Sweet Potato Optimism

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Sweet Potato Optimism-June 7, 2013
Just the idea of even planting sweet potatoes here in northern flyover country requires a bit of optimism. It has been a very cool beginning to summer and most of us hope that we will get some summer-like weather soon. Planting sweet potatoes, a traditional Southern crop, is a bit of a reach. Yet, the last two summers have been very productive for my sweet potatoes.
I usually don’t set the plants out until the first week of June. This year there has been no question about waiting. Taking the plants out of their warm greenhouse environment would’ve been a death warrant to the cold- sensitive plants.
Yesterday the sun shone and the temperature finally crept toward 70°, with an even warmer outlook for next week. Maybe a shot at summer! It seemed like the right day to plant sweet potatoes. The dilemma is always to figure out how to grow the sweet potatoes during the warmest 100 days of the season. They need warm soil and tolerate no frost. It seems the slot between June 1 and mid-September offers the best shot at growing tasty sweet potatoes in the North.
I like to start with good sized plants grown in four-inch pots in the greenhouse. The variety I use is Beauregard; well adapted to the north, producing orange- red, good- flavored roots. I mound the row into a raised bed by pulling the soil up from each side. A raised bed warms up better and gives more room for the large roots to develop. I plant the started plants about 3 feet apart and give them plenty of room for the prolific vines to spread out.
Sweet potato vines will root down in many places and in a warm, long, summer might produce some sweet potatoes from these rooted- down -vines. In our short season however, I like to keep the vines from rooting anywhere except where the original plants were placed. This seems to divert all of the plants’ energy into the main tubers offering the best chance for attaining the largest size possible in these roots. Sweet potatoes need average amounts of water, yet are pretty drought tolerant and really seem pretty free of pests here in Minnesota. Thirteen- lined ground squirrels (striped gophers) will dig into the roots and eat them, unnoticed under the heavy vines’ cover. Deer also like the new green shoots of the vines. I usually put an electric fence around my sweet potato patch to keep the deer from over- pruning my plants.
My sweet potato recipes are very simple: grill them or make them in the oven and add whatever seasonings or toppings you prefer. The taste of plain, home grown, organic sweet potatoes is really all that one needs and little else needs to be added. More on recipes if the crop is successful. Planting sweet potatoes here is definitely an exercise in optimism, but well worth the effort if the weather cooperates a bit.

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