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Sweet potatoes a good part of the Hoosier diet

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sweet potatoes are becoming an Indiana garden staple. Sweet potatoes are a very nutritional addition to anyone's diet. They are an excellent source of calcium, iron, vitamin, and minerals. They are an especially good source of vitamins A and C.

Sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates and beta carotene. Some of the pink, yellow, and green varieties are high in carotene. Health experts say we need to eat more dark green and orange vegetables. Sweet potatoes are a great option.

There are literally hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes grown throughout the world. The flesh color can vary from light yellow to purple with a huge range of orange and red varieties. In some countries some of the very strongest colored sweet potatoes are used as clothing dyes.

The foliage is also used as an ornamental in planting and in containers. Sweet potatoes are a tropical vegetable and need about four to five months of growing season outside in warm temperatures. Sweet potatoes should be planted outside between May 20-June 10 to avoid a frost that could damage the plants. Note that if they are planted later there may be some yield reduction as sweet potatoes need a long growing season.

Traditional sweet potatoes have trailing vines with means they need a considerable amount of garden space. However, there are newer "bush" varieties that produce smaller vines and may fit your garden a little better.

Sweet potatoes are grown from slips which are transplants. It is usually more economical for a home gardener, only wanting a few plants, to purchase slips from a reputable grower. You may also be able to order slips and get some unique varieties to try in your garden.

Sweet potatoes should be harvested no later than the first fall freeze because cold temperatures can damage the sensitive roots. However, you may want to harvest earlier if you prefer a smaller sweet potato. Dig a test hill to see if they are the size you want. Sweet potatoes should be cured after being dug.

The digging process often damages the tender skin and curing helps these small wounds heal. Place the roots in a warm, humid location for five to ten days immediately after digging. A location with a temperature around 85 to 90 degrees is ideal. A space heater can be used to heat a small room or other area. Raise the humidity by placing moist towels in the room.

The curing process not only heals wounds but also helps convert starches to sugars. This process improves the texture and flavor of the roots.

Sweet potatoes should be stored above 55 degrees. Storage at temperatures below that injures the roots, shortens storage life and gives them an off-flavor. Take great care when harvesting the roots as the skin can be easily scratched, causing the sweet potato to rot. Freshly dug sweet potatoes can be easily damaged during washing, so cure the roots before the excess soil is removed.

Every year I am asked whether you can safely eat ornamental sweet potatoes. The answer is yes, but they will not taste as good as a variety grown to be eaten as a vegetable.

Ornamental sweet potatoes are grown for their colorful foliage and not their root taste. Enjoy growing and eating your sweet potatoes this fall and maybe next year try some new varieties in your garden.

This article was written in part by Ward Upham from Kansas state and Ann Delchambre ANR educator Putnam County.

If you have any questions please contact me at 653-8411 or email l adelchambre@purdue.edu or Facebook Putnam County Agriculture -- Purdue University.

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