A sweet potato experiment

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growing sweet potatoes with plastic

Sweet potatoes growing over plastic mulch.

That looks like a regular sweet potato bed, right?

Wrong!

Instead of loosening the ground and directly planting sweet potatoes, I tried an experiment this year with this bed, thanks to some inspiration from my friend Herrick and his amazing four-day carrots.

Beneath all those vines is a strip of black woven nursery fabric with holes burned into it just big enough for planting sweet potatoes. This stuff lasts for ten years and allows water to pass through without letting weeds pop up.

Growing sweet potatoes in plastic should also keep those things from rooting all the way along their vines.

Why would I want to do this?

#1: Because I’ve read that you can get much larger potatoes by discouraging secondary rooting along the vines. I have noticed that the best roots are always where I first planted my starts – and that there are usually a few tiny ones further down the vines that aren’t worth much.

#2: Because this keeps the weeds down. No more Bidens alba invading my sweet potato patch. When I cut off these vines and harvest the tubers at the end of the season, I’ll have a nice, bare patch of weedless ground for my fall gardening.

I’ll let you all know how it turns out.

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David-the-good-books-revised

My 10 Great Gardening Ideas for the Coming New Year

DecemberBroccoli

I’ve got a bunch of plans for the homestead right now.

There are way too many great gardening ideas in my head but I’m going to try and get the important ideas down for now.

If any of these strike your fancy, try ’em and see how you do.

IDEA #1: Micro-farming

 

I’m thinking of trying my hand at farming a small amount of vegetables for a circle of local friends.

A box subscription sort of a deal. Like… $30 a week and I provide a regular box of fresh-picked organic produce to everyone on the list.

Just toying with the idea right now.

IDEA #2: Massive Banana Circles

I’m also considering hanging gutters on the portions of my house that don’t currently have them, then creating 3 or 4 BIG banana circles to catch the run-off and simultaneously grow us more bananas.

We get a decent amount of bananas right now but I’d like to have enough that each kid can eat one per day. That’s a tall order, but it’s a goal.

IDEA #3: Grafting Mulberries

 

It’s time to try grafting mulberries.

I’m not happy with the fruit quality or quantity from my largest mulberry tree in the front yard so I’m thinking of grafting a half-dozen different varieties all over it. Ought to be fun.

Imagine white mulberries, Pakistan long mulberries and other types all growing on the same tree. I don’t know about species compatibility since it’s a Morus nigra and I’d be grafting Morus alba and Morus rubra onto it… but hey, why not try?

IDEA #4: Expanding The Annual Garden

 

This was my last year fiddling with a big patch of sugarcane.

I need more space for food for the family, so it’s goodbye for now.

I’m going to press that area into service as an expansion of my vegetable gardens.

More roots, more Seminole pumpkins, more greens!

IDEA #5: Build a Smokehouse

 

Photo credit

After my successful small-scale experiments with smoking on the StoveTec, I’m going to go big.

It’s time for me to take a bunch of cinderblocks and get busy building a killer smokehouse.

 

IDEA #6: Build A Tropical Food Forest

 

IN NORTH FLORIDA!

That’s right. A friend owns a greenhouse frame and wants me to have it. It’s a HUGE greenhouse.

I’ve got a friend with some land. She and I are talking about setting it up at her place and planting a tropical in-ground food forest beneath it. The plastic could be removed for half the year, then installed in the winter.

I don’t know if it’s workable or not but I’d like to try.

IDEA #8: Grow More Yams

Apparently, there are non-invasive varieties of true yam which grow in Florida and make huge roots.

I want to grow some. I love the winged yam but my nursery license doesn’t allow me to carry it in my nursery.

I’m looking for Dioscorea caymanensis in particular. If anyone has a source, please let me know!

IDEA #9: Grow Sweet Potatoes In Plastic

I’m thinking of covering an area with a plastic tarp or weed cover, then putting small holes in it for my sweet potato slips.

I think the tarp should keep them from secondary rooting and weeds, leading to much bigger final tubers.

Going to have to try and see.

IDEA #10: Plant a Mahonia Patch

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Mahonias are an edible berry that grows in the shade. I have a big patch of shade.

Why not plant it then start using the berries? They’re acid but can be processed into jams and jellies. Maybe they’d be good dried?

I need to know!

In Epilogue

Finally, what happened to Idea #7?

I don’t know. Idea #7 was obviously so secret that my subconscious caused me to delete it.

And a better question, what are YOUR great gardening ideas for the new year?

If there’s anyone reading who hasn’t succumbed to post-Christmas blood sugar overload… share your ideas in the comments!

