The Dirt On Growing Sweet Potatoes

Community/allotment gardening year five:

I have certainly thought about blogging about gardening during the past season but that’s as far as it got.  Thinking about it.  Don Marquis, an American poet and journalist said “procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday” .   And while it didn’t happen yesterday, here’s the story of our experience with a brand new crop this year.   Sweet potatoes.

Our growing/hardiness zone is 4B in Ottawa, ON.  We had talked about growing sweet potatoes in previous years before but had concluded we weren’t in the right zone.  That changed when we learned that a local organic seed distributor sold sweet potato slips.  They aren’t available until June here. You plant them only after the risk of frost had passed.  

We had intended on buying enough slips to fill an entire 20 foot row but when I learned about the steps you have to take after harvest, I bought enough for a half row as a first try.   Here’s the dirt on growing sweet potatoes this past season: 

  • Tilled and mounded a 10 foot row.  Laid a wide strip of black plastic over the row (sweet potatoes like warm soil) and secured it at the edges .  
  • Make a slit in the plastic every 2 feet and plant a slip.
  • Freshly planted sweet potato slips
    Freshly planted sweet potato slips
  • That’s it till harvest.  How easy is that!  Water and sunshine throughout the growing season and the vines grew and spread until you could no longer see the plastic.  We were all very interested to see what, if any harvest would await us when the time came.
  • The vines begin to spread
    The vines begin to spread
  • Harvesting must occur after the first frost when the vines turn black.  Here’s where we started to wonder if sweet potatoes were all that darling or if they were just plain finicky.
  • Digging sweet potatoes is not that easy.  We learned they grow vertically and try to find their way to the other side of the world.   Down into the clay they went (some of them were 18-20 inches long).  They bruise and break easily when bringing them out of the ground. There was a bit of exasperation when we started and found we had to scratch around a great deal with hand trowels to see if the potatoes had traveled hither and yon. We got better at digging with the garden fork after a hill or two.  If the soil isn’t nice and loose the potatoes break.  There were cheers when we removed potatoes in tact.  
  • Success!
    Look at the size of 'em

      The potato on the right was on its way to China

    We harvested 30-35 pounds of sweet potatoes from 5 slips.  Not bad.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Sweet potatoes need to be cured.    I looked for advice on how to cure then and found there were as many ‘recipes’ as there were advisors.  Basically the potatoes must be kept in a place that is very warm (25-29C) and humid (85-90%) for 3 days or 7 days or maybe 21 days.  What??  One consistent message was curing must occur-conversion of sugars and making it so they will keep longer.  Avoid scaring or bruising the potatoes lest they start to spoil.  I layered the potatoes between sheets of newspaper and put them in 3 containers in our downstairs bathroom. I covered each container with a garbage bag (thinking it would help with humidity) and then a blanket/quilt.  A little heater helped keep the temperature up, as did having the lights on day and night.  Once in a while I would turn on the shower to up the humidity.  Such finicky darlings, sweet potatoes.  I checked them regularly.  The humidity never got as high as recommended (had a little temp/humidity gauge in the room).  After 3 weeks we reclaimed the bathroom, wrapped the tubers individually in newspaper, storing them in a cool dark place and now hoping to have sweet potatoes for the next several months.  

  • We haven’t decided if we will grow them again next year.  By spring the effort of harvest and curing this fall will be mostly forgotten and we will be enthusiastically entertaining thoughts of garden bounty.

Gardening Update-The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Here we are, nearing the end of August and there is more gardening behind us than there is ahead of us.  I think people’s enthusiasm wanes a bit at this time of year.  It seems there are fewer people out “on the land” (at the community gardens in our case) than there were in June and July.  For us, year two of at the community garden, it s been a much better year than our first foray into urban agriculture last year.  Now, we have invested quite a bit more but it’s paid off,  for the most part.

With a garden, it’s always something:

It’s been a very hot and dry year in our neck of the woods and a tough time for plants, crops and trees.  It’s apparently been forty years since we’ve had such drought in these parts.  The weather impacts the other cycles of life at the garden too so it’s hard to know if a problem is due to the seed used, one’s gardening practices or the year that was.  

And just like the old Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:

The Good

Bounty of many types-swiss chard, beans, patty pan squash, beets, tomatoes, carrots, beans, cabbage and so on.  The joy of starting seedlings and then watching them grow and then harvesting is tempered somewhat when you bring it home and have to figure out what to do with it.  At least this year we’ve been able to share more with others this year where last year that was laughable.

The Bad

You can visit the garden one day and things look great and two days later there are aphids or beetles or the leaves have turned brown and rolled up.  Note to self for next year, if it looks good and is ready, don’t leave it and think you’ll come back in a few days and harvest it for it may not be so beautiful on your next trip.  We are learning we need to be more on the watch for brussels sprout beetles, potato bugs and potato leaf rollers and squash beetles and slugs and four-legged animals that eat cabbages and beets and carrots.  Our poor brussels sprouts will never be allowed to make those little darlings because of the beetles and we didn’t realize what was after them until it was too late.  

The Ugly (and The Good at the same time) 

Yesterday our neighbour at the garden told me there was a “man in your garden with a large black bag”.  He was apparently helping himself to our produce.  Our neighbour, who is likely in his eighth decade and whose mobility is limited, walked over and told the man to “get out”.  The brazen fellow told our neighbour, he was our friend.  Our neighbour retorted, “I don’t care if you are her brother.  If she isn’t here, you get out!” and the poacher did just that.  Brazen,  ugly poacher.  Good neighbour.  

Gardening is not for those who are easily discouraged.  It’s not for those who are unprepared to be humbled by making mistakes.  When you think of it, between the weather in any given year, the winged attackers, the multiple legged bugs, the beetles, the slugs, the four-legged animals and now, our own species, it’s amazing we bring anything home.  No matter, I’m already thinking what we might do differently next year.  

What’s an organic treatment for human interlopers in one’s garden?  Any (lawful) recommendations?  How about advice on keeping down the beetles, bugs, aphids and so on.