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Beauregard tips the scales at Horticulture Center

That's a 10.5-pound sweet potato in the center, part of the Horticulture Center's harvest (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Master Gardener Gail Pothour talks about the
straw bale garden and sweet potatoes.
Sweet harvest of sweet potatoes during Open Garden event

For all the activity in every corner of the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center on Wednesday, the buzziest area was in the vegetable garden — specifically, the straw bales where the sweet potatoes were planted.

It was harvest time during the Open Garden event, and UCCE Master Gardener Gail Pothour and her crew were busting down the bales. The pride of the harvest was a whopper of a Beauregard sweet potato that weighed in at 10 1/2 pounds. Think bigger than your average newborn baby, or about the size of a small dog. Everyone who came by exclaimed at the size.

That sweet potato will make some fine eating after it’s cured a couple of weeks, allowing the starches to turn to sugar. Unlike some root crops, Pothour says, sweet potatoes don’t become woody as they get larger. The only concern is if a sweet potato develops “veins” on the outside; they have to be trimmed off. The big one -- dubbed Taterzilla -- didn’t have veins, but some of the others in the 57 pounds harvested did have them. In addition to the Beauregard variety, the straw bales also had some Nancy Hall sweet potato plants.
Here's what the straw bales looked like in mid-May, just
after the sweet potato slips were planted.

The master gardeners have experimented with different crops in straw bales over the past few years, but this is the first time for sweet potatoes. The method has become popular as an alternative to raised beds: At the end of the season, the remaining straw becomes mulch for other parts of the garden.

The three bales used this year were wheat straw, which is less common in our region -- most of the ones you see sold are rice straw, Pothour says. But the master gardeners have found that wheat ones hold up better over the season.

Augmented with potting soil and heavily watered at first, the softened straw allows roots to grow more easily than in our typical clay soil. Pothour says carrots also have done well in straw bales.

In early August, the sweet potato vines covered
the bales and most of the trellis.
If you are thinking of planting a straw bale garden, you can read up on it
here . Sweet potatoes are a warm-weather crop; they're planted in May from slips grown from a mature sweet potato. The master  gardeners have information on that here .


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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