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Replay of Episode 82: Growing Sweet Potatoes in Montana | Amelia Schimetz | Billings, MT
26th July 2017 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 01:23:05

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Episode 82: Amelia Schimetz | Growing Sweet Potatoes in Montana | Billings, MT

Amelia Schimetz lives in Billings, Montana with her husband and 2 little girls age 2 & 4! They have a labrador, a bunny, a duck and 5 hens on their mini homestead. Amelia talks about the challenges of growing organic sweet potatoes and other vegetables in Montana’s northern climate.

I assume you want to know about my experience growing sweet potatoes. I read about growing the sweet potatoes in Mother Earth news and it was an article about growing them in Canada.

When you’re up north you’re up agains the shorter season and the climate. So I had the raised beds built. Then I took, not too thin of plastic but like a medium, painter’s plastic and tucked it in real tight around the edges, and left it that way for a couple of weeks, till the temp got to about 90-100º, they say is the best. I had ordered my sweet potato slips. I had to order them, because you can’t really plant a sweet potato that you get at the store, because it’s treated with a chemical to keep it from sprouting. You can find an organic sweet potato but then you don’t know what variety you’re getting and you need a short season sweet potato for our region. Let me tell you they are not pretty.

What do they look like.

You’re like what, this is never going to grow. They say it will look wilted, so I immediately planted them, that night once I got them, once it cooled down in the evening. Only a few, they were really bad. How I planted them, I cut slits in the plastic and pushed down a divot, stuck them straight down in, then I used playground sand, to seal the slit. That was the instructions. A few days went by, and they still weren’t looking great.

Sweet Potato Rhizomes

The company I ordered them from the Steele Plant Company, sent me some more, and they looked a little wilted, but they looked a lot better, they hadn’t sent on the weekend, they sent them on a Monday, instead of a Friday so they didn’t have to sit over the weekend.

I tried something different as soon as I got them, I put them in seaweed fertilizer, watered them with the leftover water, the next two days, I wiped the leaves, so it’s more of a foliage feeding. Put those great big yogurt containers, to kind of shade them. there not much when you get them. For 3 days I kind of covered them, I never fertilized them again, and they just took off! I had to protect them if we got hail, like anything else. It worked!

sweetpotatoes

And I just dug them up, and it was incredible, I had read they only grow right under the plant, so that’s what I was looking for, as I got to the other side of my raised bed, I was finding them next to the frame, they were so growing so deep, they were growing underneath the walkway!

I ended up with 36lbs! Some were so big! Now the next step is to cure them, if you eat them right out of the garden, they don’t taste like you would expect them to, they don’t have thee sugar in them . You have to cure them for about 10 days, from about 80-85º. I just put in a great big flat tote, put a towel over the top, misted the towel, and put them in the window. so they are not getting the sunlight, the sunlight can really hurt them. 10 days there, then store in 60º temp, they will get chilled. It sound’s like a lot, but it’s not really that much. I spent more time reading, then messing with them. It was really rewarding to see! Since you can’t typically grow them up here., getting them to grow. Just curing them. Wait till about 6-8 weeks before the flavor develops. Good thing we like sweet potatoes and we do, and my girls love them!

You can eat them before they’re cured, but just don’t bake them, you can candy them or do something else! I enjoy gardening trying to grow anything! My plan is if they keep till spring, I’m going to make my own slips, to plant. I think I will be much better off and having healthy strong slips. then one’s that are wilted and struggling.

And they’ll be climatized.

SandhillPreservationCtr

I’m gonna grow them in 4” pots so we don’t have to go through that wilt and all that. They should be a lot stronger and we won’t lose so many. I also want to order another variety, I saw some purple ones. I saw Sandhill Conversation, short season sweet potatoes, heirloom varieties and vegetables seeds!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I living in Billings, Montana. I’m married, and we have 2 little girls age 2 & 4! We have a labrador, a bunny, a duck and 5 hens!

babyduck

Our mini homestead. We tried a rooster and it just didn’t work.

You said in the preinterview you’re on an acre? Are you in town or out of town? 

It’s kind of out, it’s very rural feeling, cause they’re all acre lots.

Billings is the biggest city in Montana, so you live kind of an urban area?

Yes.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

My first experience, I don’t remember, my grandparents gardened, but I was never around the garden much. We didn’t live close to my grandparents when I was little, when we moved closer, they basically just had a greenhouse full of tomatoes.

