sharp rocks as the Ag extension agent here recommends will cause me to slice up my fingers while digging up the taters. I can tell you one thing: I have a welcome mat out for snakes. Snakes are the only predators I know of that actually go down into the tunels where the voles are. Owls, foxes, and cats just arent effective predators of voles in my opinion. Any ideas on creating overwintering habitat/structures for snakes?

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