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Sweet potatoes are one of the most frustrating crops for me.  They need a frost free site and slightly acid soil, so they grow really well here.  This year I got a great crop, but only because I had six months without chooks. With no chooks to clear them,  I had some fortress fenced garden beds that I had just let go, and a sweet potato vine found it’s way in and thought it was in heaven.  Lovely composted, mulched soil and no wallabies.

It gave itself away by overrunning all the weeds though. Within a few months that little vine had covered the entire bed and yielded about 30 kilos of sweet potatoes.

The year before I got none.  To quote my own post from that summer:  “A wallaby got into the garden last night, and demolished my newly planted sweet potato patch. I spent my whole mowing session this morning devising recipes for wallaby – Turkish wallaby stew, marinated baked wallaby, wallaby kebabs….

I checked the fortress fence for holes, but I think it got in across the verandah through the house and into the garden! It’s not as if it is very hungry – after the recent rains I have trouble keeping up with the mowing – it just likes sweet potatoes better.”

So now I have a gate from the verandah of the house into the garden – which is a real nuisance – it was great to be able to nick in and out of the garden with hands full without having to close a gate. A few months ago I forgot to shut it one night and the wallabies gave the mint and the sugar cane a very radical pruning. Luckily it was before the asparagus got going or the language might have been even worse.  They must check to see if it is closed every night!  So now it is one of our evening rituals to check the verandah gate is shut.

But, on the plus side, no wallabies in the garden, at least for a few months this time, and I am daring to hope I can plant sweet potatoes.  It rained heavily night before last, so I don’t have to water them in which means the bandicoots shouldn’t dig them straight back up again tonight. The bush turkeys get a few, but most grow a bit too deep for turkeys.

They’re not usually a perennial.  Conventionally they  are planted in spring and harvested in autumn. But when I’ve had a patch established before, I’ve just let it go and dug up a sweet potato or two whenever I want one.  The’re too rampant for my fortress fenced intensive beds. I want to grow them as a semi-wild ground covering semi-perennial.

Sweet potato will grow from either a root or a cutting, so there are two ways to plant.  One is to just plant a sweet potato you buy from the greengrocer.  The second is to plant the vines.  I have some vines that are growing inside a spiral where the chooks are going to go in a few weeks, so I’m using the second method.

It’s very easy.  Just weave a little crown  like the top picture and bury it with the vine underground and at least some of the leaves out.  Like this:

That’s it. Try to convince it to stay in the area you planned for it and every few years, retire an old patch and plant a new patch to prevent a build up of nematodes.  In March start looking for tubers.

I have one of my usual rounds of carrots and spring onions in the shadehouse ready to plant out, and I shall try to get them in this afternoon after work as well. The discipline of not putting planting off is one of the major benefits of the lunar calendar.  It’s only a dozen little tubes of seedlings to plant, quite do-able after work, and just half an hour of garden work at the right time means I have continuity of supply – fresh carrots out of the garden and no need to bother with freezing.

And we have a pot of left-over chicken stew for dinner, already made.  Red Leg the rooster has made three meals so far.  Will be nice to have dinner ready to just heat up on a planting day.

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I can’t say this is fast and easy.  It’s a long slow Sunday afternoon recipe, and it creates quite a bit of washing up!  But there’s a good return on investment – for an hour or so of Sunday afternoon baking, you can have several very healthy dinners and lunches made ready for the week.  And you won’t get sick of eating it.

There are three parts to this recipe:  the vegetables, the tomato sauce and the bechamel sauce.

The Vegetables:

Turn the oven on to warm up.

You can use a variety of vegetables in season. For this version I used an orange sweet potato,  half a pumpkin, two large eggplants, 400 grams of mushrooms, and a bunch of baby spinach, but feel free to substitute.

The eggplants are the slowest process, so start with them.  Slice into centimetre thick slices, sprinkle with salt, and put in a colander in the sink to drain.

Next the sweet potato.  It needs a bit of a head start cooking, so slice it into centimetre thick slices, massage with olive oil, spread out on a baking tray and bake to half cook, so the slices are just starting to get tender.

Slice the mushrooms and pumpkin into centimetre thick slices too.  Leave the spinach leaves whole.

By now the eggplants have drained enough.  Rinse and pat dry, massage in oil, and add to the sweet potato in the oven.

The Tomato Sauce

Saute a large onion, diced, in a little olive oil.  Add two or three cloves of garlic, chopped fine, and a diced capsicum, then half a dozen large tomatoes, diced (or a can of tomatoes) and a good handful of basil chopped.  Simmer gently to reduce to a fairly thick tomato sauce.

The Bechamel

In a saucepan, cook four good dessertspoons of plain wholemeal flour in 6 desertspoons of olive oil till it foams.  The idea is to explode the starch in the flour without browning it.  Add two cups of low fat milk and half a cup of low fat ricotta or cottage cheese and two bay leaves.  Cook, stirring, till it thickens. Fish out the bay leaves and add salt and pepper.

The Assembly

Oil a baking dish and place the partly-cooked sweet potato in a single layer in the bottom of it.  Cover with half the tomato sauce, then half the bechamel.  Spread a layer of pumpkin slices on top, then a layer of mushrooms and a layer of spinach leaves.  Cover with the other half of the tomato sauce, then the partly-cooked eggplant slices, then the other half of the bechamel sauce.  Sprinkle the top with grated parmesan.  Pop it back in the middle of a moderate oven and bake for about 25 minutes till the cheese is golden on top and the vegetables are tender.

It’s good hot or cold.

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