This is the time of year to start planning your garden. The time for thinking about the first warmth of spring and the taste of a salad made of lettuce straight from your garden. As such, I want to discuss a an unexpected “cash crop” that we planted last year. The sweet potato.
I’m not sure why I decided to plant sweet potatoes, but I’m glad I did. I planted them by way of an experiment. I do plant a lot of things in my food garden, but I like to plant things in random places. I like to experiment. After all, who says my herbs have to be in an herb garden. I have parsley planted next to my blueberry bushes in the front of the house. Why? Because the area gets wonderful sun exposure, and I wanted to see if it would work.
Back to the sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes (especially the organic ones) are very expensive in the stores. They are about $3 for one sweet potato. That’s crazy. And they are easy to grow. I planted mine in less than ideal conditions, and I got a huge return on my inputs. I highly recommend going organic for your sweet potatoes. The conventional sweet potatoes have all sorts nastiness sprayed on it. Here is a smart young woman who shared why we should be going for organics (or just growing your own).
Quick Aside, Vocab Lesson:
When you plant sweet potatoes, they come from slips. A slip is a sweet potato sprout that shoots off of a sweet potato in storage. Mine were white, about an 1/8 of an inch in diameter and about 6 inches long. I bought 25 slips for $15. They probably sent me more like 35 slips. For the $15, I got baskets full of sweet potatoes. Well over $100 in sweet potatoes. And I don’t have to do any fancy processing to store them. Easy, with a high return. AWESOME.
What are Ideal Sweet Potato Conditions?
LIke almost every planting instructions I’ve run across, it is ideal to plant your sweet potato slips in “loamy, well drained” soil. I planted mine in a range of soils that went from 90% rocky (as in, there was almost no dirt) to only about 30% rock. In the super rocky soils, I barely had a yield, I got one sweet potato per slip. But where it was only mildly rocky, I had a wonderful return. I got pounds of potatoes off of one slip.
I’ve read that sweet potatoes do not do well in clay soils. They grow thin and gnarly. I say give it a try. We’re not trying to win any veggie beauty contests, we’re trying to grow some yummy food to put on the table.
I had them in full sun and I watered them when I first the planted them. As in, I watered them once, and never watered them again. However, these guys do like their water. So if you have a dry season, be prepared to give your sweet potatoes a drink weekly.
How to Plant Sweet Potatoes?
Place the fat end of the slip in the ground. Cover a few inches with soil and water a bit. The End. That’s all I did. These guys are so resilient that if you unknowingly leave a slip on the ground, you may very well come back to a plant there. This is my kind of gardening.
I live on a hill exposed to the south, so the soil heats up nicely, but if you live in a colder climate, or you have a short growing season, you may want to heat up your soil by laying some black covering over the ground for a few weeks before planting
They are beautiful viney plants. so be sure to give them plenty of room to spread out and grow. If you’re doing the whole row thing, plant the potatoes within the row 18 inches apart with the rows spaced 3 feet apart. Or do as I did, and plant them all around your property. It was landscaping we could eat. Pretty and Tasty. Sounds good to me.
In fact, here is a photo of one of the the blooms I got to enjoy while the tubers were growing:
Sweet potatoes like it hot. They also enjoy a long growing season. They need about three months to reach maturity. So plant them as soon as the danger of frost has passed. I have read that you need to get the potatoes out of the ground the day before the fall frost hits. If not, the potatoes are ruined, and you may get grumpy. I was very careful to get my potatoes out in time, but I missed one. When the chickens were free ranging, they dug it up, and it looked beautiful and food worthy minus the fact that the chickens ate half of it. This was in December. We had had several snows. This makes me believe that I didn’t have to be so hyper about getting my potatoes out of the ground. But maybe it was luck. Do what feels right to you.
Harvesting Sweet Potatoes:
Dig them up. dig a little wider, pull gently and brush the dirt off. Try not to bruise the sweet potato. I try to use my hands for the most part. Brush the dirt off. DO NOT PUT ANY WATER ON THEM. The only time you should wash them off with water is right before you eat them. They store best with a little dirt on the outside. Keep any potatoes out that you may have bruised (damaged the skin) for eating soon, BUT NOT IMMEDIATELY.
Curing Sweet Potatoes:
Put them in a cool place for at least 10 days ( I waited over a month). Then you can eat them as regular. I have not experimented with this, but I have heard that eating freshly dug sweet potatoes is disgusting. I didn’t have to try that myself. Maybe you would like to experiment? If so, let me know how it turns out.
Storing Sweet Potatoes:
Store them in a root cellar or basement. Some place cool. DO NOT STORE THEM IN THE FRIDGE or any place below 50 degrees F. This will make them go bad.
They store up to six months, although use your judgement. If after 6 months, the potatoes look good, keep them and eat them. Six months is just a rule of thumb, not law.
Eating Sweet Potatoes
Oh!Boy! This is the fun part! Make them how you like them. Baked, Fried, mashed.
This is one crop that will earn it’s keep in your garden. This plant has a high rate of return, stores easily, is super good for you and is relatively easy to grow. Plant on, my friends!