This month, the Youth Gardening Committee members participated in the Earth Day Celebration at Douglas-Hart Nature Center.

We had a station where kids made bug/critter jars and investigated insects that we had on hand. Fun times!

This month I also had the opportunity to talk to 225 fourth grade students at the Coles County Soil and Water Conservation District's Conservation Field Days held at Lincoln Log Cabin. We talked about worms and the benefits of worm castings. Kids ask the best questions and have the best stories.

A Master Gardener friend recently purchased too many sweet potato slips and she shared them with me. I have worked a "sweet potato dig party" at the Plant a Row, but have never planted sweet potatoes in my own garden. This is a learning experience for me and I thought I'd share my research with you.

Sweet potatoes can be started from sweet potato roots from an actual sweet potato. The roots from the potato are started in consistently damp sand and are harvested when they are at least 6 inches tall. The University of Illinois suggests that we plant them 12 to 18 inches apart on 3 foot wide, raised ridges (rows) and it is suggested to cover the soil with black plastic mulch to speed up early growth and reduce cultivation. The plastic mulch will need drip irrigation below or you can use a permeable black landscape fabric. They are tender annuals so they must be planted when the soil warms up and after a frost could occur.

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Sweet potatoes are relatively easy to care for. Keep weeds pulled until the vines spread and shade the soil. The sweet potato leaves will shade the soil and will keep weeds from emerging. If the vines get long, they may try to root where they touch the soil. It is best to prevent this from happening, as the roots will expend energy trying to start a new plant.

Sweet potatoes prefer hot dry weather; too much moisture will prevent proper root formation. However, if an extended drought is expected, water them. Do not water during the last 3 to 4 weeks before harvest to protect the developing roots from rot.

When harvesting, dig them up around the first frost in the fall, do not allow them to freeze. To dig, use a spading fork or stout shovel, and start by digging below and away from the level of the ridge and gradually move closer toward the plants, being careful to not damage the potato. Allow the potatoes to "cure" or dry on the ground for a couple hours before storing, because excess moisture is not good and will cause them to rot. Also, limit handling to avoid bruising and damaging your crop.

This month's Youth Gardening activity will be at Douglas-Hart Nature Center and our cool project will be planting herb bags that I designed and sewed from recycled dog food bags. The free event will be TOMORROW, Saturday,  May 18, at 11 a.m. In addition to herbs, I will also have flowers for the kids to plant in their bags. Please sign up through the Douglas-Hart Facebook page or call DHNC to register as we have a limited number of spaces.

If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a Master Gardener volunteer at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.

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