When Al and I purchased and moved into our first home a year ago, there were many things that were a bit unsightly around our new house. The tall skinny cypress tree by the garage was noticeably crooked, one of the blue decorative window shutters was missing a panel, and there was this annoying little patch of grass in front of our garage surrounded by sidewalk. Al extremely disliked all of them, but especially that little patch of grass which required extra time and attention when mowing. In frustration one day, he decided he had had enough. And within an afternoon, we had covered the patch with cardboard and and a layer of compost to thoroughly smother any green life threatening to poke through.
Although it worked well for a while, soon the brown compost itself seemed a bit unsightly, and the water from the gutter washed dirt all over the sidewalk. So we decided to look for an inexpensive ground cover. In our search, we found the perfect solution in one unpretentious plant: Enter the lowly sweet potato.
Enter the Sweet Potato
I happened to have an old shriveled sweet potato someone had given us months before. I cut it in half, stuck it in some water to sprout, and pretty soon little “slips” were shooting up everywhere. I broke a few off and poked them into the dirt where our grass patch had been. Before long, our patch looked like this:
Pretty nice, huh? (Except for that crooked tree.) But there’s more than meets the eye. Here’s why growing sweet potatoes was an all-around win-win experience for us.
If you think these leaves look familiar, you’ve probably seen other varieties of sweet potatoes grown as decorative landscaping. The ornamental sweet potatoes leaves are usually purple/black or light green and produce very beautiful vines with luscious, large leaves. However, supposedly their tubers aren’t very tasty. Our “real” sweet potatoes still have beautiful leaves (some larger than my hand!) and just 5-6 plants completely covered our whole planter area. However, just watch out, they can grow fast!
2. Prevents Weeds/Erosion
As ground cover, the sweet potato plants performed magnificently. Previously, I had to weed the dirt patch constantly and still could barely keep up. Now, very few weeds survived the smothering of the large, thick sweet potato leaves and I hardly had to weed the rest of the summer. The erosion which used to occur with every rain also quit immediately.
3. Low Maintenance
After planting the slips, the sweet potato plants required almost no maintenance. No watering and they flourished, no spraying and the bugs hardly touched them, no weeding, and no trellising. We did have to trim back the vines once in a while since they grew so fast, but that was actually to our benefit because of #4.
4. Summer Greens
Our Asian parents and grandparents have been eating sweet potato leaves for centuries. In fact, if you go to authentic Chinese restaurants, you can sometimes even find stir-fried sweet potato leaves on the menu! With a whole patch of leaves growing in abundance, we had more greens than we could consume. Although the leaves were large and fairly hardy, they cooked down exceptionally soft. They were amazingly tender, kept their shape/texture, and tasted a bit like, hmmm….. an earthy spinach? Our favorite way to eat them was to simply stir-fry them with garlic, soy sauce, and a dash of ginger and sesame oil. Mmmm, delicious with rice!
5. Fall Sweet Taters
If you thought that these plants couldn’t get any better, you haven’t heard the best part yet! With fall and the cool evenings coming, we heard that we would need to dig up the sweet potato tubers before the first frost. So out we went to go digging for some sweet gold. To be honest, we were a little skeptical that we’d find anything worth eating since we hadn’t tilled or loosened the soil before planting the slips. However, here is what we found:
It was so fun digging around and finding those treasures tucked away all over our little garden patch! We don’t have kids, but we imagine it would be a great family activity. Looks like we’ll be having sweet potato fries, sweet potato curry, and our favorite, sweet potato pie this winter!
So will we plant sweet potatoes next year? Considering that it took close to no effort to cultivate, ABSOLUTELY! We’d like to try planting the Asian purple sweet potatoes and hope they do just as well. But if not, we were still very impressed with how useful and productive the regular sweet potatoes were this year and would definitely plant them again.
Do you know of any other multi-use cover crops? What has been your best experience in growing a garden? We’ll be needing some ideas of how to use up our sweet potatoes, so share them with us in the comments!