I have a handful of sweet potatoes sitting in a bowl on my counter. They are the last fresh produce from last seasons’ garden and it is almost six months since they were harvested. Impressive. Now, I enjoy sweet potatoes but they don’t set my world on fire. I thought I would feature them this week because it struck me that anyone who is new to gardening might overlook this prolific choice because it’s commonly known that potatoes have to be dug out of the ground. Frankly, digging seems like a lot of work.
Potatoes of any kind enjoy well-worked soil that’s rich in organic matter, but unlike plain potatoes, sweet potatoes LOVE the hot weather. They also have a fairly long growing season with the “early” varieties requiring at least 90 days to grow. In my Central Indiana climate, I wait until a few weeks AFTER the last frost date when the soil and air become markedly warmer. I have planted directly in my garden and in containers. Both work well.
I buy “slips” (shoots grown from mature potatoes) and plant them in loose, well-drained soil. You could start your own by saving some “seed potatoes” each year. You jam a few toothpicks in the sides to suspend them over water (like you would do with an avocado seed) then set them in your sunniest window. I don’t ever remember to save potatoes for this purpose which is just as well: the two Siamese cats who rule my house enjoy knocking things off warm ledges.
No matter how you choose to acquire your slips, install them the same way. 12 inches apart and 6 inches deep in full sun. The leaves should rest just above the soil after being firmly planted. Water them in. The plants will grow to cover the ground. At the 90-day mark you can reach into your soil and harvest some of the larger roots. If you can wait until the leaves begin to yellow and die back, that’s optimum. The longer the tubers hang out below the soil, the higher their nutritional value becomes.
After harvesting, brush off the dirt and let them sit in the sun for a few hours. Then stick them in your kitchen in a well-ventilated spot. They will “cure” for about two weeks. This accomplishes two things. First, any nicks that may have occurred during digging (i.e. if you used a garden trowel, perhaps) will heal over and prevent rotting. Most importantly, the sweet flesh gets sweeter and more delicious.
What’s the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? Both are tubers but totally different vegetables. Yams ARE NOT SWEET but a pretty neutrally-flavored and tough root. They have lumpy brown skin. Most of the “yams” you see in the grocery are actually just sweet potatoes that have been misidentified and they aren’t very good. You’re welcome!
Of course, you can bake a sweet potato. That’s probably the most common preparation. They can be roasted, mashed and French-fried, too. As children, my cousin Kim and I lived for the toasted marshmallows that topped the candied version served at our Grammy’s each Thanksgiving. As an adult, my tastes have advanced a bit and my favorite sweet potato recipe is included below. Simple but delish. Don’t forget to share your photos with me if you try my recipes. Bon Appétit.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Lay the sweet potatoes out in a single layer on a roasting tray. Drizzle the oil, honey, cinnamon, orange juice, zest, cardamom, salt and pepper over the potatoes. Toss to coat. Roast for 30 minutes in oven or until tender. Serves 8.
Best served immediately.
Elizabeth Morse cooks professionally, is an Advanced Master Gardener and lover of all things local.