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David-the-good-books-revised

More Food Forest Sweet Potatoes: Gainesville Edition

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I posted last week on our wonderful success growing no-work sweet potatoes in our front yard food forest.

Two days ago I saw that my friend Andi reported similar success.

food forest sweet potatoes

I like her idea of growing sweet potatoes as a ground cover one year, followed by squash the next. That would definitely help lower the pest problems on both crops.

Various worms and larva like to eat sweet potatoes, squash bugs and borers like to eat squash. The pests don’t cross species. They also tend to overwinter in the same place. If they wake up after eating sweet potatoes one year to then discover the food is gone… they’ll move on.

As a side note: good squash (like Seminole pumpkins or butternuts) and sweet potatoes taste quite similar and can even be used interchangeably in many recipes, meaning you’re not really giving up much by switching.

Harvesting sweet potatoes is like digging for treasure.

Try growing some sweet potatoes in your food forest next year and let me know how you do. It’s worked for me, it’s worked for Andi, and I bet it’ll work for you too.

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David-the-good-books-revised

Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Food Forest

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For the last few years I’ve been growing sweet potatoes in various places.

In Florida sweet potatoes are one of the easiest crops you can grow. Healthy, nutritious, low water needs, plus high in calories – you can live on these roots.

Bonus: you don’t have to grow them in a conventional garden.

The first way I grew them as a kid, long, long ago, was in my neighbor’s flower box when she was out of town. They took over and smothered the petunias.

It was awesome.

Later, I’ve grown them here and there in raised beds and in deep mulch gardens and even in my blueberry patch.

I don’t recommend doing that anymore, since my blueberries grew really slowly thanks to the root competition.

I also tried growing them around cassava but the canopy overhead was too much for them – if I do that again, it will be with widely spaced cassava plants.

Now I’m sold on a better way to grow them: right in the food forest.

I’ve done that for a few years. It was a nice ground cover; however, the yields were poor due to the lousy compacted sand they were growing in.

After dumping a few loads of mulch last fall, however, along with doing a lot of chop and drop (and shredding stuff), everything is starting to look really, really good.

And the sweet potatoes know the soil has improved.

I went out on Sunday afternoon and started rooting around.

There was something good in the ground… I could feel it…

Almost there…

AH! Here’s the mother lode!!!

Look at all the fungal mycelium in there – those are all those white patches. That’s good stuff. I planted the original slips through 6-12″ deep mulch into the soil, but they put roots everywhere. Check out this view of the path where I tossed the sweet potatoes I unearthed:

growing sweet potatoes in the food forest

Rachel The Good is my photographer. And lover. Shh.

Overall, I planted perhaps 20 slips in the spring… and just let them run through the food forest around my trees and shrubs. Some made plenty of roots… some didn’t.

The total yield?

77lbs.

Not bad at all considering I didn’t water or fertilize or do anything from March all the way through November. I just let them ramble and occasionally pulled vines out of the paths.

Some of the tubers ended up getting quite large:

growing sweet potatoes in my food forest

Check out my foxy new glasses. And my giant sweet potatoes. Which are more awesome? Hard to say.

The biggest sweet potato tipped the scales at 3lbs, 12 oz.

I really pulled in a decent yield considering the lack of work involved. Just some cuttings in spring, some deep mulch, whatever rain the Lord sent and then a little digging.

Fortunately, I received a lot of help from our two-year-old. That boy is great at filling baskets.

baby harvesting sweet potatoes

Babies and sweet potato harvesting = a great afternoon.

By the way, we buy our baskets from local thrift stores for a dollar or two each. They’re great help on the homestead and much cheaper than buying new baskets or totes. Plus they’re all different and homey.

If you haven’t planted sweet potatoes in your food forest or mulch beds, why not try some in the spring? They’re a wonderful crop and very rewarding. Pulling them up is like digging for treasure. Growing sweet potatoes is SO simple you’ll wonder why you’d never done it before.

I’ve created a video on growing sweet potatoes and planting them easily – check it out here:

The best part about growing sweet potatoes every year and harvesting bushels? We’ll be enjoying these well into the winter… and when they’re done, it’ll be time to plant again.

 

David-the-good-books-revised

7 Survival Crops You Can Grow Without Irrigation

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Did you realize that many vegetables will grow without irrigation?

