Episode 82: Ameilia 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. Ameila 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!
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.
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!
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?
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 rutebegas 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!
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?
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?
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 …
We had that creeping jenny it’s a vine. it pokes and it’s just a nuicense, 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, gettting 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!
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 weedmat. 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?
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.
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.
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.
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, I can not grow onions very well, i dont know if I am just missing, step on the tops and it will make the bottoms grow. I’ve been told step on the tops it wil make the bottoms grow? Then I’ve been told, if you step on the tops they won’t grow. Some conflicting information! This year, I didn’t step on them till the tops were falling over, then I bent the rest of them down, but they just don’t get that big?! I started them from sets, I just don’t know they are just not very big at all! I don’t know what I am doing wrong? Maybe they are heavy feeders, maybe they need more compost? Maybe they are need more compost.
My husband came in and said you can put toothpicks in the dirt to get rid of cutworm. They must be pretty little and they wrap around it. I think it wraps around it and kind of strangles it, and slices it off like decapitating it.
No what I have eats like tunnels along the outside knawing the root. All the way down the side. Maybe it’s not a cutworm, because the top looks good.
We don’t grow rutabagas because the bugs eat them! We grow potatoes green beans, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, I’ve been inundated with cucumbers this year
The peppers did the strangest thing this year, because something ate them in early spring, and ate all their leaves off of them but then they came back with lots of leaves close to the stem!
My peppers really flourished! I had an orange pepper this year! Jalepenos and Marconis. I’m tempted to do more peppers cause it was fun!
It’s hard to get peppers to change colors in Montana! Good for you!
No it was like the last thing I put in?!
They need like warmer weather to go out right?!
Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden.
Maybe like the fall clean up. That would be it, sometimes, in the past, I’ve been going non-stop weeds I need a break, this summer it’s been easier, it’s not that bad, as I got my raised beds empty, I’ve just been adding compost working the soil in, I don’t have much left to do, I wanted to till the squash the old vines, but that’s all I guess.
I went by someone’s garden the other day, she had it all cleaned up, I’ve been watching it everyday, and she had it all cleared up, so I thought it must be time! She’s a little closer to the creek then we are!
What is your favorite activity to do in the garden.
I love to go out there with my girls, just watch stuff grow! And talk about it, and look for the different little bugs, and go out there and pick and I remember growing melon and pick the peppers and it was really exciting to dig up the sweet potatoes!
Our conversation is continued in part 2…
Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.
This year between the tomatoes and I grew kale, I thought it was gonna bolt soon, I might as well put it in a little more then I think I’ll need cause it’s gonna bolt soon and it has never bolted! I pick a bunch and give it to our bunny, to bake into kale chips, it grows back 3 fold. I don’t know how to preserve it. If I can freeze it to preserve it? I don’t know. My husband said maybe you just need to do a couple of those. I can’t believe it never bolted? Spinach and cilantro all bolt so quickly!
I know, our spinach bolted so early this year. I never planted my kale this year. I guess if you’re gonna do a fall planting, you have to put the seeds in the dirt like the beginning of July/end of June, so that they are like 6-8 weeks before now.
How early do you freeze?
We had a frost the other night. We lost the cantaloupes and watermelons froze. I finally bought some row cover, and he covered the tomatoes and eggplant.
I just use old bed sheets.
I just went down there and looked, it reminded me of like pellon that you use for sewing. We’ve always used bedsheets to cover things before, but I don’t know how it’s all gonna work. I guess I’ll find out next year.
I tried a different kind of melon this year. That’s one thing I like about gardening you can try stuff that you don’t find in your grocery store. This year we tried, a papaya dew melon, it’s easy to tell when it’s ripe it looks like a honeydew on the outside. It goes from a dewish grey, to a creamy yellow if it’s ripe. Sometimes you don’t know but it was a really easy indicator. The inside was this most beautiful vibrant orange, color. I don’t really like cantaloupe I was growing this from my family, it tastes like cantelope, and kind of tropical tasting, we just picked one last week, you could smell it, it has to be ripe, it has to be perfect, and there’s very little waste, and a tiny green rind. So trying stuff like that. We also grew a sweet meat blue hubbard squash.
You’re very knowlegable with what stuff you grow!
I was thinking about how I can help others.
I was thinking do you have a blog? Do do you have a journal or a blog?
I was thinking I should, because I share a bunch on Facebook friends and I wonder how many really care about this? Somebody might, but it’s really interesting to me! It’s not that hard to do it’s so rewarding! You might think you hate brocolli, and be snacking aways and be like wow I just ate a whole crown of broccoli! It’s so rewarding…
What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?
Just to try things out, cause you never know, patience I guess. That would be good.
Have you ever entered a fair? How’d that go?
I have, but not for vegetables, mine have never been ready. I thought about entering a pumpkin one year. Our fair is at the second week of August. I want to see how big it is? I don’t want to cut it now.
Yeah, we entered the fair this year. I got a ribbon for tallest sunflower. He got quite a few ribbons, this year he finally got one for potatoes! Yukon gold. He wins most of his prizes for uniform size not as much for the biggest! Having like 5 potatoes or beets on the plate that are the same size, shape and width and thickness. Ours is like the last week in August and it still seems early.
