By Cam Mather
Remember that feeling on Christmas morning when you were a kid, unwrapping those presents with such great anticipation? I still get it, even with the gifts that I purchase for myself months before Christmas, because with the gradual loss of brain function of my 52 year-old brain, I’ve often forgotten what I bought but I know it’s going to be great, because I bought it!
Well, that’s how I spent a recent day, unwrapping the biggest success of the gardening season, our sweet potatoes.
I have grown sweet potatoes for about 4 years now. I followed the lead of local author and sweet potato expert Ken Allan and local greenhouse grower Brian Burt. I have had mixed success. I always get some amazing sweet potatoes, but the quality of them really varied. Last year the majority of them were sub par, too big, gnarly, cracked, too small, and basically not the shape that a sweet potato should be. I’ve never been the type of person to try and live up to societal norms, but in the case of sweet potatoes, I want them to look the way most people are used to seeing them. Call it male pride. (Michelle’s note – And before anyone accuses Cam of being hung up on aesthetics, the gnarly potatoes are very difficult to clean or peel, and so there is a practical reason for wanting good-looking potatoes!)
So this year since I was running a CSA I decided that if I was going to grow them I was going to do it right. So I spent some money. I bought a 100 ft roll of 6 ml plastic that my friend Heidi helped me to scope out at the local hardware store. Yes it’s made from petroleum, yes it’s bad for the planet, but I think that by buying the 6 ml thickness I can get 4 or 5 years out of it, and if I compare that to how much diesel would be used to haul sweet potatoes from the south of the U.S. for the 5 years I’ll be growing them locally, then I figure I’m still way ahead of the game. I also used more plastic to put a drip irrigation lines down each row. I believe many of the problems I’ve had with cosmetic cracking and crazy shapes have been moisture related.
Sweet potatoes are a funny crop. Most vegetables you can monitor as the season goes on, but sweet potatoes are a big mystery. The beautiful vines on top grew like crazy. But the sweet potatoes are under ground and tend to form later in the season. They are actually tuberous roots, so the plant has sent out all these long roots and some of them expand and become the fleshy thing we eat.
A couple of weeks ago I dug my arm into the soil and rooted around and grabbed a couple of samples and they were great, so things looked promising, just like those gifts under the tree on Christmas. But there are still no guarantees.
Finally we had a light frost and it was enough to nip some of the leaves. So the next day I decided it was time to pull the trigger on one of the rows, and OMG it was unbelievably great! Seriously, I kept pulling out these magnificent specimens and holding them up in the air and saying, “Look what I grew!” It was awesome.
It’s quite amazing how I continue to relearn the same lessons over and over again, even at my age. And it’s quite simple; a job worth doing is worth doing well. If I was serious about growing sweet potatoes in our northern climate I needed to take the steps to try and convince this tropical plant that it should feel quite at home in my soil. The clear plastic lets the heat from the sun in, but traps it and prevents it from leaving in the evening, so it maintains the soil temperature. It also traps moisture. And I knew that with my sandy soil moisture would be the biggest challenge. So every three days I gave them a significant watering using the drip irrigation. The water came from the rain barrel next to the nearby barn, until that ran out part way into the drought and then I switched over to the house well. Setting up the drip irrigation system in the spring was a lot of work (see this post from the spring.)
As I discuss in my book, “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook,” sweet potatoes are “INSANELY HEALTHY!” If the most nutritious vegetable you grow scores 100, sweet potatoes are 180! And I’ve always hated sweet potatoes. In fact, I pretty much disliked anything I grew that was orange, except carrots. Especially squash. Yes, I eat a plant-based diet but I’d prefer the plants be cut up and put on a sub sandwich or pizza.
But I’m learning to like sweet potatoes and squash. I have to. These vegetables are really, REALLY healthy, and they last a long time so they can form an integral part of an independent homestead.
I started adding sweet potatoes to my hash browns to sort of ease my way into liking them, and I’m getting there. Michelle makes some great sweet potato black bean burrito (recipe here) and she has promised to bake me a sweet potato pie.
I think sweet potatoes are much easier to eat when you’ve grown them yourself. They are quite time consuming in terms of starting the slips, preparing the rows, planting through the plastic and harvesting. Harvesting is a royal pain because they can send out roots up to 2 feet from the plant. When you harvest regular potatoes they’ll be right near where you planted them. Sweet potatoes wander everywhere so you have to be really careful as you dig them up. I hate using a shovel because I invariably slice some. I started mostly harvesting with bare hands until I managed to get some sweet potato halfway up one of my fingernails. Then I actually put on work gloves, which I’m loath to do.
But it’s worth it. It was a magnificent harvest this year. In fact despite the drought I think we did an amazing job at producing a huge variety of really healthy, beautiful vegetables. Our CSA members enjoyed them for a few weeks. The chickens will be getting the gnarly ugly sweet potatoes boiled and softened up. They love them! And I love their eggs, so I’m hoping I’m getting some of that nutrition vicariously through their eggs.
But mostly I’m just looking at the 200 plus pounds of sweet potatoes I got out of one 50-foot row and saying, “I did that!”