Like us, most plants thrive when they get plenty of water – but some crops are also very good at mining for the moisture they need and hanging on to whatever falls from heaven.
When it comes to survival gardening, ensuring a good supply of water should be a top priority, yet there are times when it isn’t easy to drag water around or get irrigation to a field. If that’s the case, you might need to think differently about both how you grow and what you grow.
Steve Solomon wrote an excellent book on gardening without irrigation that really nails down some techniques, plus shares the great potential of dryland farming. You can read it for free here. Just a heads-up: typical intensive raised bed production is NOT the way to grow crops without water. Go read Solomon’s book if you’re interested. Seriously.
For now, though – let’s take a look at seven survival crops that are pretty easy to grow without irrigation. Let’s attack them in alphabetical order. Just because.

Amaranth

Amaranth - a crop you can grow without irrigationAmaranth is an ancient “grain.” (It’s not a true grain… it’s actually a “psuedo-cereal,” in case you were wondering). If you’ve read many of my gardening articles, you know I have a love-hate relationship with grains. Grains are generally not the best option for long-term survival for a number of reasons, but a couple of them stand out: amaranth and corn. (We’ll cover corn next, since it comes after amaranth in the alphabet.)
The reason amaranth stands apart as a grain is that it’s also a good leaf vegetable. It also requires minimal processing to be edible. Sure, the yields are low, but it’s easy to grow and it will usually yield abundantly even without being watered by man. I planted some a few years ago and it’s reseeded and come back again and again without any help from me… I just pop out and harvest it when I think about it.

Corn

Corn will grow without irrigationThis last year I conducted my first experiment growing corn without irrigation and was quite happy with the results. It wasn’t quite a fair test since we had a wetter spring than usual, but there were a couple of weeks in a row that went by without rain. Though folks often think of corn as a “needy” crop, some of the old heirlooms are true survivors. They were bred in an era before high-pressure sprinklers blasted water fifty feet into the air. Corn was a big part of Southwestern agriculture before the Spanish arrived… and you can bet the Aztecs weren’t that interested in hauling big clay pots of water around.

Jerusalem Artichokes

I’ve never had to water Jerusalem artichokes, either here in Florida sand or up north in Tennessee clay. They go through long stretches of low rainfall without complaint and always produce more tubers than you can eat. As a bonus, they’re perennial…
(CLICK HERE to keep reading over at The Prepper Project)

 

David-the-good-books-revised

How to plant sweet potatoes

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Sweet potatoes are one of the easiest to grow vegetables, provided you have the right climate.

Florida is perfect for sweet potatoes. They like the heat, they like the long summers and they don’t need much care.

To learn how to plant sweet potatoes, read on.

Step 1: Get Your Planting Material!

This isn’t hard. Sometimes your local feed store or nursery will sell “slips,” which are just rooted segments of vines. This is a really easy way to get started, but if you have a little more time you can make your own sweet potato slips like I teach you here.

You can also simply buy a bag of sweet potatoes and start burying them in the garden… or take chunks of vine off an existing plant and start plunking the stems a few inches deep into the ground.

how to plant sweet potatoes
Rachel broke this chunk off a sweet potato in the pantry. It’s perfect.

I’ve done all of the above with good success. Think of them like ivy: they root at every node easily. Water them for a couple of weeks and they’ll take off.

Generally, we eat most of the big sweet potatoes through the winter and keep a basket of the smaller ones for planting in the spring. It doesn’t matter that they’re small. Unlike individual fruit or vegetables, the sweet potatoes we harvest all contain the exact same genes as the big ones we ate so there’s not a problem with “selecting” for tiny roots. They’re clones!

Step 2: Prep Your Bed

You don’t have to worry too much about preparation for sweet potatoes. Loose, loamy soil is great… but they’ll also grow in so-so sand without many complaints.

The vines are shorter on this sweet potato so Rachel planted the entire root.

This year, we’re growing in our former white potato bed. They’re not related species so there’s no danger of disease build up in the soil.

This is pretty lousy area that generally fails to yield well, so we’re going with our drop-dead easy survival staple this time around. We’ll see how they do. I covered the area in fall with a mixture of rye and lentils as a green manure cover crop.

Here’s what it looked like before I busted out the tiller:

Cover crops add nutrition to the soil and keeps it “alive” between plantings.

I dug three trenches about 4′ apart after tilling, then we planted the sweet potatoes at 4′ apart down the trenches.

how to plant sweet potatoes
Rachel covered this piece of vine with dirt all the way up to the leaves.

We should get plenty of sweet potatoes from this planting… plus we always miss a few that pop up again the next spring after the frosts leave us alone for a while.

Step 3: Water Well… and Stand Back!

Sweet potatoes will take off in warm weather and need little to no irrigation in years with decent rainfall. They also tend to run over most weeds and control the area where you plant them… and the areas around the garden… and the areas beyond that. I have them coming up 20′ from where I planted them last year. My kind of plant.

