Gardener’s Diary: Sweet Potatoes 101

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One of my interests, which is rapidly becoming urgent, is in root-cellaring, and my first project in this area has been figuring out what to do with all my sweet potatoes.

The sweet potatoes were a great success this year. It was my first time growing any kind of potato, and I knew exactly nothing about it. I ordered “seed potatoes” from Johnny’s for banana fingerling potatoes and for Beauregard sweet potatoes, and my first lesson in sweet potato cultivation was that I didn’t receive “seed potatoes” from Johnny’s at all. I had expected them to look like the fingerling seed potatoes, so when I found these in my mailbox on the 7th of May – wilted, from having spent over 24 hours in there – I was mystified.

I was not at all expecting plants…and to top it off, I received twice what I had actually ordered. I let Johnny’s know, and they told me that they had accidentally shipped the order twice and that I could keep them both, free of charge. Very nice of them; and after my successful year with both of the potato varieties that I grew, you can bet I’ll be ordering more seed potatoes and sweet potato slips from Johnny’s again this coming spring.

So I put 27 of these very sad looking things in the ground, following the planting directions that came with them, and they looked like this.

Not very encouraging.

Still, I let them be, and before I knew it – miracle of miracles – the little buggers began to grow. Looking back, this was even more amazing from the standpoint that I did nothing in particular for or to them to encourage success. I did not test, “improve” or “correct” my soil. I did not specifically water them, but they got water the old fashioned way, from rain, and whenever something else in the garden was in dire need of water, they ended up getting some too. I didn’t weed.  So they really were a no muss, no fuss crop. My understanding is that Beauregards are pretty tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, and I don’t know for sure whether I happened to have an ideal soil for them, or if they just accepted what I had and ran with it.

My first summer with sweets was full of surprises. I had no idea that they would bloom, and that their flowers would be so beautiful.

Nor did I know that the sweet potato was such a hardy and attractive vine, that it would creep everywhere, or that it would be pretty doggone tolerant of weeds – a must in my garden.

So things were going along pretty well, but like most veggies that were new to me this year, I had a totally inaccurate idea of when I might expect to harvest them. On Monday 27 July, I was out in my garden inspecting, and I found this deep furrow.

What the heck? Closer inspection revealed this! Could that be a sweet potato popping up out of the ground?

It was indeed! Could it possibly be ready to harvest? One way to find out. I pulled that sucker up, marveled at how big it was, and in fact, I ate it for dinner that night.

A quick check inside with my garden diary revealed that the passage of time had snuck up on me. It had been 82 days since I put those slips in the ground. Because it was my understanding that I could leave them in as long as until first frost, I waited a little while longer before starting to pull up more. Throughout August and into mid-September I was harvesting sweet potatoes.

I was able to learn from firsthand experience what my subsequent research confirmed, that sweet potatoes are surprisingly delicate and thin-skinned, and it’s really easy to knick and scratch them with your fingernails as you’re pulling them out of the ground. It’s also really easy, when trying to dig them up, to break off an end. But if you do – no big deal. Because these open wounds close over with a kind of white scab. I believe this is called “corking.” 

My first attempts at “curing” were to leave them out in the vestibule still covered in dirt for a number of days. After that, I would move them to a carboard box under my kitchen counter. I know now that I should have left them in the ground longer, until just before or the day after the first frost, because the roots grow the most in September and October. But what the heck. I’ll know better next year. This year, by mid September I had every sweet potato out of the ground. By this time my new book had arrived, Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel, and my first order of business was to figure out how to “cellar” these sweet potatoes; hopefully for the duration of the winter. (Incidentally my mother has told me that her father used to coat his potatoes in lime and store them in the woodshed when she was growing up. Interesting, but that doesn’t sound like something I would want to do.)

The first thing I learned was that during the 10-14 day or so “curing” process that the potatoes should be kept warm (80-85 degrees) and humid, so with my final HUGE bunch of sweet potatoes (3 boxes full) I kept a big damp towel draped over them all in the same spot in the vestibule so that they were kept warm and humid. After a few weeks of this, I was ready to put them away.

After the curing process, what they need primarily is to be kept dry – no damp root cellar for these babies. They prefer temps of 50-60 degrees, but most importantly they need to be kept dry. So for the time being, they’re all under my counter. Here’s what I did. I used a wine box, wrapped half of them in brown paper and nestled them all in there together, and slid the heavy box under the counter and covered it with a black towel. One wine box wasn’t big enough to hold everything. I could probably use three wine boxes, but I have the rest in mason jar case boxes, which works out just as well. There’s a box of little ones on top. These will need to be eaten first, as they’ll keep for the shortest amount of time.

It may be that this isn’t the ideal place to store them. In the winter it may hover around 60 degrees under the counter sometimes, but it’ll probably be warmer than that. My hope is that as the book says, keeping them dry is the most important thing. I’ll check back in on how they’re doing as we head into winter. I’ll also check back in on what day we finally eat our last sweet potato. Anyone want to place a bet? I’m hoping to have them through maybe April … 6 months … any takers?