When I graduated high school, I moved, and I just started this little tiny garden. I don’t remember a whole lot other then I had spinach, tomatoes, but I tried growing pumpkins. They were supposed to be these little tiny pumpkins that you trellis up this fence, I had done that, and I read that you could make hammocks for them. So I had nylons as hammocks, but the seeds I had must have got switched, because they were not little sugar pie pumpkins, and they were huge! They were growing around the nylons! It was a spectacle!

Was this in Billings too?

I lived in Ronan, MT.

Over on the west side?

Yes, and ever since then I’ve been growing something. No pumpkins on the fence anymore! We’ve grown corn, we have tried everything, I can not grow rutabagas to save my life! I just can’t get them to germinate.

You must like vegetables too!

Yes, we do! Then they taste better then buying at the store! It’s easy to go out to the garden and not have to worry about what to cook for dinner?

And it’s less expensive too and You have a nice variety!

pumpkingirls

The girls tell me they’re hungry after they’ve had about 100 snacks, they come back strawberries, peppers!

So good for them to be out in the fresh air and learn about gardening!

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

I really like that, I’m a die hard do-it-yourselfer. I get a lot of satisfaction doing it myself. Making my own compost and making my own fertilizer. Any scraps that come from my garden they end up back in my garden ultimately. Whether I feed the bunny or the chickens, I use their manure to go back in. I don’t use any sprays, the more natural I make it the better.

I like that, I like keeping compost too!

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

I think just from reading, why buy it if I can make it and make it better. So I just started, how can I do this without pesticides? What’s something that’s natural, what can I plant next to it, that might deter that pest. I do a lot of reading and searching on the internet for ideas!

So that’s how you learned as well then?

Yes.

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

My tomato plants, I grew a German Johnson. This is the first year I put in, I dug around the plant, early in the season. I put in a bunch of eggshell, bananas, and coffee grounds! This tomatoes plant, you could barely see the cage, it was like a lilac, the tomatoes were like 2 lbs! I was chopping the tomato back and it would grow and grow! It was the biggest plant!

So you put them right in the dirt, you didn’t make compost first?

I just put them right in, I used my compost up! Another experiment!

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

I really have an itch to make a cold frame, to start broccoli, and those cool weather loving plants earlier to extend the season! I had huge broccoli plants but very little broccoli because of the heat.

Yes we didn’t have a lot of broccoli this year either.

So I want to start it earlier, so the broccoli’s done earlier. And then grow another batch in the fall. Basically I want to start a lot more of my seeds earlier.

I need to come up with a different way to support my green beans, they flopped on me.

Bush beans or pole beans?

They were pole beans, knocked the pole, I made little teepees, they got so big they just fell over. When I was building them, my husband said they won’t get very big, those will work.

In the preinterview were you telling me that your husband built you some raised beds this year for the first time?

BldgBeds

We like to do things ourselves and we’re cheap! We made the beds, but we didn’t know how much soil it would take, so we dug out around the beds, and then put the dirt in. So that first year, it was very wet and sloppy, so there was no were to go, so we thought we’ll put grass clippings down, but it’s possible to put too much down! This summer, we got in a truckload of soil, and did it the right way, filled it in, leveled everything off. I took weed matt in between the boxes, we had that terrible …

Crab grass?

We had that creeping jenny it’s a vine. it pokes and it’s just a nuisance, we put bark down in stead, trying to decide between pea gravel and bark. We went with the bark, because if you ever decide to use pea gravel.

What’s pea gravel?

Playground gravel, getting in your shoes and sandals, it’s easier on your knees, by golly the rest of the summer it was smooth sailing, it was just so much more enjoyable.

It was a lot of work up front to put them in, but my husband who was skeptical of the idea, says it was so worth it!

That’s a good point for listeners, to think about what you’re going to plant outside your beds? Megan Cain talks about what to grow around your raised beds in episode 44. We have that problem too. 

You can use bark. Some people put shingles down.

Like asphalt shingles you put on the roof?

Yes, you can use newspaper, they all have their drawbacks, the one thing that’s gonna happen whether you have rocks, or mulch is that dirt is going to end up on top of your weed mat, but your going to have leaves, or as leaves break down, my idea is to combat that, is to sprinkle preen, on the top. I think you can find, organic preen, it keeps weeds from germinating. I think you can find a natural preen, if I put that on top, I wont’ have anything growing on top of my weed-mat. I can’t imagine I’d have much of a weed problem for while.

