67.8 pounds. That’s how many sweet potatoes I harvested from the garden yesterday. Let me tell you: 67.8 pounds is a lot of sweet potatoes. Two full boxes worth, with overflow in mixing bowls and all over the kitchen counter.
Looks like I’ll be needing to stock up on sweet potato recipes for this winter. If you’ve got any favorites to share, please post them in the comments below. Thank you!
If you grew sweet potatoes this year, it’s about time to unearth your harvest too.
There’s no real trick for harvesting sweets. There’s no sign that they are ready. In fact, there’s no magical “ready” time. Sweet potatoes, like regular potatoes, don’t ripen. They just grow larger and more numerous. So, the longer you let your sweet potatoes grow, the larger your harvest will be. But, if you only have a short growing season or discover you’ve got smaller-than-expected tubers, don’t sweat it. Those roots should taste just like the larger ones you’d imagined.
Here, in Virginia, it’s best to harvest sweet potatoes just before the first frost. This gives us a growing season of roughly three to four months, or 90 to 120 days. That’s perfect for most sweets.
If you’re further north, you’ll want to do the same thing; harvest your sweet potatoes as late as possible. Just watch the weather report, and head out to dig up your sweets when you start seeing weather forecasts with nighttime temperatures in the low 40s or 30s. Above all, do your best to harvest your sweets before the first frost. These are tropical plants. They do not appreciate freezing temperatures, and the cold can cause chilling-injury on the tubers.
If you’re further south then Virginia, you may have a growing season that’s far longer than 90-120 days. Don’t wait for that first frost, or those first cold nights. Instead, look at your calendar, and plan to harvest your sweets about 120 days after you planted them. You can start harvesting as early as 90 days, but should probably finish harvesting by the time your plants are 150 days old — the tubers can grow to be too large, which makes them harder to store. For most sweet potatoes, 120 days of growth is about ideal.
No matter where you live, harvest your sweets with care. The tubers look tough and indestructible, but they bruise easily. And, those bruises can turn to bad spots if you’re planning on storing these tubers for a while. So, treat them gently. Don’t throw your sweets. Don’t drop them. Handle them like eggs, and you should be golden.
If you grew your sweets in containers, simply dump the dirt out and root around for your harvest. If you went the traditional route, and planted you sweet potatoes in the ground, you’ve got some digging ahead of you. Grab a digging fork and start turning the soil beneath your plant. Most varieties of sweet potatoes will hide most of their edible tubers near the base of the plant, but some sprawl further. Expect to dig up an area about the size of a hulu hoop around your plants.
You may also need to dig if you grew in containers. Sweet potatoes are stubborn plants, and their roots will find any crack or hole in the container. Many of my sweets escaped their bushel baskets and buried some roots under their containers, for example.
It’s no wonder the sweets escaped. Bushel baskets, it seems, are only good for one or two seasons in the garden. Mine are at the end of their second year, and obviously won’t be seeing a third year of use in the garden. Looks like I’ll be buying more bushel baskets next spring.
However you harvest them, do so slowly and gently. You want to avoid puncturing or damaging the roots as much as possible. Also, if you can resist, don’t wash the dirt off them. You want the roots to dry as quickly as possible, and the dirt won’t hurt them (or you).
Now, stop. If you can, try to resist cooking up your crop right away. I’ve read that sweet potatoes need a bit of curing before their full flavor develops, and that a few months of rest is best, if you can hold out that long.
I honestly haven’t tested this theory yet. I’ve always just stored the roots, and waited until November or so before roasting up my first sweets. This year, I’m going to see what a just-harvested sweet potato tastes like. Way I figure, with nearly 70 pounds of sweet potatoes in my kitchen, I’ve got enough on hand to do a little experimenting. And, yes, once I’ve cooked and tasted that first sweet potato, I’ll report back.
[Update: The theory is correct. Just-harvested sweet potatoes taste nothing like you'd hope. I roasted one last night and served it with lots of butter and a dash of salt and pepper, my favorite easy sweet potato dish. I ate it all (because, hey, sweet potato!), but the taste was flat. Hollow. Like a low-quality photocopy of a beautiful photograph. If you can't resist eating your just-harvested sweets, you may want to use them in dishes that need bulk without flavor. But, if you can hold off for a couple months, I suspect the wait will be worth it.]
Regardless of the taste quality of just-picked sweets, you probably have enough roots on hand that you’ll need to store some of them. That means you’ll need to cure them. And, that means you’ll need to provide your sweets with a warm (nearly hot) and moist environment for about a week.
Last year, I cured my sweets in a storage container with water in the bottom (not touching the roots) and a light bulb for heat. This year, I’m going to use the spare closet in the guest room. I’ll be setting this up today, and will post more once I’ve got some photos to share. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, if you want to read about how to cure your sweets right now, check out this article in Mother Earth News: Grow Sweet Potatoes — Even in the North.
[Update: I never got around to doing anything fancy with these sweet potatoes. I totally skipped the curing, and jumped straight to storing. Simply stored the sweets in boxes, in a dark, unused closet at a temperature of approximately 65°F. Worked great, and very easy.]
Few crops produce a larger harvest from a smaller investment than sweet potatoes. In fact, I’ve read that sweet potatoes produce more calories per acre than any other crop. After harvesting nearly 70 pounds from a dozen containers in my front yard, I believe it. And, it’s not just the density of the harvest. The rate of return is also amazing.
Here’s how the numbers work. I planted 18 sweet potato slips this spring, all started from two tubers I’d saved from my 2011 harvest. [click here to learn how to start your own slips.] I didn’t weigh those roots, but let’s estimate they weighed two pounds total.
You see why I like this rate of return? Two pounds of sweet potato investment for 67.8 pounds of sweet potato harvest. And, actually, it’s better than that. Those original two pounds of sweet potatoes produced more slips than I needed. I gave a couple to a friend — who just harvested nearly ten pounds of gorgeous roots — and a few to my cousin. I’m not sure what the final tally will be from my cousin’s plants, but let’s assume another ten pounds.
That’s 87.8 pounds of sweet potatoes from the slips grown off about two pounds of roots. Since we’re already estimating, let’s just round up to 90 pounds. That’s a 45-to-1 rate of return.
Forget the stock market. We should all be investing in sweet potatoes.
The numbers might be even more impressive if I had grown all my sweets in full sun (several languished in shade, and only gave me a pound of harvestable roots each). Since most of my plants produced about five pounds of roots each, and most sweet potatoes will produce 10-15 (or more!) slips from a single root, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a 50-to-1 rate of return on sweet potatoes. Start the season with a one-pound tuber. Grow your own slips from that tuber. Plant those slips. Then, harvest about 50 pounds in the fall. Or more!
Did you grow sweet potatoes this year? Have you harvested yet? Are you happy or disappointed with the harvest? Planning on growing them again next year? I’d love to hear about your sweet potato experiences from this summer. Please share your stories in the comments section below.
And, stay tuned for a post about how to cure your sweets.