One of the best parts of this year's Harvest Festival for us at the Derwood demo garden (besides having enough mouse melons to hand out to everyone who wanted one - hurray!) was what a great sweet potato harvest we had. Actually, that's nearly always the best part, though since this year was not a great potato year (no blight, but corn borers) we particularly appreciated seeing all those lovely red tubers (Georgia Jet variety) coming out of the ground. Especially when MG Barbara Knapp, who has the technique and patience to manage it, got a whole clump out at once still attached to the vine:
(Barbara's photo) It weighed eight pounds! Our largest sweet potato this year weighed two and a half pounds, which is only half Barbara's record of five, but really quite large enough.
We love digging for an audience, especially those kids who are curious about where their favorite foods come from. And actually we don't mind at all explaining all day long that potatoes and sweet potatoes are from entirely different plant families, and that they grow differently, and are planted at different times of the year, potatoes in March from pieces of guaranteed disease-free seed potato (please do not use store-bought) in a trench gradually filled in with soil over growing plants which will die back in the summer, and sweet potatoes in late May or whenever it's warm from plant slips on top of a loose bed of soil from which those lovely vines will spread out until frost. And yes, you can eat sweet potato stems and leaves (we just learned about the stems this time around from our visitors).
Here's Barbara showing off her viney garden:
(photo: Katherine Lambert) No, those are zinnias over to the left, but sweet potatoes have nice flowers too. You can't really see it in the middle of the vines, but the original slips were planted inside a cage of hardware cloth buried several inches in the ground to keep out mice and voles. And lo, when we dug up the tubers that had grown just outside the cage, they had been chewed partially away. I think our resident chipmunks were having a feast as well, even inside the cage. But it does a good job keeping out most furry pests. Insects are not much of a problem.
The cage was an oval about five feet long, and the whole garden area is about eight by ten feet for six plants, but if you've got less space you can still grow a plant or two and get a nice harvest in the fall. You can grow sweet potatoes in a pot! And they're pretty. Nice groundcover, if temporary.
Barbara says have a sweet potato. You know you want to.