I know my husband is particular of making sure you get every tiny piece of quack grass, that’s what I’m thinking quack grass, out before he plants anything. He sifts through practically every bit of dirt and soil and grabs every little root.

I just read that some weeds you can eat them they are good for you. So it’s fun!

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season.

My rutabagas, I tried soaking the seeds, they just didn’t germinate. I tried growing parsnips, or turnips, I can’t remember what it’s called, because it just chewed em up underneath, the tops were all fine, but the bottoms were all chewed. So that was really disheartening. It’s very common. I think it’s a little fly, and their larvae lay on it.

Is it cut worm? I found a really good article on Mother Earth news. It said if you put a stick or a nail around the corn it would prevent it from wrapping around the stem of the corn. Mike said you could put a toothpick. Since turnips are under the round it might work?

raisedBeds

I’ve seen a lot more toads, it’s kind of fun in our garden because it has it’s own little world. I didn’t really have a problem other pests, the sweet potatoes, they barely got chewed on, surprisingly. If you look underneath the leaves, there’s all sorts of spiders and toads, etc.

You must have a good water system if you have toads!

We have a sprinkler and an underground sprinkler system. I had pumpkins, off to the sides that ’s not in raised boxes, I have pumpkins and squashes and melons, and you have all that leaf cover, so the minute they see me they run in that direction! We’ve had little snakes in there.

Your kids are lucky!

We had some bunnies. that I’m not so happy, we had voles in one of my raised beds, I’m gonna try to figure out a solution for next summer, cause they will chew on the zucchini and they will chew on sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. I’m not sure if I have to set some traps out or find some more snakes to stick in there?

Find some snakes to stick in there!

We live kind of close to the river, we have vole snakes, on the outside of the fence next to the garden, I have raspberry bushes, and blackberries. They really like to hang out in there. They don’t bother me, so I just leave them there!

I like snakes, my mom was a big naturalist.

chickenGirl

It’s a good way of life. They help take care of the eggs, I never grew up on a farm!

I love chickens. They’re really fun. They all have a personality!

They’re addictive! They’re a gateway animal! Next you’ll have a duck, and turkeys!

I’ve never had a duck!

I’ve grown quite fond of our little duck, we got her the same time we got our little chicks, she things she’s a chicken, she’s a little Indian Runner duck. I read things like you have to have two ducks, they’ll be lonely but she doesn’t even think she’s a duck, she doesn’t even want to go in water! She roosts, and lays down on the bottom. She just thinks she’s a chicken! She’s very friendly and follows me around, she just comes running! She thinks I might have a treat or goodies out of the garden!

I have a hutch, their hutch is in the back of our property by the shade, but they’re not enclosed in their coop all day. I let them out, and they have free roam. There’s a run, they have free roam, the garden is fenced off, they roam around all day eating bugs!

Our chickens walks around the garden fence and house. The rooster almost kind of marches them.

How many do you have?

We’re down to 7, we have 6 hens and a rooster now. The other night something dug into the pen? And got my turkey.

A raccoon?

No, I think a neighbor dog? I’m so bummed. She was an old turkey. We just got her a few months ago, and she was white and we called her Elegant Ellie. My husband just built me a gate to let them in and out and something dug under there and got in the pen. They do like getting out and walking around. 

We have hawks. Our dog is really good about that. We have only lost a chicken, the only predator we lost a chicken to is a hawk. We’ve had raccoons try to dig in, but they never made it that far because our dog.

My dogs are kind of scared of them. Some times my little dog will run at them and try to play with them sort of. But my black lab just stays clear of them.

Our lab, this big 100lb bear of a dog, he’ll be laying there and the chickens come up and peck at their tail! They’ll lay down next to him, and he just doesn’t do anything.

Something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.

I do really well with beets, I love beets and carrots and those two things, any of your squashes, pumpkins. I should say the easiest thing is zucchini like a weed!

I was gonna ask, pumpkins are easy, because we always have a hard time with pumpkins.

I don’t do anything to them. It is zone 4. I don’t I’ve never had a problem. Last we grew those great big mammoth pumpkins. It was just cruising right along, I went to turn it, I ended up snapping the stem, it ended up ripening, and did just fine.

bigpumpkin

This year we did this orange crush, smoothie, the kids can decorate and  you can bake them. I’ve never had a problem with pumpkin, they just kind of do their own thing.

Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate

Well, my luck,...

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