Saturday, November 7, 2015

Mining Gold in the Garden

Miners may have headed to the mountains hoping to discover gold nuggets and tiny gilt grains in streams and veins of rock. We’ve stayed home on the prairie and discovered it in our Kansas garden after experimenting with new crops. One such Eureka moment arrived in the form of beta-carotene, vitamin A rich sweet potatoes.

From the time my mother fed me pureed orange spoonfuls from a Gerber jar, I’ve loved the flavor and bright color of this still favorite food. Thanksgiving recipes incorporating butter, brown sugar, and marshmallows or pecans into the mix confirmed my cravings. With the advent of cooking shows and online recipe sites, I’ve discovered sweet potato pie, casseroles, fries, chips, and soups. Those dishes mean I no longer wait for holidays to gobble this favorite goodie. What I didn’t know until recently was that I could grow my own tubers and enjoy them fresh from the garden.

Our family has planted traditional potatoes many times over the decades and enjoyed the fun of digging them. It’s a thrill to stab a potato fork into the soil and turn it to see how many thin-skinned, big and little spuds one seed potato produced. Planting sweet potato slips doubles the fun for anyone who loves to guess what treasure lurks beneath those vibrant green plants and vines.

To grow these holiday favorites requires shoots you can buy at the garden center or start in the kitchen window in February or early March. While you plant a cut up russet or Yukon eye to produce the traditional tater, to harvest these sweeter forms of starch, you tuck a single leafy slip into a mound of soil. This produces a beautiful vine that generates orange-tinged gold underground. As a bonus, sweet potatoes are not in the nightshade family so gardeners can eat tender leaves as well as the tubers multiplying beneath them later in the season.

My husband dug ours recently and struck an unexpected Mother Lode. We planted 12 tiny slips, losing four to frost. Later, another plant succumbed so we were down to 7 plants. Examining  our reduced hopes, I wanted a large enough harvest to supply our family Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners along with  a batch or two of mashed or baked sweet potatoes for the two of us.

Conditions this summer must’ve been perfect for this crop because once my sweetheart turned the soil beneath the drying vines, he discovered various sized orange tubers in a large enough quantity to fill an old-fashioned washtub. One potato nearly the size of a football will feed our extended family! Others grew large enough to serve multiple  mouths per spud. Thank goodness, they aren’t all humongous. A few are small enough to feed a single diner.

It’s as if Midas with his golden touch produced these  grand champion sweet potatoes. If they were actual gold nuggets, we couldn’t find wheelbarrows enough to haul the money they’d be worth to the bank. We’ll let miners slog through the cold, dark, and damp to find wealth deep in the Rockies while our family celebrates our summer harvest of gold this holiday season.

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