Garden Notes: Sweet potatoes very tasty and very pretty, as well

If it’s out of your garden, you know how it’s been grown, fertilized, sprayed and harvested. That knowledge is one of the perks of growing your own.

Sweet potatoes are related to morning glories, and they’re ubiquitous as ornamental plants. I used a container planted with decorative lime green sweet potato vine and marigolds last summer. I was surprised to find tubers when I pulled the plants out in the fall.

Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes. To natives of the Western Hemisphere, sweet potatoes were a staple food.

They would survive when other crops failed.

We associate sweet potatoes with the South, but some cultivars grow well in the Mid-Atlantic states and Heat Zones like ours.

The February issue of Fine Gardening magazine recommends the cultivar Georgia Jet. Compared to other cultivars, Georgia Jet requires only 80 to 90 days to mature. It has orange flesh, very sweet and moist compared to a sweet potato with beige, white or yellow flesh.

Sweet potatoes can be grown using slips, stem or root cuttings. Slips are grown from last year’s sweet potatoes held in storage. You can use them as seed just as you use potatoes.

They have few natural enemies (except deer) and rarely require the use of a pesticide. Weedy bullies can’t compete with the quick growing vines and their heavy foliage. And that’s always a plus!

Georgia Jet nighttime temperatures need to be above 60. They like well-drained, light to medium weight soil with a pH of 4.5-7.0, although they’re not particular. If you have poor soil, they’ll cooperate if you give them a little fertilizer. They’re very sensitive to drought but won’t tolerate water-logging. Sweet potatoes won’t tolerate frost, even light frost.

In our Zones 5-6, the Farmer’s Almanac anticipates the first frost on Oct. 17.

Be warned: Harvesting your crop before Oct. 17 is just the beginning of the grow-your-own sweet potatoes process. Their taste develops over the time they’re “cured.” When you dig your crop, let them lay on the ground two or three hours. Then store them for a week or two in a place where there is high heat and humidity. Well-cured sweet potatoes can last a year or more.

Sweet potatoes taste like dessert and are good for us, too. They’re very nutritious and loaded with the fiber we should be eating every day. Most of us eat about 14 grams of fiber — 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men is recommended.

Have you ever tried sweet potato salad? Use 3 pounds of sweet potatoes, peel, cube and cook them. Then add a cup of chopped green pepper, ½ cup finely chopped onion, 1½ teaspoon pepper, ½ cup mayonnaise and a dash of hot sauce, if you’re in the mood. Mix everything, cover and refrigerate before serving. You can feel positively righteous when you get your fiber!

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