Russell Studebaker: Sweet potatoes can grow to be hearty
BY RUSSELL STUDEBAKER In Our Gardens
Saturday, November 24, 2012
11/24/12 at 5:50 AM
Next to turkey, dressing and green beans, the most traditional Thanksgiving food in my family was the sweet potato. Each year at that time, we would motor from the Texas panhandle to the maternal grandparents' farm in central Oklahoma.
And always on the menu and on the large round oak dining room table was candied sweet potatoes, sugary sweet and topped with marshmallows. We kids and cousins were always seated at the small table away from the grow ups. And being just post-Depression and the end of the Dust Bowl era, we ate what was put on our plates or else!
This year I wanted to grow some for eating for my first time. So I got rooted slips to plant of three different cultivars: Jewel, Hernandez, and Beauregard from Gary Shaum, Duck Creek Farms. These 14 slips produced almost three bushels of sweet potato tubers when they were dug three weeks ago.
Archaeological records of these plants date to 8000 BC, but authorities speculate that domestication happened about 4000 BC in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. They were dispersed to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. Much later the Portuguese and Spanish took them to Africa, Asia and Europe. The French who established a Louisiana settlement in Opelousas in 1760 found the native tribes eating this tuber. And it became a favorite food of the French and Spanish, resulting in its lengthy cultivation in that state.
Now they are cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate world where there is sufficient water to grow. Today we grow them not only in our vegetable gardens but also in our ornamental landscapes. Those grown in the landscapes can also be harvested and eaten. Blackie, for example, a cultivar with black lobed leaves, was the first ornamental one and a discard from a USDA breeding program. Margarita, the popular chartreuse heart-shaped leafed one, was introduced in 1993 by professor Allan Armitage, University of Georgia.
Sweet Potatoes are the seventh-largest food crop grown, and China produces 80 percent, of which one half is used for livestock feed. Depending on the cultivar, the smooth-skinned tuber's color can be yellow, orange, red, brown, purple or beige. And the different cultivar's flesh can be just as colorful with colors of beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange or purple. Tubers with pale or white flesh are not as sweet nor as moist as those with red, pink or orange flesh.
Plant the rooted slips from May 1 through June in full sun in loamy or sandy soils with good drainage. Space rows 3 feet apart and the plants 9 to 12 inches apart in the rows. Plant at least two nodes (joints) 3 inches below the soil and place the plant's stem in a horizontal position in the soil. Use a balanced NPK fertilizer for good growth. Harvest can begin in 90 to 120 days or as soon as possible after frost.
Shaum says to dig with caution to prevent bruising, then spread them out to dry out of direct sun for a couple of hours. When dry, put in boxes and lined with newspaper and where they do not touch. Place in a warm, ventilated area for two weeks to cure. Curing helps convert the starches to sugars and prolongs keeping. Properly cured, they can last up to 10 months.
I raise my fork in respect and tribute to those who domesticated this nutritious vegetable for our table and landscapes, but at the table, please do not pass me the candied sweet potatoes.
Original Print Headline: Sweet potatoes can grow to be hearty
Russell Studebaker is a professional horticulturist and garden writer in Tulsa and can be reached at russell.studebaker@ cox.net.
Nola Kirk shows some results of the sweet potato harvest. She is holding the popular Margarita cultivar. RUSSELL STUDEBAKER /Courtesy