Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sweet Potato

Yes, this is a sweet potato growing in a mug.

Last year we ordered sweet potato slips from Sand Hill Preservation Center. Even though they assured us that their oddly late ship-date would be fine, our sweet potatoes indeed did not have enough time in the ground by harvest-time to fully mature. The plants were lush and large, but most of the tubers were runty little things.

It's too bad about Sand Hill, because they look like the sort of company that I would like to support. They are dedicated to the preservation of genetic diversity in food crops and poultry. I may order other plants from them in the future, but this year, I'll be growing my sweet potatoes from last season's runty tubers.

I kept two jars of runts. One went into the fridge, and the other went under the sink. Sure enough, the cold of the fridge killed that jar. They went all nasty with mold. (Note to self, don't refrigerate sweet potatoes.)

The jar of runts under the sink have some perky nubbins of growth on them now. They also have some tiny white bugs in the jar with them, which I need to research. Those might be a bad sign. But for now I'll assume the tubers are okay to grow.

But back to the sweet potato in the mug! In mid-December I was dying to grow something, and one of my better mugs conveniently developed a perfect drainage crack, which incidently caused me to unfairly scold a friend's daughter for spilling her milk - sorry about that! - so. . . I grew what I had on hand.

And for the greater good, I sacrificed it today.

The verdict: two and a half months in a mug-sized container is a bit too long. This little guy is looking root-bound. A month just might be about the right amount of head-start for sweet potatoes.

If I'm not mistaken, in their native habitat (where they don't have to be ripped out of the ground to survive a winter) a tuber seasonally loses it's roots as well as its foliage. Seeing the actual root-mass of this plant, I begin to understand how such a growth cycle affects poor soils. A plant will extend a non-insignificant quantity of root material into sandy or clay soil, and then leave it there to decompose into humus. This slowly improves the soil, and it doesn't just happen at the end of a plant's life-cycle, nor I believe does it only happen with tubers.

Looking at this sweet potato's roots, it really hit me how much is going on under the ground.

It's interesting to see that roots grew out of the same points as the foliage.

Ahh, sweet potatoes. I have childhood memories of the baked sweet-potato vendors hawking their wares in Japan, sounding like a call to evening culinary prayer.


hero爺 said...


You remember stone-roasted sweet potato in Japan.

Is it common the roasted sweet in US?

Pam J. said...

nice story! And this is so true: "it really hit me how much is going on under the ground."

Michelle said...

Hi Hero! Baked sweet potato is fairly common here, but it isn't sold by vendors in trucks. I think the Japanese sweet potatoes taste better, too. :)

Thanks Pam. :)

LauraP said...

Aren't those roots wonderful? I love this perspective piece you've written.

Don't give up on Sandhill - they have so many other terrific offerings. I didn't do so well with the late slips the year I ordered from them and like you, I figured it was the planting date. Have learned since that it's more a matter of weather and soil conditions. Two summers ago, in July I planted an empty 80 ft. raised row with leftover bits and pieces from the year before that were sprouting in the sweet potato bin -- just tossed them, shriveled tuber bits and elongated sprouts, into the dirt, covered them, watered when I thought about it but otherwise pretty much ignored them until frost. We dug about 120 lbs. from that row, including a couuple of three pounders.

Michelle said...

Thanks Laura! I bet you're right. Last year was such a terrible gardening year all around. I can't wait to give the sweet potatoes another try.