Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Small Garden

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

Freshly harvested sweet potatoes

I LOVE sweet potatoes.  LOVE them.  Tasty.  Pretty.  Healthy.  Easy to grow (seriously, super easy).  Store well. You don’t need to devote a lot of space to them, either.  As a result, they are a staple in my little backyard garden.

A Sweet Potato in the hand

Growing these little orange jewels in Texas is pretty straight forward and relatively problem free. The biggest issue I have with them is controlling the wealth of vines the sweet potatoes try and spread out across the garden.  Left to their own devices, those vines would cover half my backyard like something out of a sci-fi film!  But as long as you don’t leave them to fend for themselves for long periods, you can tame those enthusiastic vines.

So…where do you start? Well, you are going to plant your sweet potatoes in the Spring, so you need to start preparing your slips in February.  “Slips” are the little sweet potato shoots you plant in the garden that grow into your sweet potatoes.  You can buy them from nurseries and from many sources online….or you can grow your own, like I do.  Much like my post about growing white potatoes, if you want to grow your own sweet potato slips, you need to head to the store and buy a few sweet potatoes.  If you buy from a nursery or online, you will know the exact variety of sweet potato you are growing, but if you buy from the grocery store, you will not.  I know that I prefer sweet potatoes that are dark orange, so I look for that type in the store.  I buy a few, bring them home, and cook one.  If it is the tasty thing I was hoping for, I sprout the remaining sweet potatoes.  If it wasn’t what I was looking for, I head back to the store.  You will have the most luck sprouting organic sweet potatoes, so opt for those if you can.

Okay, so now you have a handful of sweet potatoes you know you like.  Now what?  Here’s the super hard part.  Ready?  You set them out on your kitchen counter and leave them alone.  Difficult, right?  Just let those sweet potatoes sit there until they start to sprout out of one end.

Sprouted Sweet Potato

Now that you have some sprouting going on, you need to put the other end of the sweet potato in some water and set it in a sunny spot, like on a window sill.  I usually use a small jar for this.  To be clear, you put the end with NO sprouts coming out of it in the water, and the sprouted end is the one on top.

Sprouted Potato in a jar

As you can see from this picture above, the potato will continue to grow sprouts out the top, and little roots on the bottom.  Each of those little sprouts on the top are a “slip.”  You can get quite a few from one potato.  I usually just need to sprout two sweet potatoes to get all the slips I will need, and then some.

Once your slips are several inches long, and have a leaf or two forming, you can remove them from the sweet potato and plant them immediately in the garden.  It doesn’t matter if they get a little longer and more leafy before you plant them (like the one below), so don’t feel pressured to rush them into the garden if it’s not warm enough outside yet. You want to set them out when it is warm during the day and all danger of frost has past.

If you feel good about it being the right time to plant, then you are going to want to snip each slip off the potato with sharp, clean scissors – right at the point where it comes out of the potato.

Sweet potato slip

One note – you don’t have to cut them all off at once.  If several are big enough to cut off and plant, but a few aren’t, then remove the ones that are ready and set the potato with the remaining sprouts, still attached, back on the window sill.  Once they have grown a little more, you can snip them off and plant them with the others in the garden.

Now that you have your slips ready to go, you need a good spot for them in the garden. Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, so they will a need nice, deeply tilled, sunny patch that is relatively free of rocks.  Rocks, and other obstacles, will cause the sweet potatoes to grow crooked.

Bent Sweet Potato

Bent Sweet Potato

Looks a little like a boomerang!  (Still tasty, though!)

Root vegetables also need well drained soil – they will rot in the ground if they get water logged.  Squishy, rotted, potatoes….ew.

How big a patch you decide on, will depend on how many potatoes you want to grow.  I usually plant about 7 slips in a square that is roughly  2′ 6″ x  2′ 6″ – and from that small space I am harvest enough sweet potatoes to get me through the Winter.

