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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. Terry in Texas says:

    Just a friendly reminder that the leaves of sweet potatoes are edible. So when you trim back those rampant vines, select the best leaves (stems are tough), saute them with your favorite spices, onion/garlic, and butter/oil. They have a delicate texture, similar to spinach. I like using them in enchiladas.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Terry, and thank you — I think I had read this long ago and forgotten. Silly me! Great tip, and hope to see you again soon (with more such goodies). :)

  2. Johanna says:

    This year was my first sweet potato crop, thanks to reading about your experienes, Margaret! I didn’t grow lots, but they were really yummy and I was so proud to be the first on my block to have grown them!

  3. Abby says:

    I grew white potatoes in potato sacks this past summer, with good results. I am going to try them with sweet potatoes next year.

    In a previous lifetime, I interviewed a local sweet potato expert grower. I will have to dig out that article. It included tips for storage.

  4. I love sweet potatoes, though I’ve never grown them, I do enjoy eating them especially around holiday time. In preparation for Thanksgiving I created a new take on sweet potato casserole. Instead of the marshmallow topping, I use a combination of breadcrumbs, walnuts, and sage, which is all drizzled with butter and broiled. It’s almost like a gratin.

    http://www.gastronomersguide.com/2010/11/mashed-sweet-potatoes-with-sage-and.html

  5. Mary W says:

    I started a hop yard for our homebrewing club this year. The rhizomes came a good 6 weeks before the ground was ready. By the time we planted, the roots were a mess. Most survived, but we had a slow, anxious start. We’re expanding next year and if we get the rhizomes early, I’ll pot them up indoors until the thaw. It was definitely a year for lessons learned.

  6. Rachel says:

    Interesting facts about growing sweet potatoes. It’s nice to know these things about a food I love so much!
    I’m bummed that I didn’t get my act together to do a sweet potato dish for Fall Fest this week. But…I did make a yummy twist on sweet potato pie a while back that I’m itching to make again! http://blog.muffinegg.com/?p=83

  7. Such a fabulous list! There is nothing better than Sweet Potatoes… I wouldn’t show up to Thanksgiving without ’em (ok, that’s not entirely true). In the spirit of Fall Fest, we re-made an old favorite:Harvest Soup with Chicken, Sweet Potatoes and Corn.

  8. Jenny says:

    I was storing mine on a brown paper bag that I’d cut open, on a worktable in my garage. We never had mice before, but they couldn’t resist the sweet potatoes, and ate a few. I threw them all away, because it gave me the squickies. (Some were eaten in a way that looked like they were just basking inside this sweet potato sling while they ate around themselves).

    Could I have put them in an airtight container? That seemed wrong somehow. But clearly I don’t want the creatures to eat them!

  9. Would love to grow them, but as it is we barely keep up with our CSA’s rising tide of sweet potatoes. Tonight roasted them in their skins until tender, then halved and sprinkled with a little butter, salt, lime juice and fresh chopped cilantro–idea from Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Vegetables” cookbook. So simple and the flavors so clear.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Claiborne. Lucky you! A CSA with sweet potatoes, no less. Love the Alice Waters-inspired topping, thank you. See you soon!

  10. ann says:

    I love vegetables but combing peas, green beans, red pepepers, and sweet potatoes does not seems the same as lots of butter, brown sugar, and of course topped with golden brown toasted marshmallows.

  11. nora says:

    So Margaret, who are your sources of a month early sweet potatoes shipments?
    My garden is 100 miles north of yours and I’m always up for a challenge, thanks to Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook.

  12. mindy arbo says:

    margaret, here in the boston area, we have a vendor, Al Capone (an Argentinian Italian!) who makes a delicious duck sausage. here is the recipe I created to couple it w/ various sweet potato types. It freezes pretty well.

    DUCK HASH WITH SWEET POTATOES , BACON AND CILANTRO

    8 oz. bacon, sauteed or baked, drained and chopped, and fat reserved
    Reserved bacon fat or extra virgin olive oil
    11 oz. yellow onion, small diced
    2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
    1 medium carrot, small diced
    1 stalk celery, small diced
    ½ medium red pepper, small diced
    1.5 lb. sweet potatoes, unpeeled,cut in ½”dice, preferably both Hannah (white ) and Jewel sweet potatoes, which are rich and less sweet than Garnet
    1 lb. Capone’s Duck Sausage, cut in half lengthwise and then cut in 1/3” slices

    1-2 tsp.dried thyme, rubbed in palms of hand to release oils
    2 small bay leaves
    1 bunch cilantro, washed, drained, dried and minced (optional to include minced stems)
    Kosher Salt and Black Pepper, freshly ground

    In a large 12” diameter skillet, heat 3-4 T.bacon fat or oil til hot. Add onion, adjust heat to medium high and sautee until golden brown(adding more fat or oil if needed to keep from burning.) Add garlic , thyme and bay leaf for the last few minutes of cooking. Remove onion and garlic from pan. Heat another 2-3T of fat/oil to hot, sautee carrots, celery and red pepper 3-5 minutes over medium high heat until seared and tender. Remove from pan. Meanwhile steam* or blanch potatoes until just tender, about 3-5 minutes. Do not cook longer or the hash will be mushy. Cool potatoes in a colander by an open window or in a cool area.
    In the original skillet, heat 3-4 T. oil/fat until hot. Over medium high heat,sautee duck sausage on both sides until it loses its pink color.Leave juices/fat in pan with sausage. Add the potatoes, stir to coat well. Increase heat if needed so potatoes will sizzle. Add onion and carrot mixtures and bacon.Sautee 10 + minutes over medium high heat til potatoes are a bit crusty/crunchy and flavors have blended . Add cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust other ingredients as needed. Serve.

    * Steaming potatoes preserves their vitamins better, rather than losing nutritional value in blanching water.
    Diced peeled celery root would make a good substitute for some of the sweet potatoes and can be prepared in the same manner.
    3 lb. of cooked cannelini or Great Northern beans could also be substituted for the potatoes.
    This makes an excellent entrée or side dish.
    For a great brunch dish, serve it with fried eggs, an omelet, or Eggs Benedict.
    Makes 6-7 cups; Serves 4-6 people as a brunch entrée with fried eggs.

    When reheating, do not microwave. Rather, heat in well oiled medium hot skillet to retain its appealing crunchiness.

  13. Ellen says:

    Oh…my only experience with sweet potatoes was a couple years ago….ground hogs love them….those poor little plants never had a chance….maybe, now that I am fenced in, I will try them again.

  14. Connie says:

    Sweet potatoes and yams are different, right? Sweet potatoes are a healthy alternative to baked (white) potatoes due to lower carbs. Do yams share that characteristic?

  15. Evelyn says:

    Hi I live in southern Manitoba Canada
    I love sweet potatoes and yams Here in our part of North Americawe are not even offered seed or slips. I would love to try to grow some here I have a small greenhouse and can easily find or make a heating system, with the help of reaserch. Where would I order the slips or whatever from?? Im assuming it would be in the USA . any information on acquiring or planting would be greatly appriciated Thank You in advance Evelyn

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