Are sweet potatoes going to leave a sour taste in my mouth?

Recently we took delivery of some sorrowful looking little sweet potato slips.  They looked more suitable for the last rites than the optimistic “cultivation instructions” that came with them.  However, I’d looked around blogs and forums and the sickly appearance is not unusual and most people seem to say they usually perk up, so as I pretty much do everything the internet tells me to do, in to glasses of water they went.  (You have to wonder about a household that has that many pint glasses handy, don’t you).

Sweet potato slips in water

Newly arrived sweet potato slips in water, looking rather sorry for themselves

Time passed…not much time actually…and they did come back to life, sort of, or at least I haven’t seen any little slip-ghosts drifting through the extraction fan in the kitchen.  Potting up with plentiful water has taken place and we’re keeping them warm and reading them stories at night, so we’ll see.

This isn’t our first experience with sweet potatoes – a few years ago we had a go with our own slips, from kumara bought at Sainsbury of all places, and your basic orangey sweet potato, also from a supermarket. Trying that this winter didn’t work hence the impulse purchase of some slips when we were doing some other garden shopping. As I recall those plants grew fairly enthusiastically but we didn’t have a great summer, and I think there was a fair bit of rain.  I do remember that the tubers turned out thin and squiggly and I’ve briefly investigated why this might have been to try to avoid it this year; suggestions seem to be over-generous amounts of water, and too-rich (especially perhaps too-nitrogen rich) soil. This ties in with other reading from American bloggers who describe it as a very easy crop, happy in poor soils, and I vaguely recall someone on GQT once saying they would grow well for someone who was trying to populate a sunny, dry bank by a conifer hedge (I can’t prove this last statement.  I make it in good faith).

So if this polar spring ever passes, we probably want to avoid mollycoddling the little chaps too much. According to Rhizowen we’re probably on a hiding to nothing and should definitely be growing mashua if we want to eat this summer…he’s probably right but out of mulishness, we will carry on this battle to the end.  Watch this space (and please share any brilliant ipomesque inspiration you may have to help).

Sweet potato slips potted up

Sweet potato slips potted up – not dead yet (about 2 weeks after planting) (L-R T65, Beauregard, Georgia Jet)

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9 thoughts on “Are sweet potatoes going to leave a sour taste in my mouth?

  1. Rhizowen says:

    What sweetpoptatoes like is warmth. They need a barbecue summer to do well. But that’s not to say we can’t breed a better variety for our conditions. I’d definitely be up for an attempt to breed a sweetpotato for Cornwall (and that county adjoining us in England, forget the name ). It’s quite simple – grow as many varieties as you can lay your hands on, assess their performance in suboptimal conditions (basically grey cold days, chilly nights), save them and next year cross them. Sow the resulting seeds and repeat. Apparently people have been doing this sort of thing for 10,000 years quite successfully. I bet real progress could be made.

  2. Rhizowen says:

    One thing in their favour is research showing that the plants are able to fix some of their own nitrogen due to the presence of endophytes – free living bacteria inside the plants. That could be why they do OK in fairly low nutrient soils.

  3. Bugs from Esculent Etc says:

    Thanks. We do have the benefit of a small, fairly sheltered, south facing garden (in that Eastern paradise over the border), and conservatory we’re not likely to do much sitting in; we will probably grow them in pots this year just to try to obtain a crop. As you said the T65 is looking the best bet so far.

    Limits to breeding include lack of material to breed from and more importantly lack of knowledge, I do have, and read, but didn’t properly understand, Carol Deppe’s book. Not being from a scientific kind of background (actually not much of a background at all) I am probably starting at a disadvantage but as you say the generations who made the vegetables we all eat today probably had even less to go on so maybe there’s a chance I can do my bit after all!

    The thing about the nitrogen fixing is very interesting; I am so far only familiar (and only in passing) with it in legumes and some trees and shrubs, it would never have occurred to me in sweet potatoes. I do recall an article about poisoned soils somewhere in which the local sweet potato crop was causing particular harm to the people, though, I wonder if that was just being a root crop, or if it could be in any way related?

  4. Rhizowen says:

    The main constraint to breeding sweetpotatoes in temperate latitudes is that most varieties require short days to flower. A bit of black plastic or a darkened room can rectify that. It certainly worked for my maukas. Sweetpotatoes are outcrossers, so you just let them cross and select the best progeny. That’s what the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea have been doing for the last 300 years or so and they have thousands of varieties adapted to different environments. as far as I’m aware, they haven’t read carol’s book, excellent though it is. These “marginal” crops are of little interest to commercial breeders as the returns are not worth the expenditure, but for an alliance of networked amateurs, the possibilities are enormous.

    • Bugs from Esculent Etc says:

      Thanks for all your tips; there’s no way I am going to get away with ferrying a couple of pots in and out of the garage this year but I am keen to give it a go in future years *if* we manage to grow some of these to any kind of useful state so we can potentially produce some more slips next year. I know it’s optimistic…but as you say sometimes it’s the enthusiastic amateurs with nothing/little to lose. This time next year Rodney…well, maybe a year or two after that…

  5. The Snail of Happiness says:

    I wait with interest to see how you do with these. I have tried twice over the last few years – the first time I got tubers that were about 30cm long and 1cm wide and were, thus, unusable and the second time they failed completely in a cold summer. I’m interested that my problem the first year might have been that I treated them too well! The slips are very expensive and I have, therefore, decided to waste no further money, but now you have set me thinking about trying to track down a source of seeds… I wonder if Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots knows of one…

    • Bugs from Esculent Etc says:

      Thank you for visiting and commenting. They’ve come on very well in the last couple of weeks, but your experience sounds very similar to ours with the supermodel tubers. The slips are unnecessarily expensive, I’m sure; considering when you can produce them at home you practically have to keep a machete by the bed (well, that’s my excuse), and the companies just dispatch them wrapped in glorified kitchen roll by Royal Mail, I can’t help thinking someone’s making a reasonable cut on these. But with the internet at my side I shall foil their plans. Would love to hear if you get hold of any seed – in the unlikely event I ever produce any seed I’ll put you top of the list! 🙂

  6. Allotment adventures with Jean says:

    Thank you for visiting my blog. I have enjoyed checking out yours and look forward to following it. We have been growing sweet potatoes at the farm where I keep my allotment but we have had more top leaves than tubers. I think the soil must have been too rich. So. Treat ’em mean and you might reap the rewards on your dinner plate. Good luck. Best wishes from Jean.

    • Bugs from Esculent Etc says:

      Thank you for visiting and for the advice Jean. I think you’re right and it sounds like your experience is similar; I’m looking forward to seeing what we get this year as they shouldn’t want for warmth (can’t guarantee sun) and I’ll try to reign back on the kindness!

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