So, pick your spot, make sure it gets plenty of sun, make sure it doesn’t get water logged, till it up nice a deep, remove all the rocks and other debris you can, and add in a little compost if you think your soil needs it.

Time to plant!  Sweet potatoes grow in a cone shape below the main plant (which will be the grown up version of that slip you are about to plant), so you want to leave a least a 8 inches or so between slips.  Planting the slips is almost as hard as that “setting them on the counter” thing you did earlier.  You take that cute little slip and…drum roll….stick it into the dirt.

Planting the slip

That’s really it…you just gently push the slip into the soil a few inches.

CU of slip being planted

Boom!  Sweet potato planted!  The little baby slips will need to be kept watered for a few days till they establish roots and can move on to a more regular watering like the rest of your garden.  You don’t want them soaked all the time, just don’t let the sprouts dry out completely for a few days.  After that, your sweet potatoes will be off to the races – meaning they will start sending out vines like you wouldn’t believe!  Seriously, they will grow all over the place if you let them.  So before that starts happening and your garden is overrun, you will need a plan.  I have found placing a trellis in the ground right behind the sweet potato patch when I plant a good solution.  Then as the vines grow, I toss them up on to the trellis (they won’t agree to this on their own, you will have to direct the vines yourself).

Sweet Potato Vines

Don’t be fooled by this picture – this was still early in the season when the vines were just getting going.

You can trim back particularly long or unruly vines if you need to, but since the vines are the potatoes’ source for gathering sunlight you will need to leave plenty to feed the sweet potatoes.

One note more on the vines.  Vines laying on the ground will, eventually, send down roots that will grow more sweet potatoes.  Those sweet potatoes won’t grow fast enough to really show up this year – they will be the ones that spring up in your garden next year.  So, if you allow your vines to sprawl happily through your garden, then next year you will have little sweet potato plants sprouting in unexpected places.  This may, or may not, be okay with you, so plan accordingly.  Since one or two vines are bound to get away from you somehow, even with your diligence, this is going to happen to you a few times.  Depending on where they pop up, it might be a pleasant surprise.  On the plus side, it’s not like they are invasive in some way.  Just a few errant sweet potatoes now and then.

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

The mighty fur beast guarding the sweet potato patch

When to harvest?  It will take all Summer long and into the Fall for your sweet potato crop to mature.  If you are in the mood for a sweet potato in late Summer, and your soil is loose enough, you can gently stick your hand down into the soil near one of the plants and see if you can find a potato of adequate size for your dinner.  They are attached to the main plant by a small root, so they are easy to snip off, leaving the rest of the plant undisturbed.  As for the remainder of the crop, you will know all the sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the vines begin to die off.

Dying vines

Dying vines

When this happens, it’s time to dig.  Ever so gently, so you don’t damage the potatoes, dig up the entire patch.  I tend to go about it like an archaeologist – I dig slowly and carefully, unearthing one potato at a time.

Just uncovered

Be sure to over turn the entire area in your hunt – some sweet potatoes manage to wander a bit from the rest of the group.

Fresh out of the ground

Ah!  Orange deliciousness.

A pretty big reward, for relatively little work.

Big bowl of Sweet Potatoes

I’m sure you have your favorite way to prepare these nutritious powerhouses, but here are two of mine.

Baked Sweet potato

You can’t go wrong with the baked sweet potato – they also cook up nicely wrapped in foil on the grill.

But one you may not have ever tried, is oven baked sweet potato disks.

Sweet Potato disks

You just peel the sweet potato, slice really thin (like with a mandolin), toss with olive oil and pepper, spread on parchment paper, and bake at 350º till just starting to brown. You do have to keep an eye on them towards the end – they go from perfect to burned in seconds.

That’s it!  Even the garden with a small area to work with can grow sweet potatoes!  And devoting the space for them is so worth it!  Now get out there and garden!

