Fresh Earth Farms - CSA

A Yam by Any Other Name

Sweet Potatoes plucked from the ground

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Thank you to everyone who helped out with the garlic planting this weekend. Sorry for those of you who missed it.

Farm News

Last week I discussed how we grew ginger this season with reasonable success and how we had to modify its growing environment to give it what it needs to be successful. This week I’ll discuss another tropical plant that requires special growing conditions to be successful in our very non-tropical climate — sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are native to the tropical regions of the Americas. They typically need a long growing season to produce marketable sized roots. That’s why most domestic sweet potatoes are grown in the Southern United States. They have a much longer growing season than us northern Yankees.

Sweet potatoes are started from sweet potato “slips”. I would think slips are what you use to start banana plants. Anyway, slips are a small “plant” that comes from the mother sweet potato. To create slips you just need to have a sweet potato root start to sprout. When the resultant sprouts are big enough — 3-4 inches — you break them off and now you have sweet potato slips! One season we tried creating our own slips but the problem is you need a large number of sweet potatoes to generate enough slips all at once. Though each sweet potato can generate a bunch of slips they don’t all come when you want them to. So we buy them from a southern sweet potato slip grower.

Interestingly — to me at least — is we used to get slips from a different grower who would send slips that had no roots — just a stem with leaves. These slips grew well and produced nice sweet potatoes. They stopped selling slips so we went with a different grower. The slips from this second grower come with roots. We found the sweet potatoes generated from these “rooty” slips didn’t do as well. So now when we get the slips we cut the roots off. It’s unfortunately an extra step but we couldn’t find a supplier who sells rootless slips. I suspect the slips with roots are initially rootless but they put them in water or soil to keep them alive until ready to ship. When using rootless slips the roots that are generated after planting tend to be thick and stout. I think this is why rootless slips work better.

Once we cut the slips we transplant them into black plastic covered ground if we are growing them outside. As we’ve learned in the past black plastic heats the soil and creates a far warmer environment than non-black-plastic. Being a tropical plant the sweet potatoes love it. If we use our hoop house to grow the sweet potatoes we plant them in raised hills then put reusable black landscape fabric between the rows to keep the weed down and the temps up. We grew both inside and outside this season though we didn’t record the data necessary to figure out if the hoop house was more or less productive.

Growing in the hoop house makes for a longer, warmer growing season. We dug the outdoor sweet potatoes in early October. We dug the indoor ones last week. With the warm weather lately we could have continued to let them grow in the hoop house. We had a couple of frosts outside but inside the hoop house it stayed warm enough for the plants to survive. So the hoop house gave us at least an additional two weeks of growing — and that is just at the end of the season. I don’t recall when we planted the slips but I believe the indoor ones were planted before the outdoor ones.

We grow one of the faster growing sweet potatoes — Georgia Jets. They have a “days to maturity” of 90 days. Of course the actual time varies based on the growing season but 90 days fits pretty well into our shorter season. However with this shorter season we can’t consistently harvest a large yield every season. That is why there are no commercial sweet potato businesses in Minnesota. Sure we did well with sweet potatoes this year but the last few years we were not so successful. A commercial sweet potato grower can’t take that level of risk.

Once we harvest the sweet potatoes we put them in the greenhouse and heat it to 80 degrees. This “cures” the roots and “heals” any wounds. The curing makes the skin tougher but not so tough that it can’t be eaten. We lightly washed them this season by spraying them with a hose, letting them dry then brushing off any remaining dirt, though they may still be a bit dusty. I hope this makes them last longer.

Sweet potatoes will get sweeter over time but they can be eaten now if you prefer. Store them in a cool, dry, dark but not cold location. Somewhere in the 55-60 degree range. Any colder may cause them to degrade.

That is pretty much everything there is to know about sweet potatoes, oh except for one more thing. If you see “yams” in the store they are probably sweet potatoes. Yams and sweet potatoes are two completely different veggies. Americans typically do not eat yams. They are pretty starchy. But we here in America just can’t figure that out so the grocers and some growers call their sweet potatoes yams, which makes us the laughing stock of the sweet potato and yam world. Or I suppose maybe they call them “yams” since they write a weekly newsletter and typing “yam” over and over is far less time consuming than writing “sweet potato”.

What will we have this week?

Sweet potatoes (but no yams)! Plus potatoes (some are blue!), carrots, garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages (they didn’t grow very big but its now or never!), kale tops (just like kale bunches but pre-bunched!), winter squash, some mesclun mix, and some things I am forgetting.

It is a ‘ShroomShare week. Plus we have a couple of WinterShares and CoffeeShares that a few of you have not yet picked up. No other shares this week.

That’s pretty much all I have time for. As always, feel free to send in questions, comments, suggestions, jokes, brain teasers or other words for sweet potatoes.

Garlic Planting Party Detritus

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