My gloved hand scratched the soil in a zig-zag pattern. Sweat dripped, irrigating the treasure I sought. My back strained from working in a hunched position for so long, but finally, my fingers caught on something.
Scraping the soil around my discovery, I increased my pace like an archaeologist unearthing a piece of history. A scarlet-orange peak emerged from the soil, and I attempted to loosen it from its place. It didn’t budge. Grabbing a trowel, I plunged it into the nearby ground and pried the soil loose. Finally, it emerged — a massive, beautifully formed sweet potato.
I admired my treasure like a new mom examines her baby after it emerges from the womb. I suppose the comparison holds true, as I had cared for some of these plants for better than nine months.
Long-time gardeners never lose the excitement of the harvest. But, I daresay, we lose the wonder of growing and harvesting a particular crop for the first time. Though 2019 marked my seventh garden, it was my first time to grow sweet potatoes.
As I’ve done with every new gardening endeavor, I spent last winter researching how to grow sweet potatoes. In January I purchased two organic sweet potatoes from the grocery store. I plunged them into wide-mouth pint jars half-full of water; toothpicks inserted at three points suspended the tubers in the solution.
Weeks passed as the jars sat atop a ledge in my southwest-facing bathroom window. My husband asked me what kind of science experiment I had going on. But finally, a small stem and cluster of roots emerged. Then two, and three, and eventually my two jars looked like twin chia-pets.
I sliced the sweet potato “slips” off the mother potato and transplanted them into moist potting soil in my grow room, where they would await transplant in the garden. And because I never seem to do anything in my garden on a small scale, I purchased more sweet potato slips and in total planted two 28-foot rows.
And then I waited. I watched the sweet baby plants sprawl over the next few months. In August I erected a temporary fence to keep the vines from taking over my garden. Beautiful white and purple flowers popped out to feed the bees searching for nectar. Anticipation built with every passing week.
Finally, the time had come to harvest. I soon learned that digging sweet potatoes is not the same as digging white potatoes. Whereas white potatoes grow right around the plant, sweet potatoes can grow several feet from the mother plant. I’m pretty sure, even after harvesting 95 pounds, there are still many more left in the garden that I missed.
Ninety-five pounds. Not bad for my first season. But admiring the two plastic bins full of red tubers, I realized that if the potatoes last for a year in storage, our family will still need to eat about two pounds of sweet potatoes per week. Thank goodness for Pinterest, where there’s no end to sweet potato recipes!
Here’s what I learned in my rookie year of growing sweet potatoes: try new things. Every endeavor may not turn out as well as my sweet potatoes, but there’s a joy in learning something new and trying something unexplored.
And while most of us will enjoy sweet potatoes this month as a side on our Thanksgiving dinner plate, every vegetable offers more possibilities than our traditional ways of serving them. Sometimes it takes a bumper crop to discover it. When we try new things and grow our own food, a good harvest necessitates opening our minds to new ways of enjoying the bounty… Like sweet potato nachos. I don’t know how I ever lived without them.