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East Texas Ag News: How to handle seasonal sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes
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Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 4:39 PM CDT
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ANGELINA COUNTY, Texas (KTRE) - Some foods such as cranberries, pumpkins, stuffing, and turkey make a strong appearance during these upcoming holidays.  One that we grow here that I look forward to as well is sweet potatoes.

Much like some other foods this time of year, I bet you’ll see more sweet potatoes in dishes in these upcoming holidays.  Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite vegetables.  My mom still serves up this wonderfully healthy root vegetable during the holidays, then drizzles them in brown sugar and covered with marshmallows before baking!

I realize that dish completely negates any nutritional benefit from them, but that’s just what I knew about this tuber until I was an adult.

Sweet potatoes are a nutritionally dense, summer annual root vegetable that we can grow quite well here in east Texas.  Just a bit to the north of us is a great deal of commercial sweet potato production.  My first job as an Extension Agent was in Canton, Texas (Van Zandt County) and there were a good many commercial sweet potato growers located there.

The state of North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato production, harvesting 60% of our annual, national harvest.  Texas typically is the 5th largest producer.

Now some folks will say, “Oh I love yams!”  But I wonder if you’ve ever have eaten a true yam.  Yams are a completely different plant that has an edible tuber that looks, at best, vaguely like a sweet potato.

Referencing the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, a true yam is a starchy edible root of the Dioscorea genus, and is generally imported to America from the Caribbean. Unlike sweet potatoes smooth skin, the yam’s exterior is rough and scaly.  And unlike the orange, beta carotene rich interior we love, the yam’s interior is white and very low in beta carotene.

Depending on the variety, sweet potato flesh can vary from white to orange and even purple. The orange-fleshed variety was introduced to the United States several decades ago. To distinguish it from the white, Irish potato variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and produce shippers chose the English form of the African word “nyami” and labeled them “yams.”

Not helping the distinction is none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  One of its roles is the regulation agricultural commodities.  The USDA requires product labels with the term ‘yam’ to also be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.’ And so, with these label regulations, most people still think of sweet potatoes as yams, regardless of their true identity.

Sweet potatoes can do quite well in our climate. Hot days and warm nights are ideal for sweet potato production. They must be planted in a well-drained, fine sandy loam soil with a slightly acidic pH 5 to 7.5. The well-drained, sandy soil allows the sweet potato to grow easily and not remain in poorly drained soil that encourages rot and disease.

Unlike other vegetables, sweet potatoes are propagated from slips, also called vine cuttings. To produce slips, buy healthy, disease-free sweet potatoes from a local market. Scrub them clean and then cut them in half.

Suspend each half over a jar of water by inserting toothpicks so that half is submerged in the water. Place the sweet potato near a window for warmth and sunlight. Over the next few weeks, shoots will form on top

Planted from slips after all chance of frost have passed, the tuberous roots will be ready to harvest in 90 to 120 days.  For home gardeners, the best time to harvest sweet potatoes is immediately before or just after the first fall frost.

Dig deep and carefully.  The skins of the sweet potato are easily bruised.  Even dropping the potatoes into a harvest bucket may injure the skin.

Look hard enough and you’ll find sweet potato chips at the local grocery store. Sweet potatoes can be prepared just like other potatoes: baked, French fried, grilled, and in a casserole. My favorite sweet potato dish is canned yams (sweet potatoes), baked with brown sugar in a Corningware dish, and served with marshmallows on top!

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu.

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