Category Archives: Garden Advice

Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes, or Both? Decide for your garden.

ginseng sweet potato (slips for spring planting)dark red norland (seed potato)

Don’t be fooled: potatoes and sweet potatoes may share a name, but these two crops are grown very differently. We’ve broken down some of the differences to help you decide what to grow:

Plant Family: Genetically, potatoes and sweet potatoes have little in common. Potatoes hail from the Solanaceae family: their closest relatives are tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and other nightshades. Sweet Potatoes are most closely related to morning glory: they are in the family Convolvulaceae.

Crop Rotation: Sweet potatoes should be easy to fit into a crop rotation, while potatoes may be quite difficult. Potatoes should be rotated by 3-4 years with nightshade crops, while sweet potatoes only need to be rotated with themselves.

Plant Starts: While potatoes may be grown from any sprouting spud, it is best to start from disease-free Seed Potatoes. Sweet potatoes may be started at home by sprouting your own slips (green shoots off the mother root to be separated and planted), or the slips may be purchased.

Timing: We ship seed potatoes from March through April, directly from our grower’s farm. Our Virginia-grown sweet potato slips begin shipping in May.

Planting: Potatoes don’t mature well in hot weather, so it is best to start an early spring crop (we start ours in March) and grow a fall-maturing crop for best quality roots for winter storage (we start a second crop in June). It can be difficult to find seed potatoes after April, so order seed potatoes in the spring and store them in the refrigerator until planting time. We plant our heat-loving sweet potato slips in June.

Yields: Yields vary, but high-yielding sweet potato plants often produce as much as 5-10 pounds per plant. Potatoes may yield 3-5 pounds per plant, but this will depend on hilling: the new potatoes are produced above the seed potato, so new soil needs to be piled over the plants throughout the growing season.

Storage: Both sweet potatoes and potatoes can be stored for months without refrigeration. Light-sensitive potatoes must be stored in a cool, dark place (preferably 40-45°F). Sweet potatoes can be stored at room temperature so long as they are kept in the dark (otherwise they will start sprouting at temperatures above 70°F or so).

Check out our full Sweet Potato Growing Guide and Potato Cultural Notes.

Easy Bamboo Bean Teepees

Bean teepees

Once upon a time, when I made my first attempt at putting in a garden and was as clueless as they come, I tried planting some pole beans. I new they needed some kind of trellis to climb and I thought maybe a teepee sort of a thing would be easy. I found a stick of some sort, stuck it in the ground, tied some yarn around the top (that’s right, I used YARN, fine, wool knitting yarn,) and staked the yarn to the ground. Maybe I even used pins to stake it. In case you can’t tell, my background is in textiles, not gardening.

Needless to say, my teepee fell apart almost as soon as the first little bean tendrils reached out for it. The yarn broke and eventually the stick fell over. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad.

Last week I learned one way to do it right, using a few of the bamboo stalks we have in profusion, so I’d like to share that with you.

  1. Cut or collect a bunch of bamboo stalks and cut them to around 9′ long, 7 per teepee. Cut off all the branches. We found this was easily accomplished using a machete and whacking from the top down.

2. Pound a t-post into the ground where you want the center of your teepee to be and tie one of the stalks to it using strong twine, like baling twine.

setting up bean teepee

3. One by one, tie the other six stalks to the center one near the top, with the bottoms propped against the ground about three feet from the center. I did a lot of complicated winding around of the twine to make sure each one was secure, and then wound a bunch more twine around all of them once they were all up.

Bean teepee top

Alternate method: you can also tie four of the stalks together lying on the ground, with one a little longer than the others to be the center pole, then stand them all up and arrange them in place. Once they’re up you can tie on the remaining three stalks.

alternate bean teepee

4. Wrap twine around each outer stalk at about 1.5′ and 3′ up, going all the way around. This will give the plants something to grab on to as they climb.

bean teepee support strands

5. Now plant your beans or peas! We put in eight in a little circle around the base of each stalk.

Dinosaurs, Bloomsdale, and the Mortgage Lifter

What do a kale, a spinach, and a mortgage lifter tomato have in common? They are some of the best sellers of all the varieties offered by Southern Exposure. Each one has a story and reasons you should consider adding it to your garden.

Many factors go into breeding a great spinach. You want a plant which is disease-resistant and if you live in a temperate zone like we do, you want something which can handle the colder nights. We strive to find varieties which have both nutritional and health advantages and are also tasty to eat. The Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), working with various organic farmers, seem to have succeeded in meeting all these criteria with the Abundant Bloomsdale Spinach.

