The tax man says it’s time to plant

April 15 to most of us probably means tax time. For me, however, the first thing I think of is sweet potatoes, because mid-April in Brazoria County has always been the prime time to plant this under appreciated vegetable.

If you know sweet potatoes, and I’m not talking about those things you can buy in the grocery store, often called yams, you know what I’m talking about. Sweet potatoes, the home grown, heirloom varieties like Georgia Jet, Vardaman, Nancy Hall, Beauregard, Covington, Puerto Rico, Jewel and Centennial, simply have no peer in the retail market. The taste and texture of a sweet potato grown in your garden far surpasses that which can be bought in the store, although some farmer’s markets and produce stands occasionally have very good home grown tubers.

Whether made into sweet potato pie, cut into fries or chips or baked whole, homegrown sweet potatoes are well worth the effort it takes to grow them.

How to plant

We grow them every year in our Pearland garden, starting with the April 15 planting date, when we put our sweet potato sprouts (called slips) in the ground. Before we do, however, there is bed work which must be done to insure the best crop we can get.

In our gumbo soil, a raised bed or hill is essential for good root crop production. For sweet potatoes, we build a row approximately 18 inches high at the crown (measured from the bed) and roughly three feet wide, working in compost as we go along.

The sides of the row are lined with newspaper, mulch or straw. This keeps weeds down and helps prevent the sweet potato vines from rooting. You only want the one central root for your potatoes. If you let the vine root as it runs you’ll have plenty of small potatoes instead of one good harvest at the main stem. Last year we averaged more than four pounds per plant with this method.

Once the beds are thus prepared we place the slips in at the crown line, burying all but the green tip. Each slip is placed 18 inches apart (we trellis the vines like cucumbers, otherwise they should be placed 2 ½ to 3 feet apart). They are then watered in carefully, and let the sun do the rest.

Sweet potatoes need full sun and consistent watering, but they have few pests and do not require much maintenance unless you’re trellising the vines.

In 90 to 110 days, depending on the variety and the conditions you will have sweet potatoes of edible size. They will continue to grow until soil temperatures drop below 55 degrees or the tops die, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If the tops die, dig up the crop or they will turn to mush in short order.

Edible leaves

A lot of people do not realize that unlike regular potatoes, the entire sweet potato plant is edible.

We use the leaves as salad in the summer, when it’s too hot for traditional lettuces. You can cut the tips (no more than 3-4 inches per plant or you might hurt the tuber production) and eat them raw or saute them like you would mustard or chard or spinach. According to sweet potato leaves are a good source of protein, niacin, calcium and iron as well as a very good source of dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Thiamin, Vitamin B6 and other minerals. I once had a Vietnam veteran tell me he ate nothing but sweet potato leaves while a prisoner of war and could therefore attest to their health benefits. They are not very flavorful but with salad dressing (lemon vinaigrette is a good choice) they are a healthy treat.

Top-rated health food

Dr. Bob Randall, in his excellent book “Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston” writes: “If you needed to live off the land in our area, sweet potatoes would be a means. They are the top-rated health food in nearly all studies of vegetables, with high vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber. The orange ones have more cancer-fighting Vitamin A (25,000 units per half cup cooked) than any other vegetable.”

Some folks like to cure their sweet potatoes after harvest (typically this is done by storing them in boxes for a few weeks – but never refrigerated) to make them sweeter. But I’ve eaten them baked the day I dug them up and they were wonderful.

All in all, sweet potatoes are a delicious, easy to grow vegetable with outstanding health benefits.

So if you have the space, when mid April rolls around (after you’ve got your taxes done), give some thought to putting in a few sweet potato slips.

Come fall you won’t be disappointed.

(Jim Molony is a member of the Brazoria County Master Gardener Association).