Plant Profile: Sweet Potato

This article by Samantha Johnson originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Northern Gardener.

It’s hard to imagine a Thanksgiving meal without sweet potatoes. In my mind, they’re more important than the turkey. Let’s take a closer look at this versatile and vitamin-packed vegetable.

Maybe you’re thinking what I used to think: Sweet potatoes? I can’t grow those here! And while it’s true that sweet potato plants love heat and don’t tolerate cold temperatures, it’s definitely possible to grow them in cooler climates, if you take the appropriate steps.

Sweet potato chips

To bake sweet potato chips, heat your oven to 400 degrees. Slice sweet potatoes in uniform slices, about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick. Coat sweet potatoes in olive oil thoroughly and place in a single layer on a baking sheet, salt the chips, if desired. Bake 15 minutes, then flip the chips. Bake 8 more minutes and check for doneness. Chips may need an additional few minutes. Watch carefully so they don’t burn.

Growing Sweet Potatoes

Growing sweet potatoes is different from growing regular potatoes. They are not even in the same botanical family. Potatoes come from the nightshade family (Solanaceae) as do tomatoes and peppers. Sweet potatoes are members of the Convolvulaceae family and are related to morning glories. To plant sweet potatoes, you start with slips—shoots grown from a mature sweet potato. These go into soil that has reached a minimum of 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Covering the soil with black plastic or using a cold frame will warm it up earlier in the spring.

Plant your slips in raised beds, and plant each slip approximately 4 inches deep (enough to cover the roots) and about 18 inches apart. Many varieties require 100 days to mature. However, there are varieties that are ready for harvest in about 90 days. ‘Beauregard’ is beloved for its quality and flavor. ‘Georgia Jet’ is considered the most reliable variety for the North.

Sweet potatoes do not tolerate frost, so harvesting before frost is essential. To harvest, turn over the soil with a potato fork and discover your underground treasures. But don’t eat them right away—sweet potatoes need to be cured to turn their starches to sugar and develop their delicious taste. To cure them, rinse them off lightly, then store them in a humid, warm environment for one to two weeks. The ideal environment is 85 degrees and 80 to 90 percent humidity—a greenhouse or cold frame would work. After curing, they can be stored in a cool, dry environment (55 to 60 degrees) until you are ready to eat them.

Beyond Thanksgiving Dinner

Once they’re ready—they’re amazing! Sweet potatoes are a versatile vegetable that works well in a host of dishes from entrees to desserts.

I love the taste of roasted sweet potatoes, especially when they’re prepared along with other root vegetables for a truly flavorful treat. But they’re also delicious when served mashed with cream, brown sugar and nutmeg. (Marshmallows, too, if you wish.)

Exciting things really happen when you begin to think a bit outside the box. Mashed sweet potatoes are a marvelous addition to pizza dough (it gives the baked crust an added tenderness), or you can include it in the crust when making your favorite quiche. Adding sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes is a great upgrade for your favorite potpie recipe.

What’s better on a chilly December afternoon than a bowl of warm sweet potato soup made with apples and onions? (A bit of bacon never hurts, either.) Or incorporate sweet potato into your favorite tried-and-true casserole or chowder recipes and savor the rich flavor and color that sweet potatoes add.

Feeling adventurous? Make nachos with crispy baked sweet potato slices in place of chips.

Sweet potatoes really live up to their name when showcased in sweet dishes. Brighten a Monday morning with a batch of sweet potato muffins or incorporate sweet potatoes into your favorite desserts—like sweet potato bars or sweet potato pie. And if you haven’t tried sweet potato cookies, you’re missing out!

To top it all off, sweet potatoes are remarkably nutritious and are packed with beta-carotene and fiber. They’re among the healthiest vegetables, which is just the icing on the (sweet potato) cake!

Based in northern Wisconsin, Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). Visit her online portfolio at http://samanthajohnson.contently.com.

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