Thursday, October 22, 2015

Of voles and sweet potatoes

When we arrive at this, the most colorful time of autumn, I enjoy one last glorious show of reds, yellows, greens, and purples before the gray-and-brown monotony of late fall and winter. Above you can see two dogwoods (the red leaves) flanking a spicebush (yellow-orange). In back the fading green of silver maples and in front, the still-green grass sets off the flaming colors.

A few days ago, I awoke to a light frost covering the ground around the vegetable gardens. As the season’s first frost, it toasted the sweet potato leaves, signaling time to harvest. This year I planted three different varieties. So far I have harvested all of two of them and a few of the third. Of the two I have harvested completely, ‘O’Henry’ suffered from extensive predation by a ground-dwelling creature whose identity remains unknown (though I suspect voles because they are said to eat succulent root systems such as sweet potato tubers). For some of the plants, all of the tubers except for the skins were eaten. Other tubers have large craters eaten into them or show signs that what I was left with was less than half of what had been there. The few that were undamaged or only lightly damaged are quite large, evidence that had I been left most of the tubers, this variety would have outyielded ‘Ginseng’. ‘Ginseng’s’ tubers are smaller but they suffered much less predation. Both of these varieties made most of their tubers under the central portion of the plant, while ‘Hernandez’, the variety which remains to be harvested, has already yielded a number of small tubers that formed on parts of the vines that intruded into ‘O’Henry’s’ part of the bed. We haven’t yet done a taste test of the varieties; it’ll be interesting to see how they compare.

I was quite disappointed and humbled by the evidence of extensive predation of what would have been the high-yielding variety. Those of you who have been reading along with me know that I have been trying to grow crops that can provide lots of calories for the space they take up, to understand if it’s possible to grow something close to a complete diet in a backyard-sized garden. Sweet potatoes should fill an important niche in this regard: they grow well in our long, hot summers and they store longer and in warmer, lighter conditions than regular potatoes. Part of growing a complete diet is eating the right foods at the right time, and that means having at least one high-calorie staple crop to eat at all times of the year. The potato varieties I grow aren’t ready till August and they begin to sprout and rot as the basement warms up in spring. Grains can be used year-round, but it takes much more space to grow a grain crop than a tuber crop. Ideally sweet potatoes could be stored through winter and then eaten in spring through early summer, when the regular potatoes are no longer available. Grains could fill the calorie niche from then till regular potatoes are harvested. But if the sweet potatoes can’t stand up to predation, that strategy won’t work. Hence my disappointment and humility. Beaten by small mammals ... I’ll have more to say about this when I write up the results of this year’s garden and what I’ve learned from it.

Meanwhile, Mike continues working on the woodshed. The photo below shows the framing almost complete.

Next he’ll add some more bracing and the roof purlins (the pieces that lie on top of and at right angles to the roof rafters), followed by the roof deck and top. It’ll have a metal roof because he says that’s the easiest kind of roof for him to install. Then he’ll need to add some kind of floor framing to hold shorter pieces than the four foot width. We have made one fire in the wood stove so far, the evening of the 18th (it frosted that morning). That one fire, made with dry wood, heated up the house several degrees so we did not need to run the gas furnace. With this week’s warm weather, the house is warm enough to not need any added heat beyond what we let in through open windows during the day. Take that, electric and natural gas providers!

Most of the vegetable garden is no longer producing food. I’ve picked the popcorn, most of the blackeyed peas, and all the squash. The frost was not heavy enough to kill the tomatoes, peppers, or pole snap beans. They continue to make some food, though as the soil and weather cool and hours of sunlight diminish, less is available at each picking. I may get another two or three weeks of slight production from them before frost kills them. However, the two beds of fall greens and roots are full of beautiful food, as you can see below.
The purple is ‘Purple Rapa Mix’ mustard greens. I’ll have to figure out how to preserve some of them; even then I expect there will be enough to give some away. The other greens are turnips, radishes, and arugula. Outside of the picture we have large bok choy and smaller kale for stir-fries as well as lettuce for salads.

Another autumn project, now mostly complete, has been to dig a new rain garden to accept overflow from the 500 gallon water tank that collects rain from the garden shed roof. Around here it’s suggested to make a rain garden about 1/3 of the area of the roof if it were flat. Our shed is 120 square feet, so the rain garden is about 40 square feet. I dug it by hand, with the tools in the photo below. It took a couple of hours because I wasn’t working that hard.
Unlike summer, autumn has been very dry. I measured about 1.1 inches of rain in September. So far October hasn’t brought enough rain to measure. In order to give the rain garden plants a good start, I first ran over 100 gallons of stored rain water into the depression to moisten the soil before adding the plants. I chose a mix of appropriate native plants suggested by a publication titled Native Plant Rain Gardens co-produced by the Missouri Departments of Conservation and Agriculture in 2004. After planting them, I ran another 100 gallons or so of stored rain water into the depression, to settle the plants into their new home. The last step will be to mulch them; when that is complete, I’ll post a photo. I’m hoping that the claimed weather pattern change, to a more normal mix of occasional rainy days, will materialize to help the trees and shrubs I planted in spring settle into late fall and winter.

