It’s Sweet Potato Time!

Have you ever noticed that as you grow older you start to like foods that you thought you didn’t like at all? I sure have! One vegetable that I really didn’t like in my youth has gradually become a favorite of mine. What vegetable is it? Sweet potato! 

cluster of sweet potatoes just pulled out of the ground

Sweet potatoes are related to the morning glory vine, and if you see some flowers on yours late in the season you will recognize the similarity. They are only distantly related to common potatoes and not at all related to true “yams.” They are believed to have originated in central or southern America and Columbus appears to have been the first to bring them to Europe (Wikipedia). By the time European colonists came to what is now the U.S., sweet potatoes were already a part of their gardening plans. 

The reason I started growing them was curiousity. I had a little extra garden space, and my neighbor had some extra “slips.” Sweet potato slips are the rooted shoots from the tubers that are used to start a new crop. The CGC offers slips to gardeners during the warm season plant distribution each spring. I did some quick reading on how to plant them and stuck them in. A nice mounded trough full of sandy compost is ideal. No need for any chemicals in Mid-Missouri, plus they like hot, dry weather! By late summer, the vines had attempted to cover everything in and around the garden, including my husband’s truck! But any hassle they caused they made up for at harvest. From year to year my production has varied, but I have harvested as much as 160 pounds of tubers from four slips! Imagine getting that kind of production when there’s no grocery store to tide you through the winter. No wonder this crop has spread all over the world!

The author holding up a 12-pound sweet potato in front of her face.
Author with her personal record 12 pound sweet potato.

There is a trick to storing all that bounty. Sweet potatoes must be “cured” before storing. Curing not only improves storage (I still have one ready to eat from 2018), but also makes them sweeter and higher in nutrients. If you doubt this, try eating one straight out of the garden, make a mental note of how sweet it is, and then compare that to a cured potato one month later. In commercial production, tubers are stored in large buildings at 85-90 degrees (F) and about 90% humidity for anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy to replicate around here in the fall. 

Here’s what I do. For one thing, NEVER let frost touch your vines. Sweet potatoes are a tropical plant, and frost encourages them to quickly rot. Starting in late September, I keep a close eye on the weather forecast. What I’m watching for is a late hot spell. A day or two before it hits, we cut off all the vines (the leaves can be eaten). Then when it’s at least 80 degrees, we dig them up and let them sit all day in the shade of other garden plants. Next we gently knock off the dirt (do not wash them), and either place them in a shaded hot place outside or, if necessary, move them into the hottest room of our house, making sure they are shaded. I doubt I have ever met the humidity requirements, but like I said I still have an 11-month old sweet potato to eat, so I must be doing something right. When I feel like they’ve cured long enough, I move them down into the basement. Cured tubers keep best at about 60 degrees in the dark. 

So, what’s the best way to eat a sweet potato? For me, baked and then mashed with butter, brown sugar and fresh grated ginger — I actually converted a previous sweet potato hater with that fresh ginger addition. They are also good diced and roasted with a little olive oil and salt, or made into sweet potato fries. My neighbor who started me down this road makes them into black bean and diced sweet potato quesadillas for the kids at her daycare. Apparently they love them! And since sweet potatoes are chock full of beta carotene and vitamin A, nutrients that are lacking in many American’s diets, why not give them a try? 

For additional information on growing sweet potatoes here are some handy links:

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