Sweet potatoes: The other orange seasonal standout

newspaperPumpkins may take center stage in fall decorations and desserts, but sweet potatoes are the real autumn stars when it comes to home gardens.

“Sweet potatoes are easy to grow,” said Christopher Mullins, Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture and natural resources specialist at Virginia State University. “You buy the slips, put them in the ground and space each row about 3 feet apart. Within the row you want to space them anywhere from a foot-and-a-half to 2 feet apart. They’ll grow to cover the entire space, so if you can keep the weeds out for a few weeks, they’ll grow to block weeds from then on.”

Sweet potatoes are mostly grown and sold to the fresh market in Virginia. They were grown commercially on 120 Virginia farms in 2012, according to the Census of Agriculture. North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana are the top sweet potato-producing states, but the U.S. grows only about 1 percent of the world’s sweet potatoes. China accounts for 81 percent of global production.

Sweet potato plants are tropical, and Mullins said gardeners will want to wait until mid- to late June to put out their plants. They have a long growing season, from 90 to 110 days, and usually are harvested in October.

“Sweet potatoes don’t have a lot of insect pests, but deer like to munch on the plants. But they grow so fast that usually the deer won’t do much damage to them,” Mullins said. “Some good varieties for the home gardener are Beauregard, Covington, Porto Rico and O’Henry. They get to a nice size that you can use for pies or use them for baking potatoes.”

When it’s time to harvest, Mullins clips the foliage off a day or two earlier to make it easier to dig the sweet potatoes. They need to be harvested before they are damaged by the first frost, he said.

“Take a shovel or a pitchfork or garden fork and dig around each plant at a distance of about 18 inches. Pry the center of the plant up until you see some potatoes come to the surface. Keep working your way around the plant until you can pull them out of ground. You do have to be careful digging; they’re very delicate at this point.”

Mullins said sweet potatoes should be cured for at least a week in an environment that is about 90 percent humidity and temperatures of 85 to 90 degrees. “At that point the sugars start to mature, and you’ll see some scabbing-over and protective skin. And then they’re ready to eat.”

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