This sweet potato yielded at least five good slips for planting.

If you haven’t planted your sweet potatoes yet, it’s time to get going. You have until about June, but they’ll be a lot bigger and happier if you start before the weather and bugs get too intense.

As a final note – sweet potatoes make a great ground cover for food forests, especially in the more tropical areas of Florida where they’ll grow year round. As a bonus, the longer you leave them in the ground… the bigger the roots tend to get.

Sweet potatoes are easy to grow and easy to plant. Get to it!

UPDATE 2015: Here’s a quick video on how to plant sweet potatoes the easy way:

David-the-good-books-revised

A (Almost) Secret Source For Rare Vegetables

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Today I’m going to share my secret source for rare vegetables.

Do you ever feel like you’ve “seen it all” at your local home improvement nursery? Are the seed racks looking a little tired? Have you already grown 5 kinds of lettuce, three types of cucumber and thirteen different marigolds?

Then it’s time to look a little further afield for planting stock.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I hit an international market called Food Town down in Davie this last week.

This selection of gardening bounty was the result:

I bought sugar cane, water chestnuts, nopale cactus pads, and a green squash, a Korean melon, chestnuts, plus white, purple and Japanese sweet potatoes.

Not all of this haul is from Food Town, though. We hit Whole Foods next and scored purple, white and assorted potatoes for this coming spring’s potato patch, as well as a bunch of Jerusalem artichoke tubers, ginger roots and a bag of buckwheat.

All of these items are getting planted. The dark red sugar cane is a type I’ve never seen before… and the other veggies are all great for starting. I’ll pop the water chestnuts in a tub, scoop the seeds from the squash, plant the nopale pads, set the potatoes in a sunny windowsill, get the sweet potatoes sprouting and generally have fun trying all these new plants out.

If anyone needs a little plant ID help, I made a handy labelled key to what I got… check it out:

If you haven’t hit your local Oriental or ethnic market
for planting stock, you really should. It’s a treasure hunt – you never
know what you’ll find, but chances are, it’ll be more interesting than
the seed rack at the feed store.
A lot of Asian vegetables thrive in Florida – get hooked up and watch your garden go International.
David-the-good-books-revised

Giving Thanks

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Here’s my latest Natural Awakenings article. Issu no longer lets me embed, so I’m simply posting an image capture. Click to enlarge.

Note the fact that since I’m no longer a Master Gardener… I’m quoting… yet again… gasp… a verse from God’s Holy And Politically Incorrect Word IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE OMG OMG OMG!!!1!1!11!!!

Proselytizing FTW.

In other news, we’re going to be eating some of our homegrown sweet potatoes along with Seminole pumpkin pie here at Econopocalypse Ranch. And speaking of sweet potatoes – we had another great harvest this year… here’s just a piece of it:

Something I unfortunately overlooked giving thanks for in my article: my amazing wife and children. Rachel crafts some amazing food. Plus she makes cute babies. And I like babies.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

David-the-good-books-revised

Sweet potato firstfruits!

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Recently, I read this book, mostly because I liked the cover (thrift store treasure hunting pays off):

It also had quite a bit of decent info on growing a variety of crops organically, including sweet potatoes, though it was too late to try any of the suggestions.

So I grew sweet potatoes in my normal manner this year. I made slips, I planted slips, I stood back for a few months, then I dug ’em up. For more on sweet potatoes and how to grow them, click here. Or check out this video:

Back to today’s post!

See this treasure? 21lbs of nice tubers from about a 5 x 10 space.

There would’ve been a higher yield if I had planted at a greater density – or waited a couple more months to harvest – or just planted sweet potatoes by themselves. The first sweet potato vines I planted in that bed were intercropped with other plants that later expired in the heat. Fortunately, I have a bunch more sweet potato beds that I won’t touch until November or so.

You know, I have a problem leaving things well enough alone. Sometimes I just really, really want to dig things up and look at them. This is something that amuses my wife immensely. I know… it doesn’t make sense for someone as hands-off and pro-nature as I am to get nutty about clearing beds and digging areas up before everything is ready to harvest.

I’ll bet the Best Ideas folks never do that. No, they probably have everything graphed out on charts and punched into calculators.

But – while we’re on the topic of Best Ideas, I have to say… I did adopt one thing from the book.

Garden fashion!

UPDATE: It seems you can still get this book on Amazon. Better still, it’s $0.01 – check it out:

Best Ideas for Organic Vegetable Growing

David-the-good-books-revised
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