Sweet potatoes and ham; sweet potatoes for the holidays, even sweet potato pie just conjure up a memory of tasty goodness. Almost everyone loves sweet potatoes yet we tend to think of them as a southern dish. Northern gardeners seldom give them a fair trial.
But in fact, sweet potatoes do quite well in the north even into parts of Canada, so there is no reason for Zone 6 gardeners not to give them a try. But before you race for your shovel, remember to keep your sweet potatoes and yams separated. Although the names are frequently used interchangeably, the yam is related to lilies and hails from Africa, while the sweet potato is cousin to the morning glory and comes to us from South America.
Neither plant has much to do with the common white baking potato.
Sweet potatoes do best in full sunlight, in loose soil heavy in phosphorus, light on nitrogen and with lots of compost worked in. A large, previously prepared raised bed is ideal, but sweet potatoes are not particularly demanding.
Sweet potatoes are grown not from seeds, nor from seed potatoes but from slips. Slips are sections of vine which grow from the potato once it is exposed to water. This can be done easily enough by the gardener but for the very first time, perhaps purchasing slips from a seed supplier might be less confusing. Henry Fields and Burpee Seeds are two of many suppliers for slips.
Varieties that mature in 90 to 110 days are best for Zone 6 gardens.
Bury the slips in the garden medium no closer together than 24” on center, allowing part of each slip to protrude from the ground. Then water faithfully and weed, the potatoes will do the rest.
How the sweet potato is treated during and after harvest determines how long it will store, and how tasty it will be. Sweet potatoes eaten straight from harvest are not especially flavorful.
Here are some helpful hints.
- Never bruise the sweet potato, it will develop dark spots and eventually, rot.
- Do not store the sweet potatoes in plastic bags, they will speedily decompose.
- Never refrigerate a sweet potato; it requires a temperature of 50 degrees or more to remain viable.
- Sweet potatoes need to be cured to develop full flavor, and storability. Beginning on the day picked, store them in a dedicated area where the temperature is not allowed to dip below 85 degrees. This may involve closing them into a confined space and setting up an electric heater with a thermostat.
Cure the sweet potatoes in this manner for a full seven days. This will maximize flavor and, as they develop a second “skin”, allow them to be stored for up to a year!
Is this the year when you will introduce sweet potatoes into your home garden?
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