Ris­ing stars of the un­der­ground scene

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page -

There is a lot to be said for hav­ing a lit­tle part of your world that doesn’t re­mind you of your fail­ings. As a man in his 40s, I wake up some morn­ings think­ing I’m in jail be­fore re­mem­ber­ing that eye­brows now grow that quickly. In the veg patch, it is lit­tle bet­ter: the bras­si­cas look at me side­ways through cab­bage white sea­son, the sum­mer sal­ads re­mind me that the slugs like their five-a-day too, and the toma­toes are al­ways happy to ac­com­mo­date pass­ing aphids.

Un­der­ground crops of­fer blessed re­lief. Their above­ground growth is rel­a­tively en­cour­ag­ing to be­hold, of­ten beau­ti­ful, and the po­ten­tial prize (and any as­so­ci­ated wor­ries) is hid­den away, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that all is well. It’s a splen­did state of af­fairs: this is one part of the veg patch that doesn’t make me feel anx­ious, and get­ting it go­ing starts in the next weeks. While I’m busy sow­ing the early spring veg un­der cover, I’m look­ing for dry spells to plant a few tu­bers out­side in the hope of a fine haul later in the year.

Sweet pota­toes

Sweet pota­toes ( Ipo­moea batatas) did well in last year’s long, warm sum­mer and, now my fam­ily has quite the taste for them, I’m charged with grow­ing plenty more. Sweet pota­toes be­long to the Ipo­moea genus, along with flow­er­ing climber morn­ing glory, with which they share trum­pet flow­ers and that char­ac­ter­is­tic ram­bling habit.

Sweet pota­toes in the shops are or­ange, but home-grown va­ri­eties span or­ange to pur­ple. They are in­creas­ingly popular as a low-carb al­ter­na­tive to pota­toes, but they’re not just a wor­thy spud; they roast, bake and take to a gratin su­perbly.

Per­haps the most risky of the tu­bers, sweet pota­toes need warmth. How­ever, new va­ri­eties have been bred to make a go of things even in our un­re­li­able cli­mate. My favourites are ‘Evan­ge­line’, a very sweet, or­ange- fleshed va­ri­ety; ‘Beau­re­gard’, highly pro­duc­tive with medium-sized or­ange­fleshed tu­bers; and ‘Murasaki’, pur­pled skinned with dry, white flesh, crop­ping a week or two later than ‘Beau­re­gard’.

Give them the sun­ni­est spot you can. Un­like mashua (see be­low), sweet pota­toes won’t climb even if given a sup­port­ing struc­ture and of­fered whisky macs at each base camp: their fo­liage will trail and scram­ble for 3ft-6ft (1m-2m), which smoth­ers out neigh­bour­ing weeds.

Sweet pota­toes are tra­di­tion­ally started from un­rooted cut­tings – shoots that have been re­moved from chit­ted sweet pota­toes – known as slips. You may source them now to pot your­self, or buy 9cm/3.5in pot­ted plants for de­liv­ery in a cou­ple of months’ time when the frosts have passed. If they ar­rive naked, as it were, soak each slip in wa­ter, then pot up to the first leaves and place in ei­ther an un­heated prop­a­ga­tor or cover the pot in a clear plas­tic bag un­til they’ve rooted. Plant out (12in/30cm be­tween each plant, in rows 28in/70cm apart) af­ter the last frosts, in the sun­ni­est spot you have or, bet­ter still, in a green­house or poly­tun­nel.

If you are grow­ing them out­side, warm the ground with black plas­tic for a cou­ple of weeks. You can plant through the plas­tic to give them a boost, and a lit­tle fleece cov­er­ing will get them off to a good start. Sweet pota­toes will do well in large con­tain­ers, but you should feed them reg­u­larly.

As a rule, sweet pota­toes are pest-free – your gam­ble is with the cli­mate. A good sum­mer means plenty of pota­toes, even out­side. The tu­bers are ready when the fo­liage yel­lows in early au­tumn. Leave them in the ground for as long as pos­si­ble to swell the tu­bers, but dig up be­fore the frosts ar­rive.

