You’ve probably heard the word “superfood” and believe it to be a half-priced, 16-ounce porterhouse steak that has been cooked to perfection — not kale. While I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, not all of the superfoods are tough on the palate. Salmon, blueberries, almonds, sweet potatoes and dark chocolate are also nutrient and vitamin-rich superfoods.
Sorry to disappoint, but I won’t be giving fishing tips or encouraging binging on chocolate. However, I will praise the wealth of goodness that are sweet potatoes. I feel like I was introduced to sweet potatoes the right way — in a pie — but they are also baked, mashed, roasted and made into casseroles and fries.
Besides being downright tasty, they provide several health benefits. Low in calories, less than 1 gram of fat, high in fiber, as well as being rich in potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, B and C, all contribute to earning them a spot on the menu. Sweet potatoes get their orange flesh from beta carotene, which helps to fight inflammation, boost the immune system and maintain healthy vision.
Sweet potatoes are grown from rooted cuttings called slips, which in layman’s terms are the sprouted eyes of the potato. They can be purchased, or you can make your own slips. Although purchasing the slips is relatively inexpensive, starting your own is extremely economical and easy. It just takes a sweet potato and a little patience.
The two-step process, sprouting and rooting, can be started one of two ways, in water or soil. To start in water, take a sweet potato and submerge it halfway in a water-filled container with the root end facing down. Poke toothpicks around the potato that will reach the edges of the container so that the potato will be suspended in the water. In a few weeks, the roots of the sweet potato will start to grow, and soon after, the sprouts will start to appear.
Alternately, they can be started by laying them on their side and burying them halfway in moist potting soil. Keep them warm and moist — but not wet — until the sprouts start to emerge.
With either method you use to coax them out, once the sprouts have grown to 5 to 6 inches in length, they are removed. Gently twist or cut the sprout off of the potato, remove any leaves from the bottom half of the sprout, and place it in a container of water. The container should only be filled with enough water to cover the bottom half of the sprout.
Keep the sprouts in warm conditions, such as on a sunny windowsill, in order for the roots to form. In two to three weeks, they should be ready to plant, when the roots are about 4 inches long. Each potato can form up to 15 sprouts, and each slip will produce three to five sweet potatoes.
Unlike Irish potatoes, which prefer cooler soil temperatures, sweet potatoes thrive in the heat. Sweet potato slips should be planted in North Alabama between April 15 and June 15. Unfortunately, it would be cutting it close to produce your own potato slips for this year’s harvest, but you still have plenty of time to plant slips that have been purchased.
Plant sweet potato slips in well-drained soil containing sand, clay and a good amount of compost. The slips should be spaced 8 to 14 inches apart, and the surface soil should be at least 6 inches deep to allow the potatoes to properly grow. Sweet potatoes reach a usable size about 120 days after planting.
Sweet potatoes can stay in the ground until first frost; however, they run the risk of damage if the soil temperature drops below 50 degrees. The sweet potato can grow a foot or more away from the plant, so be careful when harvesting to avoid cutting them.
Immediately after digging, place the sweet potatoes in a high temperature (80–85 degrees) and high humidity (85–90%) environment for six to eight days. This will allow the potatoes to cure. After they are cured, they should be stored in a cool (55 degrees), dry place with good air circulation. This could be a garage, cellar or basement. They should not be stored in a refrigerator, which is too cold and will cause discoloration and off-flavors to develop.
The state of Alabama has a lot of state symbols, but until two weeks ago, it didn’t have a state vegetable. Thanks to a group of students who proposed a bill that would change that, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill that made sweet potatoes the official state vegetable of Alabama. Now, go make a pie! Until next week, happy gardening.
— Irland, a member of the Limestone County Master Gardeners, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit https://mg.aces.edu/limestone for more information on the Limestone County Master Gardeners.