If someone told me that I would be stranded on a deserted island, and I could only take one vegetable with me to plant for my survival, I would take the sweet potato. The sweet potato is not my favorite garden vegetable, but I think it is the most important vegetable in my garden.
It has this perfect combination of excellent nutrition, long storage life, and ease of growing. It ranks in the top ten most nutritious vegetables, and without processing of any kind, I can store my sweet potatoes in a cardboard box in my kitchen for almost a year. Plus, once you get one started producing slips (the sprouts), it will continue to produce slips for months. It is conceivable that a single potato could produce scores, if not hundreds of new sweet potato plants.
I thought I’d use this post to show how to grow this important vegetable–it is exactly the way my grandfather taught me years ago. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can plant these indoors. They make excellent indoor plants. They are viney, and they have beautiful foliage. We had one planted in our salamander’s terrarium (see the picture).
GROWING THE SLIPS
1. In early April, get a sweet potato, or uses some of the smaller potatoes left over from the previous year.
2. Slice the potato lengthwise. This isn’t necessary, it just keeps it from rolling around.
3. Place the two halves flat side down in a shallow tray of wet sand or gravel. I usually use those aluminum pie pans that pre-made pie crusts come in. Instead of sand, you can also use soil, but really all we need here is something to hold the water and stay damp without sitting the potato in a puddle of water where it might rot, and you don’t want other stuff growing in the soil.
4. Put the whole thing in a plastic bag, tie it off and put it somewhere dark and warm like on top of the refrigerator or over the water heater. Within a couple of weeks the sprouts should start.
5. When they are two or three inches long, remove the tray from the bag, move it to a sunny window sill, and remember to keep the sand or soil wet.
6. Within a couple of weeks, after moving them to the window, they will be tall and leafy enough to put in the garden. Timing is important here, because sweet potatoes like to be warm, and they will die if exposed to frost. Here in west Kentucky, I usually wait until the third or fourth week of May before I put mine in the garden.
PLANTING THE SLIPS
1. When the slips are ready, just break them off of the potato. Sometimes they will have roots attached, but they don’t need them.
Here is a picture of two different slips I broke of the same potato (you will notice I used soil).
2. Prepare the ground. What I like to do is dig a hole, about the size of a gallon, then refill the hole with potting soil or a mixture of soil and compost, because sweet potatoes grow better in loose soil. Also, in the fall when I harvest them, it is so much easier to get them out of the ground if the soil is loose.
3. Next, just stick the slips in the ground and water them.
Here’s what is going to happen: They will wilt and probably stay wilted for a couple of days. You will think they are dead. DO NOT PULL THEM UP! I promise, they will recover. Just make sure you keep them watered every day during this time. Once they come out of it, they’ll be unstoppable. As they grow, they will do better when you water them, but they will grow in drought too.
One thing I love about sweet potatoes is how fast the vines grow. They eventually cover the ground in my garden and smother out much of the weeds.
HARVESTING THE SWEET POTATOES
1. The morning of the first hard frost is harvest time. A hard frost will kill the vines every time, and the leaves will wilt and turn black.
2. The best way to dig them up is with a pitchfork, but if the ground is loose enough, you should be able to just pull them out of the ground by the vine. One vine can produce several potatoes. In my experience, I’ll get one or two medium to large potatoes per vine, and the rest might be about the size of my finger.
BE GENTLE! Sweet potato skins are thin and fragile, so be as careful as you can. If you take the skin off one, if should heal up okay, but avoid it if possible.
3. Cure the potatoes. Once they are out of the ground, put them in a warm place and cover them with a damp towel for a few days. Some people put them near the furnace. I put them in my warm greenhouse. They need warmth and humidity during this time.
4. Store them. Next, I wrap them individually in newspaper to protect them and store them in a cardboard box in the kitchen.
5. Eat on them all year.