sweet potato

Sweet potato as a source of greens

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That mound of green is one of our current success stories in the garden, but not in the way we expected.

It’s sweet potato, and it’s the best example of my pivot from temperate to sub-tropical plants, matching the shift in Sydney’s climate. It isn’t eaten by slugs, snails, caterpillars or other bugs. It’s not affected by powdery mildew, rusts or other fungal diseases. It’s not even slightly stressed by 40deg heat.

Last season, however, it completely failed to provide edible tubers. Doh 😦

And then I saw on Gardening Australia that sweet potato leaves are edible. Eureka!

They’re treated like spinach leaves, steamed, fried or sautéed. They’re delicious, and we use them in salads, as a green alongside meat, or in stir-fries.

They’ve become all our all-year, all-weather source of greens. But let’s hope that this season they also give us actual sweet potatoes!

Kicking off a straw bale garden

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Six bales of straw, plus two bales of lucern hay (for good mesure)
Six bales of straw (plus two bales of lucern hay, for good measure)

For a long while now I’ve wanted to do two things: grow sweet potato (kumera), and have vegetables in the guerrilla gardened land behind our house. When I stumbled across the book Straw Bale Gardens, it seemed like the perfect answer to both desires.

Straw is the bundled stalks of harvested wheat, and it acts like, well, straws, sucking up and holding onto moisture. I sourced six bales from the friendly folks at Kensington Produce, piling them into my ute.

Six bales, laid out in their final position.
Six bales, laid out in their final position.

The concept is a simple one: lay out a number of straw bales, with the ‘spiky side’ facing upwards. These act as the base of a no-dig garden bed.

For the first two weeks, the straw bales get a few handfuls of fertiliser each day, and plenty of water. This kicks off the breakdown of the bales (straw by itself has very little nutrient).

A sweet potato (kumera) nestled in the straw.
A sweet potato (kumera) nestled in the straw.

Before planting anything else, I nestled a number of sweet potatos (kumera) into the straw (these babies are the main reason I created the garden). In theory I was supposed to let them shoot first, but I couldn’t wait — fingers crossed it works!

A soaker hose laid across the straw bales, with the start of a layer of planting mix.
A soaker hose laid across the straw bales, with the start of a layer of planting mix.

A soaker hose was then laid out across the bales, and then the bales are covered an inch-thick layer of potting mix. I then planted seeds of a mix of different quick-growing vegetables, including lettuce, green beans and amaranth, plus some strawberries.

The straw bale garden fully set up -- now I just have to wait for the seeds to sprout.
The straw bale garden fully set up — now I just have to wait for the seeds to sprout.

The straw bales are already encouragingly warm, so hopefully this will encourage seed germination. I’ll report on progress over the next weeks and months.

As a final note, I’d strongly recommend the Straw Bale Gardens book. It’s a simple concept, but clearly and powerfully communicated. Joel’s garden design is more evolved that the simple version I’ve created, so I’d encourage you to get a copy and start planting!