Al­low any for stor­ing to dry and cure in a green­house, poly­tun­nel or on a win­dowsill for about 10 days. Store some­where cool and dry.


Mashua ( Tropae­olum tubero­sum) was last year’s great suc­cess. As with pota­toes, mashua hails

Sweet potato soup

This is so sim­ple and the smok­i­ness of the chipo­tle chilli keeps the sweet potato from any dan­ger of be­ing too sweet. 5 shal­lots Oil and but­ter 5 large sweet pota­toes, peeled and diced 4 gar­lic cloves, finely chopped An inch of chipo­tle chilli Hand­ful of thyme leaves 450ml chicken stock Good splash of milk Olive oil Ground pa­prika Salt and pep­per

Finely chop the shal­lots and fry them very gen­tly over a lowmedium heat in a good knob of but­ter and olive oil for a cou­ple of min­utes. Add the sweet potato to the shal­lots, cooking un­til they just start to soften. Add gar­lic and cook for a cou­ple of min­utes. Add chilli, thyme and stock and sim­mer un­til the sweet potato is ten­der.

Zap in a blen­der un­til com­pletely smooth. Re­turn to the pan, taste and add a lit­tle milk – I tend to add 100ml or so, but it de­pends on the tex­ture of the sweet potato. Stir, warm through, and serve with a Zorro of olive oil, a dust­ing of pa­prika and plenty of salt and pep­per. good – a lit­tle like ca­pers, and es­pe­cially good pick­led.

They can be grown in a well­wa­tered and fed con­tainer, or planted – 16in (40cm) be­tween them – in a sunny but moist spot. It is a herba­ceous climber that will make a good few me­tres in height if it has a scaf­fold and space to scram­ble.

Jerusalem ar­ti­choke

I’d not be with­out Jerusalem ar­ti­chokes ( Helianthus tubero­sus). Their knob­bly tu­bers are one of my favourite win­ter, or any other sea­son, in­gre­di­ents. With an earthy, mush­roomy taste, they are ver­sa­tile, mak­ing a won­der­ful soup (use in­stead of sweet pota­toes in the recipe, left) or a splen­did base for risotto. They are also su­perb roasted (scrub, cut into chunks, toss in olive oil, salt and pep­per, and roast for 30- 40 min­utes at 190C/375F/gas mark 5, or roast whole for a lit­tle longer). Rather than crisp up as a potato might, they semi-col­lapse and soak up flavours, mak­ing them a fine part­ner to other veg as well as beef and lamb.

They couldn’t be eas­ier to grow – just sink each tu­ber (6in) 15cm into the soil, 20in (50cm) or so from its neigh­bour, and come back in win­ter. They are peren­nial, but un­like many peren­nial tu­bers they don’t need lift­ing and re­plant­ing the fol­low­ing spring.

I have a patch in an or­chard that started from a few dozen tu­bers about five years ago: I do noth­ing ex­cept take my fork to it ev­ery win­ter, lift­ing tu­bers as I want them. ‘Fuse’ is the va­ri­ety to go for: all taste the same, but this is the least knob­bly va­ri­ety, which makes for easy peel­ing.

The tu­bers de­velop late, as win­ter sets in, and will hap­pily stay un­har­vested, what­ever the weather. Lift as you need them, as they don’t store for long.

Once you get into buried trea­sure, it can be­come quite ob­ses­sive – I sim­i­larly love oca, Chi­nese ar­ti­chokes, ya­con and ground­nut to name but a few – so be pre­pared: you’ll find new ones to try ev­ery year.

Buy six ‘Beau­re­gard Im­proved’ sweet potato pre­mium plug plants for £14.99 and get six ‘Carolina Ruby’ pre­mium plugs free. Call 0844 573 6015 (quote TET76) or visit gar­den­shop.tele­graph.co.uk/of­fers. Con­tract with Thomp­son & Mor­gan. Of­fer sub­ject to avail­abil­ity.

Buried trea­sures: clock­wise from main, sweet pota­toes are an in­creas­ingly popular low-carb al­ter­na­tive to pota­toes; planted in a warm, sunny po­si­tion they have a scram­bling habit; mashua tu­bers have a pep­pery taste, with hints of aniseed and basil;...

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