Hello everyone, and welcome to another blog post! Thankfully we have a lull in between seasons and have enough free time to write a blog post!
While the sweet potato has been a long time favorite storage crop for the fall season, it is one of those crops that has been clouded in mystery from the beginning.
Is the sweet potato a potato? Why is it called the sweet potato, and what is a yam?! In this post we will be investigating the truth of the interesting vegetable, the sweet potato.
For starters lets talk about the growth and farming of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are started in the early spring by forcing the crop of last year to sprout shoots out of the sweet potato. These little green shoots are known as slips. The slips are allowed to grow to about 8 to 10 inches in length, at which point the sweet potato slips are then removed from the potato and grown in water until they start to grow roots.
Once the slips have roots it's time to plant them! The important thing in growing sweet potatoes, like any other crop is timing. Sweet potatoes love the heat, but will die if temperatures go below 45 degrees so making sure the slips are available in mid-May and not earlier is all in the timing.
Once May rolls around and the temperatures are warm enough, the slips get planted out into the field. We plant our sweet potato slips 24 inches between rows, and 12 inches in the row. The good thing about sweet potatoes is that they do not require much work, or great soil. Naturally they grow everywhere, and can thrive in poor soils. So when we plant our sweet potatoes the only thing to really take into consideration is water. The slips need a good amount of water to establish a root system in the ground. Once the main root system is established the plants can tolerate the extreme heat, and are very drought resistant.
The down side to sweet potatoes is that they take a very long time to form, so they take up field space for an entire season!
Throughout the summer the plants will vine and grow up to 20 feet in length, so they need space! Once September comes around we take a look at how the sweet potatoes are forming. Usually they are at a harvest-able size by the middle of September. We allow our sweet potatoes to grow until the middle to late September, right about the time the temperatures begin to drop, and the leaves on the sweet potato vines begin to turn a gold. It is at this time that we begin to dig up the sweet potatoes. This year we are growing an old variety of sweet potato called "Hayman". The Hayman sweet potato is white inside, tan on the outside and often ugly, but are known to have the most exceptional flavor. The Hayman sweet potato has been grown in northern part of the Eastern Shore for a very long time, but has been kept secret from the large commercial farms and super markets. Follow us on social media to make sure you get your hands on some of our limited sweet potatoes this year.
Once the sweet potatoes are dug up, they have to be cured properly to ensure that they store throughout the winter. By curing them in the greenhouse, the skins turn hard and the water slowly evaporates out of the sweet potato, leaving behind the concentrated sugars, which gives them their sweet flavor! Once cured they can be eaten throughout the fall and winter months.
Now that we have gone through the process of growing the sweet potatoes, and have inspired you to grow your own sweet potatoes next year, lets dive into the myths and illusions that revolve around the sweet potato!
For starters, they're not potatoes! Potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, is in the nightshade family. So they are related to the tomato, eggplant and pepper. They require cooler temperatures to grow, and usually take 70-100 days to mature. The potato is grown by placing pieces of the potato in the ground, called seed, and then grown until harvest.
Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea botatis, is in the same plant family as morning glory. They need the heat to grow and take 100- to 150 days until harvest, alot longer than a regular potato.
While they are both storage organs, or tubers of the plants, and both originate from Southern America and tropical regions, they are different!
Another great myth, which has been facilitated by marketing in the US is that sweet potatoes are yams! We all see yams for sale in the super markets around Thanksgiving, and even have yam puree in a can, but what you're actually eating is a sweet potato.
In the United States decades ago most sweet potatoes were white, but the orange variety of sweet potatoes began to emerge on the market. In order to differentiate the products, the markets began calling the red or orange varieties "yams". Yams however, native to Africa, and have a woody textured skin, with white flesh. So the chances that you have eaten yams before is quite slim! They are more common in the Caribbean region, and used like another tuber called cassava. Both the yam and cassava root are very starchy and taste different than the sweet potatoes you eat at Thanksgiving! Most yams and cassava are ground into a flour to make into patties and a type of cake.
Thanks for joining us on our blog and reading about sweet potatoes! Hopefully you have learned something new about the food you eat and how it is grown. Here at Sassafras Hill Farm we love educating our customers at every stage of our products growth. Get in touch with the food you eat and don't be afraid to ask us questions about how our products are grown!
Thanks for joining us, and until next time…