Although she rarely has any involvement with actual growing facilities at the Triffid Ranch, the Czarina asked for an exception this year. While my dislike of sweet potatoes isn’t on a par with that of butternut squash or bell peppers, planting them for my own use never really came up on the radar. However, she adores them, and she regularly shares roasted sweet potatoes with our cat Leiber. Yes, the cat loves sweet potatoes, and since his consumption seems to cut down on piles of cat vomit randomly encountered in the dark, that’s a reason alone to try my hand at growing my own.
The reality is that half of the fun of experiencing a new plant is not knowing anything about its initial growth, and watching the whole process. The other half is having a growing area that was criminally underutilized. Since the big silverleaf maples came down two years ago, this space had little to no shade during the worst of the summer heat, and the usual assemblage of tomatoes, white potatoes, or other essentials burned off by mid-June. When the Czarina gave me a stored sweet potato that had started sprouting and asked if I could plant it in the space, I told her “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises.” I knew they could handle Texas heat, but could they handle our ridiculously low North Texas humidity?
As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The growing area had become the depository of nearly five years of kitchen compost, dead Sarracenia and Nepenthes leaves, extra potting mix from repottings, and the occasional bag of grass cuttings dumped on top to keep things moist. Five years of earthworms, ox beetle grubs, and the occasional armadillo later, and the soil in that depository had become a fluffy, rich loam, absolutely perfect for both growing and harvesting any root crops growing in it. Harvesting wasn’t a matter of digging out as it was simply brushing off dirt and hauling it in.
But I get ahead of myself. Much like the sweet potato cousin the moonflower (Ipomoea alba), the biggest issue with sweet potatoes is getting them established. I suspect both species work in symbiosis with fungi in a commensual relationship, because the first year of trying to get either to grow is a bear, but after that first year, the seeds or tubers practically sprout the moment they touch the ground. I don’t know if I actually got any sweet potato seeds in the growing area this year, but judging by the number of stunning flowers growing under the foliage, I may luck out. Unlike other members of the genus Ipomoea, these flowers remain hidden under multiple layers of foliage, and I suspect that they fluoresce extensively under UV light, possibly encouraging night pollinators.
About that foliage, that’s one thing about sweet potatoes. It’s not shy about taking over the planet. By the beginning of August, mowing the lawn around the greenhouse was a proposition, as the sweet potato vines spreading outward tend to wrap around and tangle up lawn mower blades. This was about the time we discovered that sweet potato leaves made excellent additions to stir-fry or as a substitute for spinach in various recipes. At that point, the questions was whether the sweet potato would ask for UN citizenship to protect it from the Czarina’s depredations. It actually worked out well, because until Halloween weekend, it was growing new leaves faster than she could strip them out. In the meantime, the vines also offered great shelter for praying mantises and anole lizards, so building a trellis alongside the greenhouse and encouraging sweet potatoes to act as shade plants might be an option.
Sadly, with Halloween came the threat of cold weather, and if there’s one thing that will ruin a sweet potato harvest, it’s the rot spread by dead and dying vines killed off by a good frost. This meant that they had to come out and start curing in a high-humidity area before they went bad. As mentioned before, the soil was so loose that the only hardship was finding the base of the plant. I say this after the vines had swallowed a rain gauge, two sprinkler heads, and a chiminea, but lifting up the mat of intertwined vines finally revealed the crown of the plant, and some quick grubbing around it came across the first of the tubers.
Having never done this before, I fully expected the usual beginner’s harvest: two or three tubers, and won’t I feel great about my accomplishments? Apparently, though, all of those composted Sarracenia leaves contributed to the tilth, because one removed tuber would reveal another. And another. And another. By the time things were finished, I managed to get nearly 15 kilos of tubers out of that tiny little space, and I still think I missed a few.
With the soil not consisting solely of Black Prairie clay, cleanup was remarkably easy: a quick wash with the hose, setting them in the sun to dry, and a quick inspection for damage or rot. Both the wife and the cat were even more impressed by the harvest: Leiber has never had interest in raw sweet potatoes before, but he looked half-tempted to take a chunk right then and there.
Another thing about this adventure is the realization that what we think of as “typical” sweet potato sizes are more dictated by market pressures than by any plant-imposed maximum. The first few dug up were “typical” in size, and then this one revealed itself. I now understand the source of canned sweet potatoes, as this one was too big just to cook up and eat, so it became the core of several batches of sweet potato bread. I had no real interest, but judging by the way friends were tearing into it, it was that much more for everybody else.
Finally, we got this beast, nearly the size of a soccer ball. Upon seeing pictures of this one roasting in a casserole dish, after FIVE HOURS of roasting to get it cooked all the way through, old friend Cat Sparks exclaimed “That’s not a sweet potato! That’s a Sontaran‘s head!!” I couldn’t disagee, and if I can get more spherical ones such as this, I may have a viable replacement for pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns that can grow in our heat. But first, I’m training the next batch to climb up trellises, grow up onto the roof, and shade the garage. I have my priorities in order.
EDIT: Since people started asking about the sweet potato bread recipe, here’s the Czarina’s own recipe, in her own words:
So, I’m giving you the recipe for sweet potato bread. However, be warned. I’m renaming it ‘crack bread’. You have no idea how addictive this bread is. On one side, it is low in carbs, and does have some protein, but it’s not calorie-free.
You’ve been warned.
Sweet Potato bread-
2 cups of brown sugar
1 cup of white sugar
2 cups of cold mashed sweet potatoes
1 tsp of vanilla extract
2 3/4 all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 (or less) tsp of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup of chocolate chips, dark chocolate preferably.
Now this mixture will get Thick, so I’d pull out the mixer. I nearly killed my little handheld mixer.
In a bowl, combine sugar, eggs, sweet potatoes, and vanilla. mix well.
add all the spices, mix well.
combine flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder, and mix in gradually into your sweet potato mixture. Lastly, add chocolate chips, or if you prefer, a cup of pecans.
Bake at 350, for about 45-50 minutes, testing to see if a toothpick will pull out cleanly at the center of the bread. Time may vary on oven. One mixture equals about three smaller loaves for me.
Now don’t say I didn’t warn you.