I realize that some of you are getting tired of my current column obsession with ‘taters. However, yet another bunch of readers has pointed out that that there is reason for distinguishing “Arsh” (Irish) potatoes. Instead of simply calling them “’taters”, we also raised another large crop to help feed our families through more than half the year. We simply needed to know what we were having for supper because both “Arsh taters” and/or “sweet ‘taters” were often on the table at the same time.
For the record, there’s actually no such thing as an “Irish potato”. They are actually native to South America. Legend, if not historic fact, has it that world explorer Sir Walter Raleigh brought some potatoes back from Peru to his home in Ireland in 1580 and the rest is history. However, there is evidence that potatoes were being grown in other parts of Europe long before the “Irish” moniker took hold. Still, Americans have called them “Irish potatoes” ever since they came here.
As most people surely know, so-called Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes aren’t even in the same family when it comes to the biological classification of plants.
Of course both crops were mainstays when it came to putting food on the table. In our family, sweet ‘taters were considered a side dish, more akin to dessert than main-course Arsh ‘taters. Sweet ‘taters might show up on the table three or four times a week. Arsh ‘taters usually made the menu at least two times a day, every day.
More than their culinary appeal, however, sweet potatoes found less favor than Irish potatoes simply because they required at least twice or three times as much work to grow, harvest and, ultimately get to the table than Irish potatoes.
Sweet ‘taters are considerably more complicated to grow.
An aboveground, wooden, “sweet ‘tater bed” had to be constructed. It was usually made, box shaped, of old plank boards with dimensions approximately 4 feet long, 3 feet wide and 30 inches deep. The bottom half of the bed was filled with old leaves, straw and dried chicken mature. This mixture was thoroughly wetted and covered with several inches of garden soil. The wet material would start decomposing and give off heat.
Old sweet potatoes from the previous year were then placed evenly and close together over the soil, covered with about an inch of additional soil and the bed or box was covered with whatever served as a lid. As soon as the base material started heating up, the sweet potatoes would commence sprouting. When the plants were about 6 inches or so high, they could be “slipped” off the old potatoes and used to plant new ones.
New sweet ‘tater “slips” were planted, after all danger of frost was past, in raised beds or “ridges”, side-dressed with granulated fertilizer, and usually watered 2 or 3 times until their roots were established. Unlike Arsh ‘taters that could tolerate frost or grow more sprouts, a frostbit sweet potato plant was one dead ‘tater. Arsh ‘taters also reach full maturity in 75 to 90 days, depending on the variety. Sweet ‘taters will grow until frost kills the vines, no matter what the variety.
We usually raised three varieties that included white, red and yellow. I currently raise a variety that is dark red skinned with dark yellow flesh. I have no idea what they’re called but they make huge, up to 4-pound potatoes. Andy and I raised over a bushel from 11 plants last year.