POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 15, 2010
Question: Are sweet potatoes hard to grow? Like many people in Hawaii, diabetes runs in our family, and I just got diagnosed with pre-diabetes, so we want to eat some more healthy, resistant kinds of starch. I heard that sweet potatoes are a really good one. Mahalo. -- K.T., Kahuku
Dear K.T: Uala are easy to grow here in Hawaii. Not only are the tubers ono and nutritional, so are the shoots and leaves.
You can grow uala in many artful and hardscape design ways in your garden. They can grow in drier places with poorer soil than our favorite Hawaiian starch, kalo (taro).
Sweet potatoes are not to be confused with potatoes. They are in the morning glory family Convolvulaceae and are known to scientists as Ipomoea batatas. They are originally from tropical America, and people have carried them all around the world to grow in their food gardens.
Hawaiians of old cultivated up to 230 varieties of uala. The flesh can be pale yellow, bright orange or purple. These bright colors indicate a nutritional powerhouse rich in fiber, beta carotene, potassium and B vitamins folate and B6. Uala also is a good source of vitamins C and E.
Many cultures in Hawaii have their own names for sweet potato. Kamote is the Tagalog name, and in Aotearoa (New Zealand) they are widely farmed and are called kumara. In Hawaii, uala is also called uwala.
The easiest way to grow sweet potato is to buy some and let them sprout on your counter. Chop them up into 2- and 3-inch pieces and plant the sprouting tubers. Find a full-sun place in your garden and plant them in a mound of well-drained soil.
You can also grow uala from cuttings. Select healthy, vigorous cuttings with three to six leaves. Chop off the lower leaves and cut the upper leaves in half. Plant the cuttings in a pot or in the ground and water daily.
Uala can be grown in a big pot. You can harvest the leaves and shoots after a few months and boil, bake or stir-fry them. You can harvest the tubers in about seven months and over time.
Make sure the soil drains well and the pot is in a sunny location. A pot is perfect on an apartment lanai for edible greens.
One creative and easy harvesting method used in old Hawaii can be replicated in your garden. Make a rock tower with good soil in the middle. Stack sweet potato sprouts inside. Craft it so some rocks can be pulled out without collapsing the tower. Hence, you have a bunch of productive uala growing in a small vertical space. It's easy to harvest a potato or two without digging up all of the soil. It can also be an attractive garden feature.
You can make a ground cover of uala, and it will be pretty, prevent erosion and not need too much water. Periodically harvest the shoots or tubers or just leave it to grow. The different varieties have variously colored and shaped leaves, so you could plant several varieties in a pattern to give a more creative landscape design look to your garden.
Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst is a Hawaiian horticulturist, arborist, food gardener and sustainable landscape designer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.