Usually sweet potatoes are harvested the week the first frost typically occurs. In anticipation of frosts (that didn’t happen) on Sunday and Monday nights, we harvested this week. Contrary to myth, there is no toxin that moves from frozen leaves down into the roots. On the other hand, cold injury can ruin the crop, and roots without leaf cover are exposed to cold air temperatures, and have lost their method of pulling water up out of the soil. Cold wet soil can quickly rot sweet potatoes (I know, it’s happened here).
To harvest, we first remove the vines from the area to be harvested that day. There is usually 3 afternoons’ digging for ours, and we want to leave live vines to protect the rest of the crop overnight. We use pruners to snip the vines where they emerge from the soil, leaving stumps to show where to dig. We roll the vines into the spaces between the rows. Using digging forks, we carefully dig up the roots, which grow in the ground in a bunch-of-bananas shape. We want to select good potatoes for seed, and we grow several different kinds (Georgia Jet, Beauregard, and a couple of heritage varieties whose names we don’t know), so we make sure not to mix potatoes from different rows. As we dig, we set the potatoes out beside the spot where they’ve grown, one clump per plant, so it’s easy to identify the most productive plants.
It’s important not to bruise the roots, or to leave them exposed to temperatures higher than 90°F (32°C) for more than half an hour, or they will get sun-scald. Below 55°F (13°C), they’ll get chilling injury. We also avoid any abrasion of the skin, which is very fragile at this stage. We leave the sweet potatoes to dry on the ground for 1-2 hours, unless the weather is unsuitable. This year we had ideal weather, not too hot, not too cold; breezy enough to dry the skins, sunny.
We want to grow our own slips (baby plants) next year, so we save at least 1 root per 5 slips wanted. (1 good slip every 16″.) So to plant 800 row feet, (600 slips), we save 100 each of our two main varieties and 20 each of the two heirlooms. That should be plenty. Some will shrivel or rot, so we allow a margin. We don’t save for seed any roots that look diseased. We choose plants with a high yield and no string (rat-tail) roots. From these plants, we choose small-medium sized potatoes with typical shape and color.
When grading and crating the roots in the field, we first choose the seed potatoes, and then sort storable from “Use First” roots. Large open broken surfaces will cure and can be stored, but any roots with soft wet damaged areas or deep holes (whether from voles, bugs or fork tines) will not store, and should be graded out, for composting or immediate use. We sort into 4″ deep wood flats or 5″ plastic crates for curing, and buckets for the “Use First” category.
Immediately after harvest, we took the boxes of sweet potatoes into a warm damp basement below the dining hall, to cure. This allows the skin to thicken, cuts to heal over and some of the starches to convert to sugars. Uncured “green” sweet potatoes are not very sweet at all, and are better used in dishes where they combine with other foods. A baked uncured sweet potato is a sad disappointment.
We stack our boxes of roots on pallets, and put wooden spacer sticks between boxes in each stack, to ensure air flow. We get quite good temperatures, but keeping humidity up is difficult for us. We cover the flats with newspaper to hold in some moisture. The best result seems to come from splashing water on the concrete floor several times each day. We use box fans to improve the airflow, and the basement already has some natural ventilation.
Ideal conditions for curing are 85-90°F (29-32°C), and 80-95% humidity for 4-7 days, with some airflow and ventilation. Curing takes longer if conditions are less then perfect. The length of the curing period also varies with the dryness of the soil just prior to harvest. We usually reckon on 10-14 days. During that time, we’ll be taking turns to stoke the stove in the basement to keep the temperature up.
So – how did we do this year? Middle of the road, I’d say. Decent yields, but not a bumper crop – we still had empty boxes left over. The deer were regularly eating our vines until quite recently. Last year we had a dog to chase the deer off, but he met with a road accident. His replacement was old, and she just wanted to be a pet, so we had deer again. We used drip irrigation and biodegradable plastic mulch this year, and did a good job of weeding, so I put the lower yields down to deer damage.
Now the harvest is complete, we will disk the area and sow cover crops. It’s too late in the year for oats. We can sow wheat, winter rye and Austrian winter peas up till 10/31. We prefer winter wheat after the sweet potatoes, because we’ll use that area next year for spring white potatoes in mid-March, and rye takes too long to break down early in the spring.