Logic argues against growing sweet potatoes. The vines take forever to mature and gobble up a disproportionate amount of garden space. Groundhogs will climb fences to get at them.
During peak harvest season, heaps of the fat orange roots are available at every fruit stand and grocery store — cheap. And slips, the small bareroot sweet potato transplants, have to be ordered and handled with care.
Well, forget logic. Groundhogs won’t listen to reason. But a gardener can always tell a sweet potato that’s freshly dug. It’s extra sweet and tender.
In case you’re curious, the slim, light-rose skinned yam we purchase in the supermarket is not a yam at all. It’s more than likely Beauregard, a sweet potato developed in Louisiana.
It all began in the ’30s, when a group of Louisiana farmers developed a sweet potato that was darker orange and sweeter than the traditional sweet potatoes grown further north. They called their new sweet potato variety a yam, a name that originated from the African word nyami, meaning starchy tuber. In order to find a true yam, you may have to look in the Asian markets. True yams are large, slightly hairy, dark brown, log-shaped specimens. So that can of yams is really a can of sweet potatoes.
Beauregard is a popular rose-tinted skin variety that produces elongated sweet potatoes. It’s very sweet and the flesh is rich orange inside. It’s a great sweet potato that is ready for harvest 90 days after planting slips. Beauregard is wilt- and nematode-resistant and has proven productive.
Sweet potato vines are pretty. They can be used for decorative purposes, but the vines are best in the garden, because that is where they will produce an abundance of sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are generally thought of as a Southern vegetable. About 60 percent of the commercial crop comes from North Carolina and Louisiana. But they can be grown successfully in the North, provided that the growing season is at least 80 to 90 days long.
After planting, mulching a sweet potato bed will help prevent the vigorous vines from rooting, which will create several small potatoes rather than a few large ones.
Sweet potatoes like a monthly feed of liquid seaweed and a regular watering routine while they’re establishing their roots, but they don’t need a lot of water to crop.
The vines travel along the ground like a pumpkin, and you’ll need to watch that they don’t invade areas you don’t want them in. But because of this prolific growth, they do make great ground cover for fruit trees and tend to keep weeds at bay. Pests are few, though crickets love the foliage.
Gently dig the sweet potatoes when morning temperatures drop below 50 in the fall. Usually this occurs near Thanksgiving or at least by early December in most parts of the country. Sweet potatoes don’t like the cold.
The vegetables need to be cured once they’re harvested. Remove the vines, wash the tubers and let them dry in the sun. You can place the sweet potatoes on newspaper in shaded boxes in a place where temperatures are between 70 and 80 degrees. The top of the refrigerator or a spot by the hot water heater should be fine. Do not refrigerate the sweet potatoes or they’ll rot. Store in this warm spot until the potatoes harden, usually in just a few weeks, then store them in a cooler spot where temperatures are 50 to 60 degrees.
Remember, a sweet potato is for more than just the holidays.