Potato Towers – Growing Potatoes in a Small Garden

PotatoesI love potatoes.  LOVE them.  Baked, fried, mashed, in soups and in curries – you name it, I love it.  With such a deep fondness I had no choice but to try my hand at growing these starchy little jewels in my small backyard garden.  But what is a fervent gardener with a love for potatoes and a tiny space to grow them in to do?  My solution for most space related garden issues is to go vertical, so naturally that is what I did with my potatoes.   Not only were the planting and hilling processes super easy with these towers, but harvest was an absolute snap.  Potato towers are now a permanent addition to my Spring garden.

The first thing you are going to need are seed potatoes.  You can buy them online from garden sites, get them from your local nursery, or take your chances with that store bought potato that started sprouting on the counter.  Online you will have to buy in large quantity – way more quantity than my little garden needed – but at your local nursery, you may be able to buy by the potato instead.  As for the store bought one that you didn’t get around to eating before it started sending out shoots, the only real issue with those is that they are often treated with a chemical to slow the sprouting process, which is not awesome when what you are after is a thriving potato plant.  But if what you purchased is an organic potato, or if it is sprouting with great enthusiasm, then I say plant it.  The red potatoes in this post were all purchased as seed potatoes from my favorite local nursery, but the Yukon Gold potatoes were ones that managed to sprout before I had cooked them up and stuffed them in my face.  I got a pretty good yield from both.

If you purchased seed potatoes, you are going to need to get them to sprout before you can move on to planting.  You will want to place them in a warm dry place for a few days to a week to get those little buds going.  Be sure to buy your seed potatoes early enough to allow time for this.  In Dallas, you will want to plant your potatoes sometime in February, so it is a good idea to get your seed potatoes by mid to late January to give them time to sprout, as well as cure (I’ll talk about that in a minute).

Alrighty, so you have a nice little pile of potatoes with sprouts on them…now what?

Sprouted YukonFirst, be careful not to break off any of those cute little sprouts.  Those babies are the potato plants of tomorrow – the parents of your potato harvest to come.

Sprouted Yukons ready for cuttingSecond, you need to decide whether or not to cut the potatoes into smaller pieces.  You want at least 2 or 3 sprouted eyes per planted potato, so if you potatoes are small, you may want to leave them in one piece.  But if you have larger potatoes, you may want to cut them…which is what I decided to do.

Sliced YukonsAfter I finished with the Yukon Golds, it was time to do the same with the red potatoes.  Next step is let your potatoes dry, or cure, for 3 or 4 days so the cut sides can scab over.  I laid mine out on a baking sheet with parchment paper and wrote the variety names on that parchment paper so I wouldn’t loose track of which ones where which.  You don’t want to put them in an airtight container since you want them to dry out at this point, not rot.

Cut PotatoesWhile your potatoes are busy sprouting and curing, you can get their new home in the garden all ready for them.

I decided to grow the two varieties of red potatoes in towers and plant the Yukon Gold in the ground – giving me a good comparison of the two methods.  For the towers, I used part of a roll of this green welded wire.

wire rollHere is a view of the label so you can see exactly what I used, but anything similar that is easy enough to form into a cylinder, but sturdy enough to hold it’s shape will do the trick.

Welded WireFigure out how large a cylinder you want to make, measure out that much of your wire mesh, and snip snip snip.

cutting the wireForm your mesh into a cylinder and secure it.  In the case of the mesh I used, I was able to secure the structure by bending in the ends of the wire on one side and wrapping it around the wire from the connecting side.  I apologize for bad focus on the following picture…it’s kinda hard to take pictures and bend wire at the same time…and the dog is no good with a camera.

building the towerIf the previous steps have gone well, you should now have something that looks a little like this:

The wire TowerNow you are probably saying, “Laura, you are nuts!  If you put dirt in that thing it will just fall right out through those big holes!”

You are so right!  Those big holes allow plenty of light in during the growing process, unlike a closed cylinder like a bucket, but will let the dirt OUT if we don’t do something about it.  My initial answer to this problem?  Burlap.  (I will explain why it was my “initial” plan in just a moment.)

