Sweat Potatoes

Plump sweet potato tubers are supposed to be found directly below the vines. Not this year under my plants! The picture shows how most of mine grew. The skinny part was attached to the vine. The deeper it grew, the fatter it got. It broke off when I dug it up and I never found the rest if it.

A large, yellow and black bumble bee hopped from one catnip blossom to the next. I scanned the garden, happily breathing in its lovely, earthy smell. The unseasonably warm weather made the greenhouse garden look as if it was September. Nothing was frost damaged. In the first row, beautiful fat chrysanthemum bushes bloomed in, yellow, purple, and rust. The lavender plant, red and white geraniums, pink petunias and red tea roses were all blooming as if it was a summer day.

Whenever I had time the last week or two, I’d worked at preparing the garden for the winter. One day I pulled up the beans and cucumbers. On another day I took down the cucumber support fence and pulled up the pink flowering buckwheat. Today, I planned to dig my sweet potatoes and pick cherry tomatoes.

Progress is slow because my left knee has been hurting, and I’m a firm believer retired people should never be rushed. Out of necessity I’ve learned to work while sitting on a garden stool. Placing the stool firmly next to the first vined plant, I sank down on the seat. Not wanting to damage the irrigation line, I carefully inserted a small shovel into the ground alongside the sweet potato and pried up. Letting go of the shovel, I gathered all the vines near the loosened soil and pulled.

First came the disappointment. There were no large tubers attached to the stem, then came the frustration. The plant had long vines intertwined with every other sweet potato vine in the garden. Why I have a long-held dislike of digging potatoes came rushing back to me. It’s hard work with a low satisfaction rate.

Sweet potatoes are nastier to dig than regular potatoes because they put out huge runner roots. Their tubers are supposed to be right below the stem, but often I must dig deeper to find them. It’s easy to accidentally cut a sweet potato with the shovel blade, too. I always suspect I’m not finding everything there is to harvest.

I looked down into my first hole. One of the runner roots dangling out one side was the size of a fat kindergarten crayon and almost big enough to eat. I hesitated because sometimes the long thin roots are stringy. Wanting to see how far the root grew away from the plant base, I moved my stool backwards and pushed the shovel into the ground again. The further the root grew away from the plant, the bigger the root became. This defied all rational guidelines. A drop of sweat fell from my chin into the hole. Another one fell from my right temple.

Digging with gloved hands like a gopher so I didn’t slice the root with the shovel blade, I failed to find the rest of the root. Going back to using the shovel, I enlarged and deepened the hole without finding what I was looking for. More sweat fell from my face into the hole. Taking off my glasses, I wiped my face on the sleeve of my shirt and mumbled, “This vegetable should be called sweat potatoes instead of sweet potatoes.”

Abandoning the rest of the root, I moved my stool further down the row to the next plant. The stool tipped over as I lowered myself to sit. I sprawled awkwardly onto the freshly dug dirt.

Struggling back up onto my stool, I thought of my grandpa. He’d had one of his legs amputated. When he did garden work, my siblings told me he sat on a three-legged stool. They never mentioned if he had ever fallen off the stool.

Grumbling, I returned to work and found bigger roots under the next plant. Like the first plant, it also had fat roots running horizontally away from the plant six to eight inches underground.

The struggle to dig sweet potatoes is real. My left knee didn’t make it easier. When I completed my work in the garden that day, I happily showered and settled down for the evening. Phoning my daughter, I quipped, “I dug up my sweat potatoes today.”

My daughter answered, “You mean sweet potatoes?”

I harrumphed and pointed out, “They might be sweet to eat, but I sweat an awful lot when I have to dig them up.”

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