A Few More Sweet Potatoes 1

Friday night the forecast called for a possible frost, so we decided to pull the sweet potatoes. We ended up with much more than we did last year, but we’re still disappointed.

Sweet potatoes hail from Africa; they detest freezing temperatures. We understand that once you have a frost above ground, the sweet potato plants will die, and within days the tubers will start to rot below ground. So when we saw the forecast for frost, we decided to act right away.

Amanda first used the spade fork to loosen the soil. In retrospect, that’s the first (and perhaps most important) mistake we made. We tried to plant the poor sweet potatoes in our good old Longleaf Breeze hardtack, and they were basically on their own to loosen it up. We now know that daikon radishes may have the muscle to loosen hard soil, but sweet potatoes don’t. We should have loosened the soil in advance so the plants didn’t have to work so hard to form tubers. And our potatoes reflect the punishment they’ve taken. They’re twisted, knotted and generally look tortured (which I guess they sorta are).

With the soil loosened, Amanda was able to get her hands in to feel around for potatoes. In general, most of the tubers we found were right where we had planted the original plants. The shoots may have set roots at other points in the garden, but either for lack of time or sheer obstinance, rarely did they form potatoes there.

Last year we got almost nothing, primarily because the deer ate the leaves before the potatoes had a chance to form. This year the deer fence took care of the leaves, so we did away with that problem. We ended up with four produce baskets full. That’s better than last year, but nothing like what we were hoping for. We think the main reason we didn’t get a better crop was the compacted soil, which constrained the size and shape of the tubers.

Here’s what we think we’ll do differently next year. First, we’ll be working with soil with a higher pH, and that should help a little (although sweet potatoes are rather forgiving of acidity). Second, we’ll loosen the soil where we’re growing sweet potatoes in advance of planting and sweeten it with compost. We’ll probably set out more plants. Also, we’re debating adding a trellis to give the foliage extra growing space without the need to invade nearby aisles.

The last change we plan to make is to harvest a little sooner. This year we waited until the last possible day to harvest, and it made the curing process more complicated. What we should have done was to harvest on a nice, dry, sunny day in late October so we could leave the potatoes on the ground to dry in the sun right where they had grown. Because there was a freeze the night we harvested, we had to bring the potatoes inside for curing, which means we needed to touch them three times. Once to harvest and gather them, again to spread them out inside for curing, and a third time to put them in baskets. Next year we’ll only need to touch them twice, once to pull them from the ground and spread them for curing, and again to place them in baskets for storage.

We are ever so careful not to bruise or injure the potatoes when handling them, because any injury will shorten their storage life dramatically. There are some potatoes that were already cracked in the soil; we’ve segregated them so they will be the first ones we cook and eat. We are also avoiding washing the potatoes until we are ready to cook them and eat them. Again, we understand that washing them also shortens their storage life.

The video shows Amanda describing and showing the harvesting, curing, and storage process. It runs about 3 1/2 minutes.

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