The tea camellias I talked about in this post died, alas. So this past spring I bought and planted new ones from Camellia Forest Nursery. They’ve done very well and are supposed to be at least marginally hardy here. But I want to improve their chances to survive winter cold. So I did what I should have done years ago after I first read it: I bought Palms Won’t Grow Here by David Francko. (I suggest searching for a used hardback edition so you can see the beautiful color plates rather than the print-on-demand paperback version with its blurry black-and-white photocopies of said plates). Anyone who is trying to push their hardiness limits to grow plants that aren’t supposed to grow in their location needs this book. Not only does it tell me how to protect my tea camellias (mulch them in early winter with a foot or so of oak leaves and consider surrounding them with a wind barrier and coating the leaves with an antidessicant), and how to keep the flowerbuds on my hydrangeas alive (cover the plants with oak leaves to overwinter the budded branches) but it tells me how to grow palms, bananas, and other plants in the ground here in the St. Louis region. Sure, people grow bananas here; I’ve done it myself. But we dig them up after the first autumn frost, keeping them in the basement for the winter, and plant them back out in May, after the last spring frost. This book tells us which kinds of bananas we can wrap up for winter, sheltering them in place in the ground. And while no one here bats an eye at the sight of a crape myrtle (they seem to be everywhere) or a southern magnolia (less common but still many examples around town), I haven’t seen anyone growing a camellia of any sort outside, much less a palm. Maybe a few palms in the front yard, out where passersby can see them, would be fun to grow. And now that we had the dying blue spruce removed, I finally have space for a southern magnolia!

Next post I will continue the series on keeping warm in a minimally-heated house.


  1. Hi, Claire!

    I have just commented to you about sweet potatoes over at Fernglade Farm, but I think I'll mention it here also as I hadn't read this post yet when I did so. Do you cure your sweet potatoes before storing? We put ours in old 10 gallon glass fish tanks (that I used to raise crickets in for the bearded dragons) with a 40 watt light bulb on top of each and leave them there (at about 80'F) for 5 days. Some of them are curing in a really large plastic storage box, too, as I ran out of glass tanks. The key is 80'F; any hotter and they can start to shrivel up. It seems to toughen up the skin, or perhaps seal it. The sweet potatoes that we grew last year stayed fresh almost a whole year, just in our kitchen pantry (north side of the house). I have no idea what the humidity requirements for storing them should be. Voles appear to have chewed on ours just a little bit. That's what ate half of our russet, etc. type potatoes one year.

    To preserve any type of greens I put them in the dehydrator, stems and all. They don'r take long to dry and can be layered somewhat thickly. I store them in glass jars and crumble them into soups and stir-fries, like herbs, but in larger portions. I know some people pickle them.

    Thanks for the link to the tea camellia nursery. I started looking too late in the season this spring and everybody I tried was sold out.


    1. Hi Pam! I probably should cure the sweet potatoes but so far have not done so. I just put them in baskets in the room where our wood stove is. In past years uncured sweet potatoes have lasted into May or early June when I left them in the back bedroom or in the kitchen. If mine don't last long enough in the house this year I will try your method of curing them next fall. We have a large cooler and could rig up an electric light to warm it to the needed temperature.

      Thanks for the tip about the dehydrator! As soon as it gets sunny again (we had much-needed rain yesterday and it's been cloudy today), I will start running leaves through it. Sandor Katz says in his book The Art of Fermentation that mustard greens can be fermented but they should be mixed in small quantities with blander foods when eaten. I'm guessing that the sulfur compounds that give it the mustardy flavor change in fermentation into the same compounds that make rotten onions or eggs stink so badly. It makes more sense to ferment the excess bok choy, one of the classic bases for kimchi.

      I also had some vole-damaged potatoes though not to the extent that the O'Henry sweet potatoes were attacked. Since I wrote the post I've harvested the Hernandez sweet potatoes and got a bumper crop of those, with some but not excessive vole damage. It makes me wonder if voles have preferences for certain varieties. Lots to think about over the winter!

  2. Hi Claire,

    Doesn't it always seem as if we are constantly learning all of the time? Sorry to read about your sweet potatoes - the millipedes can occasionally perform that trick on potatoes here, not all of the time mind you so I haven’t quite understood the pattern, but only some of the time - they also do the same thing on strawberries which will be ripe later this month. Please keep your voles to your part of the world, thanks very much! ;-)! The rats and mice are bad enough...

    The wood shed is looking really good - respects to your husband for his excellent work and neat construction. The photos of the autumn colour in the turning of the leaf look great too.

    Great to see that you have a water tank, and that rain garden is a really great idea for the overflow from the water tank. Ferns would love that area. If you are considering any fruit trees in that area, I would possibly suggest that pear trees (Asian or European) don't seem to mind wet feet at all. I grow a couple of variety of willows and a sugar maple in the main overflow (which gets a lot of overflow water), but the citrus also enjoy solid growth around another overflow.

    Tea camellias are a nightmare, but so worth the time. The old timers here used to put hessian sacks over the topmost part of the plant during the winter and that kept them alive as it protected them from both frost and wind. Thanks for the link to the book too. I found the one frost free spot around here and the tea plant is doing well (mind you, it's the third one so I do hope it survives summer). I also planted a tropical Babaco fruit tree next to it and it is just showing some new leaves over the past few days. My gut feeling about the tea camellias is that they require serious frost protection because even the light frosts killed them here. I'd appreciate your feedback about the tea camellia’s as the season goes on up at your place because if yours do well, then it may help me tracking down a more hardy sub species of the plant. The old timers used to do the same with avocado trees too (but your snow may push them a bit too far).



    1. Hi Chris! Sorry for the long time to respond to your comment. We've had a very warm autumn so far, no worse than a very light frost, so I haven't had to cover them yet. Mine are in a warmer microclimate, not far from the east side of the house where they are sheltered from cold west and northwest winds. I expect I'll post a photo when I cover them and report on them again in the spring.

      Yes, it's far too cold here for avocados. The info I have read suggests that, unlike some varieties of citrus and olive trees, avocados are not suited to container culture. Too bad, because I like avocados.