Wednesday, November 24, 2010

2010 Sweet Potato Harvest

The weather forecast for this week convinced me that it was time to harvest my sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes should be dug right before the first frost, because frost messes them up, and preferably while the soil is a bit on the dry side, because it's a mess to dig up roots in wet soil.

The forecast is predicting rain for the next couple of days, followed by a freeze this weekend. And it's not one of those close calls like we had a few days ago, where it was 35 here and froze further out in the country. No, they're predicting a low of 25 for Friday night, which is pretty well safely down in the freezing area, with no margin for error.

So yesterday seemed like the right day to say goodbye to my sweet potatoes, since today and tomorrow will be taken up with holiday activities, and digging up 96 square feet of sweet potatoes is a bit of a chore. I'm quite sore today.

As I said before I planted five varieties I got from R. H. Shumway's. Sweet potato slips can be a little difficult to come by. The only company I know of that has an extensive selection is Sand Hill Preservation Center, and they are located in Iowa and grow all their own plants, so they're vulnerable to crop failures for a heat loving plant like sweet potatoes. This year was one of those bad years, when they had to offer only assortments of their choosing, and didn't start shipping until June, which is a bit late for me. I ended up ordering from Shumway, then, even though they don't have as many interesting varieties. Might as well try what they have first, and then later try some of the more exotic varieties from Sand Hill. I got their "heirloom sampler", which included five varieties: Beuregard, Nancy Hall, Porto Rico, Vardaman, and White Yam.

I read up on what to do with sweet potatoes after you dig them, and they're supposed to be "cured", with different websites saying anything from 10 days to eight weeks! They're edible right away, but become much tastier after some cure time, because that is when starches in the roots turn to sugar. Ok then, no sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, but maybe for Yule. Maybe then I can comment on their eating qualities. Right now I can only talk about their appearance and yields.


Shumway's Description: An early variety producing large yields of high quality potatoes that exhibit excellent resistance to cracking. Smooth, light red skin with deep orange, fine grained flesh.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Normal leaves, red orange skin, orange flesh. Roots get huge, but the flavor and texture are not as good as some of the heirlooms.

I included the foliage in my pictures since it does vary from variety to variety. Beuregard had mostly "normal" leaves, but with a little bit of purple on the growing tips. This was my worst performing variety. The roots most certainly did not get "huge", and there weren't many of them either. Though the red color is pretty. However, this was also the variety that was planted last, and it wasn't in a very good spot, so it may not be the variety's fault.

Nancy Hall

Shumway's Description: The "Yellow Yam" of the 30's and 40's. Old-time favorite. Light skin, yellow flesh. Juicy, waxy and sweet when baked. If taste is more important than beauty, try this one. 120 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Late. Creamy yellow skin and flesh, excellent flavor, but roots never get very large.

Nancy did ok. Can't really comment on how large the roots are since NONE of my roots got very large, but I did get a few nice-looking ones. The vines got very long and were completely green.
Porto Rico

Shumway's Description: Best of the red varieties. Excellent for small gardens. The short runners on this bush-type take little garden space. Heavy yielder. 110 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Regular leaf, yellow-orange skin and flesh. Needs long season to do well.

Not sure what red Shumway is referring to here, because the roots aren't red, but pinkish-orange, especially compared to Beuregard, which really is red. Maybe it's the red stems. I got some nice fat roots from Porto Rico, even though there weren't as many as I had hoped. This one was planted right next to Nancy Hall. It's supposed to be a shorter vined variety, while Nancy has long vines, but the whole bed just ended up a big tangle. Once I started pulling things up, it did appear that the PR vines (which I assume were all red-stemmed) were shorter than NH, but they still didn't seem as short as our next variety.


Shumway's Description: Bushy type that takes less space. Ideal for small gardens. Excellent yields of deep orange tubers. One of the best for rich flavor. Produces well in many parts of the country and in various soil types. 110 days.

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Bush, purple colored normal leaves, light orange skin, orange flesh, long skinny roots, average yield.

This was the prettiest sweet potato I grew, above ground and below. It had purple-green leaves that were broader and less pointed than the other varieties, and when I dug up the roots, most of them were fat, smooth, and a beautiful bright orange. It's interesting how the same variety can do so differently for different people, since Sand Hill describes this variety as having skinny roots and Beuregard as being "huge". It also gave me my second-highest yields, though right now I'm just eyeballing that. I haven't actually weighed them yet. I'm thinking of waiting until after they cure.
White Yam

Shumway's Description: An unusual variety sometimes called Triumph, Southern Queen, Poplar Root or "Choker." White as cotton inside and out, and sweet as sugar. Our driest variety. 100 days

Sand Hill's Description: Mid-season. Average vines, white skin, creamy-white flesh, above average yields.

Note that Sand Hill lists Southern Queen, Poplar Root, White Triumph, and White Yam all as separate varieties. Curious. Anyway, I think I got the largest yield from this variety, but it was a whole bunch of small, skinny roots. Maybe I can pretend they're parsnips or something. I shouldn't ever plant this near Nancy Hall or I wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

In summary, White Yam and Vardaman did the best. Next came Porto Rico and Nancy Hall, and finally Beuregard did the worst. Except I noticed that this corresponds to where in the garden they were planted more than anything else (like what date they were planted, days to maturity listed in the catalog, etc.). White Yam and Vardaman were planted in the same bed, PR and NH in another, and Beuregard by itself in another. My planting beds are not equal. Some have been worked on a lot more than others, so it's probably not fair or scientific to weed out any just yet. I've decided I'll go ahead and plant them all again next year.

After reading a lot on sweet potato propagation, I decided to go with cuttings rather than trying to sprout the roots. Since I pulled them before frost, while the vines were still healthy, it seemed to make more sense to do it this way instead of risking the possibility of the roots not making it in storage. I snipped up the vines and did three cuttings of each variety. I'll grow these plants out and snip up more cuttings later once I decide how many of each plant I'm going to grow, but this should do for now. Isn't cloning fun?

I suspect my yields were lousy because of the soil. Next year should be better. Working up good soil takes time.


  1. Great post! I'd love to see a follow up with more information about how to cure and propogate sweet potatos, as well as how to improve the soil.

  2. Hi Jeremy! It turned out that propagating them with cuttings didn't work so well, so I ended up growing them with slips from the roots after all. Those grew much more vigorously than cuttings. They would have done fine that way, but then it was 2011, one of the worst summers in Texas history, and all my sweet potatoes died. Even sweet potatoes couldn't stand 113 degrees!

    This year I moved so I didn't bother with sweet potatoes. I had enough work already preparing a new garden from scratch. However, next year, 2013, I plan on growing them again, and I will document it here on my blog. I hope Sand Hill Preservation Center has a good sweet potato year next year, because I'd still like to try some of their varieties.