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Abundant Bloomsdale is a cross between the open-pollinated Winter Bloomsdale Spinach and Evergreen Spinach. As the name suggests, the tasty Winter Bloomsdale is hardy in cold weather and the Evergreen is resistant to multiple diseases. Having originated from the OSA breeding project in the Pacific Northwest, this variety performs well in the mid-Atlantic and is a most welcome and popular addition to our line.

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You can use ours, if we can use yours

Southern Exposure wants to credit and support this type of selective breeding program, so we contribute 10% of all the revenue from bolt resistant Abundant Bloomsdale to OSA’s ‘open source’ breeding program. This program allow gardeners to use these plants in any way they like, including breeding projects, as long as they agree not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means.

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What is in a name? Lacinato Kale has many, we also call it ‘dinosaur’ on the seed packet label because of the bumpy leaves which some think resemble what dinosaur skin might have looked like. There are many other names you might hear it go by including: Tuscan kale, Tuscan cabbage, Nero di Toscana, Italian kale, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale, or black Tuscan palm.

In 1777, Thomas Jefferson recorded his success with Lacinato at his famous Monticello estate at Monticello (the venue for the Heritage Harvest Festival, held this year on 10 Sept.) On the longer history of this plant Seed Savers Exchange tells us, “These curly leafed cabbages that were grown in ancient Greece are thought to be the ancestors of kale plants. By the Middle Ages kale was one of the most common green vegetables in Europe.”

The list of advantages for Lacinato Kale is quite long and spans the spectrum of desirable characteristics for a food plant. One advantage is that it grows well in almost every region of the US. It is a cold-hardy vegetable, which should be planted 3-5 weeks before the last frost, and the leaves sweeten after they have been frost kissed. It is hardy in very hot climates as well.

Kale generally reduces cancer risks for bladder, breast, colon, ovary, and prostate. Kale also provides support for our detoxification systems. Steam Lacinato kale to get at its cholesterol-lowering benefits. Lacinato is rich in at least 45 different flavonoids, which have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

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Black, Dinosaur, Tuscan – a kale with many names.

Lacinato is a pretty plant with unusual thick dark blue-green verging on black leaves which have a rare bumpy texture. This variety is famous for being an important part of the Tuscan cuisine, especially soups and stews. Because of its slightly bitter and earth taste, this so-called “Black Kale” is the darling of the culinary world.

It is no surprise this is the single best selling variety at Southern Exposure, followed closely by some good old fashioned collards, Green Glaze and Georgia Green. We wonder if some of the newly rediscovered Blue and Curly collards will inch into the top rankings next year. Make sure you are signed up for our 2017 catalog to be among the first to try some varieties described in ‘Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table,’ a new book by Ed Davis and John Morgan.

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One of the most humorous names in our catalog has an especially interesting story. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato is not known for being pretty, but it is both big and flavorful. This stabilized open-pollinated family heirloom tomato comes with this unusual and disputed history.

The story has it that M.C. “Radiator Charlie” Byles was a capable and colorful guy. Without formal education Radiator Charlie would become a pilot, a wrestler, and a mechanic who strategically located his shop at the bottom of a large hill where trucks often overheated and needed his assistance.

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One of the few pictures or Radiator Charlie

But the great depression hit Radiator Charlie, as it did most of the country in the early 1930s, and he was looking at losing his house because he could not pay the bills. Radiator Charlie had no experience breeding or growing plants, but decided he would try to come up with a larger meaty tomato that families could grow to feed themselves.

He looked for tomatoes regionally available and started with four large fruiting varieties: German Johnson, Beefsteak, an unknown Italian variety, and an unknown English variety. Using a baby ear syringe, he carefully hand pollinated these varieties for 6 years, choosing the best year after year. He sold the seedlings of this very large, flavorful, and popular tomato for $1 each for another 6 years and paid off most of his $6000 mortgage.

Sep2014 (767) Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter

Commonly, people wonder why supermarket tomatoes don’t have the same great taste that these heirloom tomatoes do. The answer lies in the goals of the breeder. Supermarket tomatoes are bred for uniformity in size, bright red color, and tough skins which allow them to withstand being shipped thousands of miles to your neighborhood store. Flavor is not a priority. In contrast, Radiator Charlie is a pink tomato bred principally for its large size, reliability, and flavor. It is not uniform in color and is not designed for long haul shipping, something you don’t need when getting food from your garden to your kitchen.