Digging for Buried Treasure: Sweet Potatoes

"Beauregard" Sweet Potatoes
“Beauregard” Sweet Potatoes

If you live somewhere with a long enough growing season and enough rain, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas count as one of the easiest to grow.  Often called “yams” in the South and on canned goods, it’s definitely not related to the Dioscorea spp. food yams native to Africa and Asia.  However the African slaves called our sweet potatoes yams, and the name stuck. The sweet potato we grow for food is a member of the Ipomoea genus along with morning glories.  Sometimes a planting of sweet potatoes rewards you with lovely early morning blooms, and the tasty roots come in shades from pale yellow to dark magenta.  Sweet potatoes are one of, if not THE, most nutritious vegetables in the world.  It is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America, but was well established as a food crop along the Gulf Coast by the time colonists from Europe arrived.  The New World sweet potato has taken the Asia and African world by storm, and much more are grown and eaten there than they are on this continent. To grow sweet potatoes, you buy or propagate slips, which are grown from root sprouts or are vine cuttings, and plant them in the ground when it’s well and truly warm.  The soil needs to be at least 60F, but the vines won’t begin to run until the weather gets good and hot.  Shortly thereafter, you will have a jungle of vines stretching much farther than you wanted them to.  Sweet potatoes are not a good choice for small gardens.  The leaves are edible, but you don’t want to rob the plant too much if you want an ample harvest of roots.  (The leaves of Irish potatoes are NOT edible.) You have two choices:  You can either wade into the sweet potato jungle and monitor the roots until they are the size you want, then dig them up.  Or you can be lazy and leave them out until first frost kills off the vines and then dig them up. You see, growing sweet potatoes is easy.  Harvesting them without machinery is a lot of work.  I usually end up going the lazy route and end up with monster sweet potatoes.  This year, the one I eyeballed as the biggest weighed in at 8 pounds, which is not actually that big. My method of choice is pulling the vines out by hand, looking for the places where the soil is mounding and cracking and starting there.  To move more earth, I gingerly use my digging fork, however it’s inevitable you are going to spear some of the roots and “ruin” them.  It’s frustrating, but don’t worry.  Just eat those first.  Or slice up and dehydrate for later on, or for dog treats.  As you move farther out from the original plants, the potatoes get smaller.  Who said you can’t have fingerling sweet potatoes for dinner?

Chipmunk damage
Chipmunk damage

This year, however, happy plants above ground hid significant damage below.  There were tiny tunnels leading to the large clusters of potatoes directly under the original plants, and the hungry culprits just gnawed in every direction.  This means that they damaged 4 or 5 potatoes in each tunnel instead of just finishing one off. The culprits?  Chipmunks.  Chipmunks are the Navy Seals of the rodent world.  They can quick and effectively move over fences and barriers, but also attack from below.  While below ground, they can stuff their cute furry faces without fear.  Products which supposedly repel chipmunks are products first and foremost design to repel your money from your wallet, so I will pass. A little damage is not a problem.  It’s just part of gardening.  But I don’t want rear generations of chipmunks trained to raid my garden, so I’ll not be planting sweet potatoes for a couple of years. That’s a shame, because conventional sweet potatoes retail this time of year at an average price of $1.00/pound, and double that for organic.  A 100 pound haul of sweet potatoes for $5 worth of slips is a very good ROI if you have the room for a crop that stores well.  Sweet potatoes, properly cured, will store for up to 13 months, although most gardeners do not have the ability to do a full 85F cure at 90-95% humidity.  Do your best, and they will still store for months provided they do not get cold.  Use potatoes with skin imperfections first, and keep them well ventilated.  Do not refrigerate sweet potatoes. One additional tip: don’t wash them before storage, and they will keep longer.

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