I grew dark red potatoes. I hilled them a little, but I thought that the potatoes grew from the roots, but then I read that they grow from the stem, so if you hill them more will you get more potatoes? If you hill 2/3rds of the plant will you get more potatoes then, will they come out of the same stalk?
When you hill your potatoes, do you hill them and then hill them again? One good time and then sometimes he hills them twice.
Do they grow out from the roots or from the stalk? You hill them up, if you burry the plant does that mean your gonna get more?
They grow down underneath, out of the roots, he’s spreading his hands out like they are gonna grow under the plant more? You as you go along, keep hilling it up a little more so it’s covered up to the first stem of the leaves. As much as you can get up there. Some people put them in tires, and just keep adding dirt and adding dirt, and then they will grow down below the dirt as your roots get deeper.
When I was hilling them I didn’t know how much to bury the plants initially so I pushed a little bit up and put some compost around. It was my first time. Im not a really big potato fan.
You might like them more once you get some home grown ones.
After growing them I was like these are so good! They’re more of a creamier texture! These are wonderful. I was looking at my little box of potatoes and say I have to grow more of these next year!
If you don’t cover them up enough you’ll get that green tinge around the outside. The one thing I was surprised this year was the flowers, the red potatoes had these really vibrant red flowers, and the white potatoes had white flowers.
A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be.
I haven’t used a lot, a shovel, a rake, I would have to say, just say I use a shovel a lot, breaking up soil, digging up weeds, that would be my number one!
Do you have any secrets for preserving food-making it last?
I went on this big canning spree initially, but then I have 2 kids, so it’s harder for me to find the time. So I started freezing my beets, cook ’em, peel ’em, cut ’em, vacuum sealed bags, I thaw ’em out, sauté them cook them however. I’ll blanch and freeze carrots. Cooking them, just cut them. So when you take em out of the freezer they’re all ready to go, not mushy. I put them in soups, however you want to cook them.
With my tomatoes, this year, I put them the boiling water to peel them, cored them, cut them into little wedges.put them on a cookie sheet, I use olive oil and roasted them in the oven, cook till they’re almost carmelized, and then pureed them, the flavor was so intense, rather then just boiling them, for sauces and soups, that was really slick!
Other then that I like stuff that preserves itself.
Do you have a root cellar?
I don’t so I just try to find a place in the basement, there’s a room under the stairs that keeps them cold.
Do you have any special techniques for cooking weird or unusual foods?
I don’t think anything’s weird anymore. I’m sure my kids think I do.
A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?
I do like to make borscht soup. I take the beets, I saute them with a little honey and apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper and a little bit of butter. My kids love it, it’s the only way I can get them to eat beets.
I have rhubarb, so I just make straight Rhubarb pie without strawberries. Straight rhubarb, the only thing you put in is sugar, flour and salt. Its so basic, but it’s so good!
A favorite internet resource?
I go to gardenweb.com
It’s a great big forum! Anything and everything from trees flowers. A big forum. If you have a questions anything like that. Lots of help on there. I had trouble when I first planted our berry bushes, we planted apple trees, cherry trees, I had so many questions and I found all of my answers on there.
A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?
I’ve been going back and forth, should I transcribe them? So you don’t think they’re too long? I feel like if I don’t put everything someone says, it’s like I’m editing their words or something? IDK August has been such a busy time, I’m way behind on my show notes.
Just look on those, I like to read, to talk to other people that garden, especially in our region. So I like to know what works with them? How do they do things? I’d love to be able to trade, seeds or bulbs, and I’m always looking for, I found someon Facebook. On your side of the state, there’s so many people into that culture.
Last week I met 3 of my guest at this dinner at the Purple Frog Farm and it was so fun to meet 3 friends who live right here I never knew.
That’s what I mean? I thought I should put a video up about sweet potatoes, because they aren’t
I have learned so much from the podcast. I’ve been doing more gardening and my husband’s always like I told you that… My friend Marisa came on this summer and talked about cooking and that got me back to more cooking like I did back in college when I was healthier and ate better.
Do you pay attention to using the moon for gardening?
A little bit.
I have been reading about and planting some things based on phases of the moon.
if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
I would say, I would like to see more awareness, about the chemicals we use, and I would like more kids involved and learn where their food comes from. IDK where this goes to be green, but maybe it all ties down together somewhere down the road. Getting your kids involved in it would encourage them to eat healthier, more health foods when they grow up? There would be less waste I think, you wouldn’t be relying on getting your food from Mexico. I think that would cut down on the toxins and transportation!
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?
I would say gardening is a lot cheaper then therapy and bonus you get tomatoes.
How do we connect with you?
Leave a message in show notes below.
I’m gonna send you my 30 day blogging challenge.
I took a leadership class back in 2012 started listening to Michael Hyatt’s This is Your Life. And on that show I heard about this guy John Lee Dumas who has this business podcast called Entrepreneur on Fire and he has this community/course called Podcaster’s Paradise and I joined that. It took me almost 6 months to get the technology part to work, and I’m usually the tech person. My listeners send me comments and say fix your sound or stop interrupting your guests, but I love your show! Other gardening podcasts I listen to.
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