So, Outlander fans….Remember when Claire was first leaving Lallybroch and gave Jenny the tip to “Plahhhnt Poh-Tay-Toes” in her very lovely accent as advice to ward off the impending famine? I can’t get that accent out of my head and giggle a bit every time I look at the little tuber.
I’ve had a garden for years and planting plain ole white potatoes is actually quite simple. But last year I decided I wanted to try sweet potatoes for the first time. I’d heard that the challenge of planting sweet potatoes isn’t in the actual growing of the vine – as it’s actually quite a hardy plant. The challenge comes when it’s time to harvest the potatoes and plan for their storage.
The difference lies with the skin of the sweet potato; it’s much thinner than the conventional white potato and is easily damaged when it’s dug out of the ground. Damaged skin allows for places for rot to set in, and I’m sure we’ve all encountered that one rotten potato lurking in the back of a cupboard ready to assault our olfactory senses with it’s funk – a game my sister and I like to call “What the hell is that smell?”
The other difference in sweet potatoes is that while they ARE technically edible just after harvest, the characteristic sweetness of the potato isn’t at it’s peak until the tuber is allowed to cure for a period of about SIX weeks.
With that in mind, I’d like to share with you all how I successfully planted and stored a few sweet potatoes last year in the hopes that you too might want to plunk a few of these sweet tubers in the ground. After all, we are officially post-Culloden now and should prep for a famine, amiright? (#Droughtlander once more!)
And for some of you, there might still be time for you to throw a few plants in the ground this year and still collect a 2016 harvest. The photo below show’s this year’s baby plant, which was bought locally at Lowe’s, I believe. (Disclaimer: this is NOT the ornamental sweet potato vine sold in the floral section of your garden center. While that plant is technically some sort of potato-ish vine, do not confuse the two. Go to the garden plants section!)
And that’s basically it for plant maintenance. Plunk it in the ground and walk away. Other than the four-legged and toothed variety of typical garden pests (deer and bunnies!) not much else seems to bother the potato vine. I let the plants grow until after the first few hard frosts, and then I prepped for digging. The plants looked like this when I dug them up… leaves all gross and dead, vines still green. I don’t like to wait for the vines to completely die, because I don’t want the tubers to start to rot. This stage of almost-but-not-quite-dead plant was a good time to dig, and in the Shenandoah Valley, occurred in mid-October.
As this was my first ever crop, I really had no idea what to expect as far as how big the tubers were going to be, how much yield I’d get, how much I’d have to dig, etc. etc.. We typically cover most of our garden soil with landscape fabric because we HATE to weed, and I was excited to get my first ‘look under the skirts’ to get an understanding of what exactly was going on down there. Here’s what I found…
The tubers were very near the surface, and didn’t actually spread too far out from the main vine, nor did they go very deep.
(Somehow my garden seems to continue to grow giant ROCKS, too. WTF?! Been in the same spot for 6 years. Dug and tilled EACH year, but still I find these assholes.)
And THIS little baby was the very first one I dug out out of the ground. Not gonna lie, I thought I’d be buried in sweet potatoes. I’d planted eight plants and if they all had these “babies” I’d need a potato ROOM.
Fortunately this gargantuan sucker was the only one of it’s kind, and the vast majority were much more typical in size with only a few ‘lunkers’ as I like to call them.
I tried to be very patient while digging because I didn’t want to harm the skin. No cuts, scratches or incomplete potatoes. After they were all dug out of the ground, I gently cleaned the dirt off with nice cool water, and set them in the sun to dry.
A few websites suggested that a quick one-time dry was enough, but I found a few others suggested that a few days in straight sunshine yielded a better cure. As I had a nice stretch of sunny days, I left them in the sun for three days, flipping them over a few times each day to get a nice potato tan.
As you’ll see in the above photo, I used plastic garden trays to lug around my harvest. Most gardeners I know have a selection of leftover pots and planters and have a few of these things on hand. They worked PERFECTLY for what I had planned for long term storage, which was simply a large plastic tub and some newspaper.
I sorted the potatoes according to size (lunkers on the bottom – wee babes on top), putting several layers of loose newspaper between each layer. I found a spot in my basement for long-term storage, and then I waited. You want to keep the potatoes in a cool dry place, so a basement or a root cellar is ideal. Every few days I’d check on the tub (’cause I’m curious) and found that when the newspaper seemed a bit damp, I’d replace it with other sheets and repeat the process every few days – just rotating the newspaper to and fro. The key to maintaining a nice cure is to let the tubers release a bit of moisture and the sweetness will get a bit more concentrated.
And here I am seven months later, and the potatoes still look like THIS:
In fact, one of those buggers ended up looking just like dinner last night. Perfectly baked with a bit of butter, accompanied by sprinkles of salt and just a bit of brown sugar. DELICIOUS.
And remember that gigantic thing? it ended up becoming my very first sweet potato side dish – a sweet potato casserole for Thanksgiving dinner.
Get your viney green thumb on and get out there! You’ll love this plant!