Favorite Spring Root Crops in the Southeast and Beyond

Reader Contribution by Ira Wallace
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St Patrick’s Day is the Traditional time for planting “Irish” potatoes here in Central Virginia. Coincidentally it is also when we start sprouting sweet potatoes for slips. For both it is best to wait until the soil temperature at 3 inches deep is at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We are impatiently waiting for just a few more warm spring days before planting.

While we are waiting we have been green chitting (aka pre-sprouting) our Irish potatoes to get them off to a good start. Chitting is easy to do: first thing is to spread the whole seed potatoes in a single layer in clean seedling flat. Make sure the seed end (with a cluster of little potential sprouts) is facing up. Place the flats in a warm (70 degree) dark area for about a week to start the tubers sprouting. Then move the flats to a cool (50 to 60 degrees) spot with indirect light for 1 to 3 weeks. This stimulates the growth of short sturdy sprouts. We cut the seed potatoes into egg size pieces with at least two good sprouts each before planting.

A Southeastern tradition that we follow here on the farm is planting two crops of potatoes. We plant one crop in March for harvest in early summer and another in June for fall harvest and winter eating. Planting a crop of fall potatoes is not just for us southerners. In a recent Mother Earth News interview, potato expert Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm shares his “Best Tips for Growing Organic Potatoes,” including a grower in southern Michigan who makes a fall potato planting. For us here in the hot humid Southeast having a second fall harvest after the weather cools off makes for better quality in storage and eating during winter.

Although we have eaten all of our stored Irish potatoes, we are still enjoying 14 varieties of sweet potatoes: orange, white, gold, and purple sweet potatoes, all grown here on our farm or at Living Energy Farm just 14 miles away in Louisa, Virginia. Sweet potatoes are hard to beat as a storage crop. They keep well for 9 to 12 months at room temperature in breathable cardboard boxes or paper bags out of the light. For new gardeners Our Sweet Potato Planting Guide will give you all the information you need to get started.

We like to start sprouting sweet potatoes for slips in March so they are ready to plant in late May when all chance of frost is past and the soil temperatures are warm. For us in zone 7 that is traditionally Memorial Day, but sometimes we cheat and pre-warm the soil with clear or black plastic so we can get our slips in the ground a week or two earlier. For gardeners further north getting sweet potatoes planted early is more of a necessity for insuring a good crop. Learn more about How to Sprout Sweet Potatoes for Slips from Sean at Living Energy Farm.

Another root crop that we enjoy all winter is yacon: a delicious, sweet, crisp Andean root. Grower Mike Youngs in New York stores yacon in his root cellar and takes peeled and sliced pieces to work as an apple-like snack most days all winter. We enjoy yacon substituted for half the apples in a Waldorf Salad. The fresh cut pieces should be dipped in lemon or orange juice to prevent browning. Learn more about storing and growing Yacon from heirloom expert William Woys Weaver who introduced us to the fruit-like Yacon roots.

Thanks for stopping by and we hope you’ll come back often to see what we’re growing and cooking.

Ira Wallace lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm, home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she coordinates variety selection and seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open-pollinated, and organic seeds. Ira is a co-organizer of theHeritage Harvest Festivalat Monticello. She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a frequent presenter at theMother Earth News Fairsand many other events throughout the Southeast. Her first book, “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” is available online and at booksellers everywhere.