Sweet potatoes aren’t usually thought of as a successful garden crop in Minnesota or Wisconsin. If you’re of this opinion, you may have been missing out on some terrific, home-grown eating. This past Sunday, we gathered with a few friends in Wisconsin to sample short-season sweet potato varieties some of us had grown. Between 3 gardens, we had 13 different varieties with 1 to 6 roots of each depending on the size. We baked them in a single, large restaurant pan, carefully mapping out the varieties on paper and marking some with toothpicks. When the largest of the roots was declared “done”, we carefully placed each variety on a separate, labeled plate, cutting them into bite-size pieces.
All eleven of us sat around the table, passing one plate at a time so we could all comment and take notes. There was wide variation in color, texture, starchiness, sweetness, and depth of flavor. Some roots were described as “squashy”, “carrotty”, and even “parsnippy”, while a few were found “bland” or “off-flavored”. We also compared horticultural notes and there did seem to be a consensus that sprouting times could be delayed a couple of weeks from what we had been doing. We had all been assuming that sweet potatoes needed the longest growing time we could provide. But the soil and air temps need to be warmed up sufficiently when the transplants are set out or they don’t really gain any head start on the season. The very early starts did have a larger yield, but there were more irregular and damaged roots to offset the increase in harvest. The commercial slips, which arrived about 4 weeks later, didn’t size up as well even though we had plenty of heat this summer. Finding the happy medium seems to be the key. Another year of growing some of the varieties out, all from home-produced slips, should help in deciding the best varieties for each gardener/garden site. The tasting did serve to narrow our focus a bit as varieties that fared poorly on the table were not likely to be grown again. But horticultural attributes can also strongly influence varietal choices. In our garden, we noted that cut-leaved plants had less slug and rodent damage due to less shading of the soil, a trait we found preferable and worth pursuing.
Here’s the varieties we tried: Barberman, Beauregard, Envy, Georgia Jet, Georgia Yam, Ginseng Orange, Ginseng Red, Hatterias, Ivy Leaf Carver, Marins, Patriot, Wakenda, and Willowleaf. Some clear favorites were Beauregard (a commercial standard) and Ginseng Red, with close runners-up of Barberman, Georgia Jet, and Patriot. Most of the rest were found to be at least good, if not outstanding. Three varieties, Hatterias, Georgia Yam, and Ginseng Orange, were found “off”, “odd”, or “poor” – maybe just a bad root and not typical?
After the tasting, we sat down to a harvest potluck of Mixed Greens Salad, Cauliflower Kugel, White Bean and Collard Soup, Flax Crackers, Millet Bread, and Apple Crisp. What a feast!!! This was so much fun that we think we should choose another crop to sample next – maybe beans (we probably have 2 or 3 dozen varieties amongst us)???