Sweet potatoes are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable that comes into season in the early fall. This helps to explain why we see them cooked into various forms at Thanksgiving meals. Additionally, they contain high amounts of vitamins A and C, and many other minerals necessary for human function. They are also incredibly versatile: you can eat them boiled, baked, in a stir-fry, and even in desserts. For many people, sweet potatoes are a grocery store staple, but you don’t need only to buy them. You can grow them in any vegetable garden that regularly gets sunlight. Sweet potato plants do not just offer a tasty vegetable; their flowers and vine are also beautiful.
Laying the Seeds
As with other plants, your first step is to get your sweet potatoes into soil. They are not particularly picky when it comes to soil quality, but try to avoid heavy clay or sandy soil and be sure to add a bit of fertilizer to it. Using a garden hoe, mound your soil into 10-inch-high ridges, and make sure that each row is spaced 3.5 feet apart. If you live in the north and have to start your planting season early, make sure to lay down black plastic, so the soil stays warm.
The term “lay the seeds” is a bit of a misnomer. As with many other tubers, it is easier if you plant root sprouts. You can create your own root sprouts by purchasing roots that are already designed to be sprouted. Most grocery stores have their sweet potatoes waxed so that they will not sprout so you may need to go to a nursery to get the proper roots. To get your roots to sprout, place them in a box of sand in a warm area. Once the sprouts are at least 6 inches long, cut them off at the root and remove the bottom inch to prevent diseases. You should start your sprouting process six weeks before it is time to plant.
From the time you plant them, they will take between 90 and 170 days to mature. They need to be harvested before the first frost, and should not be planted until 3 or 4 weeks after the last frost, as they are extremely sensitive to cold weather. When you plant your slips, plant them 6 inches deep and 12 inches apart.
Making Them Grow
If you opt not to use black plastic to cover your new sweet potato plants, you will need to mulch them two weeks after you plant them to prevent weeds. This will also keep moisture in the soil. Keep an eye out for long vines, and make sure to move them around occasionally to make sure they do not root inappropriately. Make sure that you don’t overwater your sweet potatoes- they are more resilient to dry spells than they are to wet spells.
If you are gardening in the south, you may encounter more pest problems than your northern counterparts. If you notice ¼ inch long insects with dark blue wings and heads, and reddish-orange bodies, you likely have a sweet potato weevil problem. The young weevils feed on the roots while the adults feed on the vines and leaves. These insects can spread rot from other plants and are hard to get rid of. It is important to catch the problem as quickly as you can and use every preventative measure, including slips that are certified disease resistant and rotating your crops on a 4-year basis.
Sweet potato crops are also susceptible to black rot. This presents as dark, circular depressions on the tuber. It is important that you immediately discard any infected potatoes and make sure that any undamaged roots are cured.
Once you notice that the leaves are starting to turn yellow, you can begin to harvest your plants. However, if you wait for longer, you will get a higher yield with a higher vitamin content. It is important to harvest the plants before frost has a chance to blacken the vines, as this will cause the tubers to rot.
Make sure to harvest your sweet potatoes on a day when the sun is shining, and the soil is dry. Allow them to dry in the sun for several hours before storing them in a spot that is well ventilated and maintained at 85 to 90 degrees. Allow them to cure for 10 to 15 days before storing them in a location that can be maintained at around 55 degrees. Your potatoes will store safely for several months and be available to enjoy throughout the winter.