11/3/10

Sweet Harvest

This photo might not look too exciting to you, but it is to me… it's just one of the two wheelbarrows I filled with my sweet potato harvest earlier this week. I was delighted to have so many, from just 11 plants. If you have garden space and you live in the South, grow sweet potatoes! They take very little care, and don't seem to be susceptible to insects or blight or other garden problems. They taste fabulous, can be used in many different dishes, and they are good for you too!

I timed my harvest on November 1st according to these criteria:
  • The vines had been in the ground since mid June, well over 120 days maturity time
  • The weather has been dry for several days, so the soil and the potatoes were relatively dry
  • Rain was predicted in the next few days, and potatoes dug wet won't store as long
  • Night temperatures down to 28 degrees are forecast for late this week; frost will kill the vines and start the potatoes rotting in the ground
  • It was sunny and in the upper 60s and I had been at my computer all day!
I had started my own "slips" last spring; these are short vines with roots which grow when you put sproutable sweet potatoes into water or damp soil. I will explain the process in this blog next March. I say "sproutable" since, like garlic, some supermarket sweet potatoes are treated not to sprout. Also, certain varieties sprout better than others. I tried growing slips from 5 sweet potatoes varieties I had grown in the garden the previous year, several of which were grown from commercially raised slips. Of these, two rooted and grew best:  Beauregard (the standard supermarket variety) and Hernandez. Then I got one other good slip but lost track of what cultivar it was (if I don't label carefully, I just can't remember!). So I planted 5 each of the first two and the one "unknown" slip which has produced long sweet potatoes with yellow flesh, unlike the other two which are the more common orange flesh. 

My harvest was much larger than in the last two years, perhaps because I continue to work cow manure into the clay soil. I saw worms as I dug, and that's a good sign of organically vibrant soil. Other than making sure the sweet potato vines were watered regularly during our dry summer, I pretty much ignored them as the vines grew and spread. I plant the sweet potato bed at one end of my garden, in a space about 20' x 5', and let the vines freely grow outside the garden border. Incidently, the green leaves are edible and cook up like spinach, although the flavor is very mild. The bunches of potatoes grown from the roots, pretty much centered right below the main stems. Sometimes the long vines send down roots from along their stems and I found a few Hernandez wanderers in the ground a few feet from the mother plants. I dig as much as possible just with my gloved hands, loosening the soil around the main plant if necessary with a garden fork, far enough out where I don't think I'll hit potatoes. The potatoes I dug this year are large, smooth, and nicely shaped… in the past I've dug up many which were so small and twisted they would make good candidates to model for new Dr. Seuss characters!

You don't wash them until you are ready to use them, and the skin is tender and can bruise if not handled carefully. The internet says dry the potatoes at 80-85 degrees for 10 days, but that's not going to happen here unless we get an unexpected heat wave! I have mine drying on my open covered porch, spread in a single layer on newspaper which is on plastic (humidity is good while they dry). At night I cover them with a canvas painting cloth to protect from cold temps. In about 2 weeks, I will put them into plastic milk crates and store them in my basement, which stays around 50-60 degrees year round.

If you grow your own sweet potatoes from purchased slips, be sure to save some of the little finger-sized ones you will dig up. They are too small to eat, but they are the ones you will start slips from next spring. It's an easy process, and makes you a self-sufficient sweet potato farmer.
You can expect to see me post a recipe or two with sweet potatoes, as I explore new ways to use my harvest.