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September 12, 2012

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

The time to clean and prepare the beds for the cool season planting is here. But there are other things still growing in the garden, our summer favorites - sweet potatoes, okra, and cow peas. So it is time to start harvesting sweet potatoes. The harvesting process in itself is fairly simple, just pull the vines (and oh, yes, they can be very long), and then feel the ground with your hands for the tubers. Alternately, you can use a shovel to just turn the soil, but I prefer to use my hands (with the disposable gloves to protect from ant bites). Sweet potatoes do not normally sit deep in the ground, and often you can even see the tip of the potato above the ground. Finally, even if some potatoes are missed and overwinter, the better. I have so many volunteer potatoes in my garden that I don't even plant the slips anymore and always have plenty of sweet potato to harvest; once you have them, you will always have them.

This bowl of potatoes was harvested just from one partial bed, I would say 4 feet by 10 feet, all volunteers. Free food, what can be better! Now I am facing the task of preserving the harvest.

Depending on the amount of sweet potatoes you harvest, no preservation could be needed at all. If you only have a few pounds, then just brush off the dirt, lay them on a cardboard in the sun for a few hours to harden, and you can store them in the pantry. Usually, that's all I do with the harvest.

On the other hand, if you have a large harvest, then it probably would not fit into a regular pantry. Authoritative sources, such as University of Florida, advise to store sweet potatoes in "cool storage" - between 55 to 65 degrees. Well, that's great, but we don't exactly have root cellars in Florida, and the average house garage is far from being "cool" storage, even in the winter. Indigenous people throughout the ages stored sweet potatoes either in sand, or in ash, or in hay. These methods would work even in a hot garage or other storage, but the potatoes themselves should be absolutely perfect, with no nicks or damage; otherwise they will certainly start to rot, and infect their neighbors in the storage bins.

This year I decided to can my sweet potato harvest, and here's why: canning is a sure way to preserve these root vegetables with little risk of spoilage, and the subsequent cooking is practically non-existent, just heat up and eat. I don't care for "sweet" sweet potatoes, such as pies, but like them in a way of home fries with salt and cayenne. Canned sweet potatoes can be perfect for either scenario.

So, to can sweet potatoes all you need is a pressure canner (I have a cheapo Presto from WalMart), some canning jars and other paraphernalia related to canning. All that can be easily obtained from WalMart or Tractor Supply.

Peel and slice sweet potatoes in about 1/2 to 1/4 inch slices, and put in water. They would turn dark immediately if left in the open air that oxidizes them. As you can see, the water in this basin is quite murky, that's because sweet potatoes have a lot of starch in them:

Once all potatoes are cut up, sterilize canning jars (I use quarts) and stuff raw potato slices into the jars. This is called "raw packing". Shake the jars as you stuff the potatoes to minimize dead space. Add a tea spoon of coarse salt (a preservative), and fill with boiling water. Then, can at 10 pounds pressure for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Pressure canned like that, the potatoes can store for a long time at room temperature, and used whenever you have a hankering for some Thanksgiving-tasting side dish.

You might also be interested in:

Grow sweet potatoes from store bought
Vegetable yields per plant

September 8, 2012

How to build a garden - Part 3

Finally, my garden building project is coming to a completion. The beds are all built and I filled some of them with the grass clippings just to hold the landscape fabric down, although this step is not necessary.

Now, what's left is covering the fabric between the beds with mulch, hauling in the soil, and of course, the most important part - planting.

With the help of a vigorous 24-year old I had my beds loaded with nice soil, and even started transplanting tomatoes and parsley. Mulch is partially laid out, and the paving stones are placed on the top of the mulch - for stability and preservation of the landscape fabric.

I am not yet completely done with this project, still have mulching to do, and arranging the stones, but the planting work can be completed even without the mulching part. In fact, we are in the middle of transplanting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant seedlings right now, in our second warm season of the gardening year.

Now, for the cost.

In addition to the landscape fabric, I used:
47 landscape timbers @3.59, to the total of $169
I will use approximately 40 stones for this garden, $1.24 = $50
Hauled in bulk soil from a nursery - 6 cubic yards, $270
And 1 cubic yard of mulch, $23 (bulk)

So far total is $548.

Yes, it is a lot of money. My total growing space in this 12x22 foot garden equals to 176 square feet (not counting walkways). What can I grow in a 176 square feet? You can run calculations based on the vegetable spacing requirements, but just for this season I will fit these vegetables into this garden:

50 tomato plants
30 pepper plants
20 dinosaur kale
10 parsley
10 dill
and maybe some other greens tucked in here and there.

And the minimum yield will be (that is if I totally suck as a gardener - usually you should get much more that these estimates):
50 pounds of tomatoes
30 pounds of peppers
20 pounds of kale
2 pounds of parsley and dill

Think about it. How much would you pay for a pound of organic tomatoes? I have an answer - $4.99/pound. Even more so for the organic peppers. Quite frankly, Publix or WinnDixie do not sell organic kale, period, so I cannot even run a comparison.

Well, my point is - if you can afford building a garden space like that, this is a fast and least effort consuming method of jump-starting a garden in a previously unused lawn space. If you cannot afford to have a garden built like that, you can always revert to a free (but labor-intensive) double-digging method.

Update 9/14/2012: All planted and ready to enjoy:

Update 10/23/2012: In full bloom and starting fruiting:

How to build a garden - Part 2

How to build a garden - Part 1

September 1, 2012

How to build a garden - Part 2

The raised bed garden building continues. Today I started laying landscape fabric over the grass. Prior to that step I gave the lawn a good tight cut, and laid the fabric overlapping about six inches on the seams.

Why did I go with the landscape fabric and not the cardboard, or newspapers, a popular choice in building raised beds? I did not want to give crabgrass and Bermuda grass any chance of surviving; and these two are my biggest enemies in the garden. Granted, the package said that "no landscape fabric will stop Bermuda grass and crabgrass", as it grows even through asphalt, but I am taking my chances because the fabric will be covered with a foot of soil, and secondly, I have a row of raised beds that is built on top of the grass, and it survived just fine, even  being only six inches tall. The only problem with this bed is that the grass creeps in through the sides; the problem that I am hoping to overcome by having the bare barrier around this new bed.

After the fabric was laid, the bed construction has begun. I am building this garden from landscape timbers so it will last a long time and not cost too much money.

The timbers are laid on the edge of the cut area where the sod was taken out, but leaving at least a six inch strip of bare land all around the bed area.

I am making my beds three timbers high, which will give me nine inches of height from the ground. From there, I plan on filling the beds with soil, tapering three inches over the edge of the bed, which will give me a total of a foot of growing depth. This depth will be totally sufficient for most vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, short carrots, all kinds of greens, like kale or lettuce, all herbs, cucumbers, beans, beets, and so on. The only vegetables that might need a deeper soil would be squash, daikon radish, and maybe the vegetables that need deep sturdy staking (as I cannot drive stakes through the landscape fabric). All in all, looks like I can grow practically anything in these beds.

And here we are, first bed is complete. I chose to go with an L-shape to make the square area more interesting, as well as space-saving.

It took two men three hours to build this bed. They used heavy duty landscape nails to connect the timbers together. 

So far, the cost of material is $36 in landscape fabric (I picked up two tubes of 3x100 at Walmart).

I already bought the timbers, nails, and paving stones, but do not know at this point how much of these will be used to build this garden space. Will calculate when the beds are complete.

You might also be interested in:
How to build a garden Part 1
Double-digging garden beds
Vegetable yields per plant


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