After a swing through the garden early this summer, Becky and I were relaxing on the porch with our coffee. One of the newest additions to the garden décor was an old autoclave that Mom bought at a yard sale for five dollars. She thought I might be able to use it as a pressure canner, but it must have weighed forty pounds. So I set at the back of the vegetable beds, to provide a focal point and inspire the tomatoes.
I’m not above fishing for a compliment, so I asked Becky what she thought about the recent innovations in the garden.
She thought a bit, and then said, “Well, plastic isn’t considered as tacky as it used to be, and it’s better than the weeds you grew there last year.”
“There’s no plastic on it. Those handles on that autoclave are wood.” I was going to mention that I’d kept that area well-weeded, but I do have a tendency to get lazy later in the season.
“Autoclave?” Becky’s face had that puzzled look she often seems to wear around me. “I was talking about the plastic tent you have over there.”
I had to admit that the tent was tacky at the moment, but later in the summer, that area would be one of the loveliest in my yard. That’s because the “tent” covered sweet potatoes. By midsummer, their vines had covered the area, the wide, dark-green leaves, tinged with maroon, crowding out most weeds.
We associate sweet potatoes with the South, but, in many ways, they’re well-adapted to Nevada. They are not all that fussy about soil Ph, and need only average fertility. They do need irrigation, but can take the occasional skipped watering with grace. Pests and disease don’t bother them. Best of all, they love the punishing heat Nevada can dish out.
In fact, they need that heat, which is why I had the tent over them, even in June. Our season is a tad short for sweet potatoes, and our spring and fall weather isn’t quite as warm as they like. A little season-extending plastic does the trick.
I planted out sixty sweet potato pegs the first of June, and covered them with a plastic tunnel immediately. They survived the frost we had on June seventh, although some of the ones touching the plastic succumbed to the cold. I left the plastic over them until nearly mid-July, when the nights were above fifty. On really hot days, I opened up the ends of the tunnel to avoid cooking them prematurely. I replaced the plastic towards the end of August, when the nights began to cool.
The forty plants that survived produced a little over thirty pounds of sweet potatoes. I think I can increase that yield next year though, by changing a few of the variables. This year, the row ran north and south, and I planted them in a wide band, with plants about a foot apart in each direction.
The most productive plants were on the south end of the row. The plants in the middle of the row were not nearly as productive as those on the edges. Next year, I’ll make sure the bed runs east and west, so that there’s more exposure to southern heat. I may choose to space the plants further apart as well, so plants are less likely to shade each other.
Sweet potatoes are relatively little work during the growing season, but it’s important to prepare their bed well. I dug in three inches of manure, because I hadn’t used the bed the previous year. I also spaded up the soil fairly well, although when I dug them up, I realized that I should have given them looser, deeper soil. I had one or two taters that went a foot straight down.
It’s important to be careful when you dig sweet potatoes. The roots go every which direction, and a cut or break on the tuber will mean that potato will probably not store well. Sweet potatoes must be handled gently, and they should not be washed until just before you use them.
Once sweet potatoes are dug, they must be cured before storage. To do that, they must be spread out in a warm, moist place for at least ten days. After that, they can be stored under the same conditions as squash, that is, in a dark place at between fifty and sixty degrees.
I bought my sweet potato pegs from a mail order company, at some expense. My sister Jessie got her plants for free. But that’s a story for next month.
When Teresa Howell isn’t thinking up ways to keep her garden tacky, she teaches English at Great Basin College.