You get yourself a nice big strip of burlap and measure it into a length slightly more than the circumference of your tower and about two feet tall.

BurlapAnd roll it into a nice little tube of burlap.

 

Rolling the BurlapPut your potato tower in place, secure it will some sort of stakes, and put the burlap roll into the base of the tower, with the loose end facing down.  You want it arranged so that  as you unroll the burlap up the sides over time, you unroll from the inside out.

Putting the burlap in the towerPart of growing potatoes, is hilling up dirt around the plants as they grow.  This burlap roll lets you do that without having to add new strips of burlap each time you hill.  The plan is to tuck the end under the dirt at the bottom of the tower, and then as you need to hill up the dirt over time, you can just unroll the burlap up the inside of the tower and then add your dirt – allowing for maximum sun for your plants, and minimal effort for you as the dirt level needs to rise.

Next, you add a layer of dirt to the bottom of the tower, securing the loose end of the burlap underneath it.

Putting the dirt in the towerIsn’t it adorable?  Of course it is.  Let’s talk dirt for a moment.  Potatoes need loose soil that is free of rocks, sticks, and other debris.  One of the many reasons these towers are perfect is the fact that you can give your potatoes the perfect soil in which to grow.  I used a mixture of Miracle Grow’s garden soil and a nice organic compost.  Mmmm, delicious.

Hopefully, by now, your potatoes are all sprouted, cut and cured.  Just one more step for them before they nestle into their new garden home.  They need a little dusting of sulfur.  The sulfur will help protect your little seed potatoes from disease an help keep them from rotting.  You can buy dusting sulfur at that same nursery where you bought your seed potatoes.  I live in Texas, the land of the evil chigger.  If you are not familiar with the chigger – lucky you – it is a nasty little insect that drills hole in your flesh that itch like nothing you have ever felt.  I love to hike, which can take me to places inhabited by the evil chigger and give them a chance to climb up my legs and make my life miserable for days.  To combat the evil chigger, I keep what is called a sulfur sock on hand –  you fellow Texans know exactly what I’m taking about – to smack around my shoes and ankles before heading out into chigger country.  It is basically a tube sock, filled with dusting sulfur, and tied in a knot at the top.  I found my trusty sulfur sock to be the perfect way to dust my little potatoes with sulfur without risking damage to those cute little sprouts.

Dusting with SulphurBe sure to avoid getting the sulfur in your mouth or eyes, and wash your hands thoroughly after you have finished handling the sulfur.

Now that our potatoes have a thin dusting of sulfur, it’s finally time to plant. The big dog says, “It’s about freaking time!  Let’s do this!”

Helper DogFor the red potatoes, I just placed them into their towers…

Planting the red potatoes…and covered them with more of that tasty dirt.  Last step was running my drip irrigation system into the towers…with enough slack to raise the emitters as the dirt level rises.

Ready TowersThe Yukon required a little more work.  I needed to dig a trench for them in front of the towers.

Digging a trench for the YukonsOnce I had a nice trench, I placed my Yukon Gold potatoes in neat little row.

Row of planted YukonsThey were then covered in the same delicious mix I used in the towers and were given water emitters as well.  Potatoes like water, but need to stay well drained or they will rot – another benefit of the tower is it’s natural drainage.

Alrighty.  The potatoes are all planted…nothing to do now, but wait.  The dog approves of our day’s work.

Dog Helping againSoon, sweet little baby potato plants will appear.

Baby potato shootsOnce they have grown up a good ten inches or so, you will want to start hilling – this basically just means adding dirt to your towers around the plants.  At the same time that I added soil to my towers, l hilled around my in-ground potatoes as well.  Your new potatoes will form from shoots sent out by the plants in this hilled dirt, so it is an important process.

Growing plantsAs you add soil to the towers, just unroll a bit of the burlap up the sides to hold the new dirt inside.  Super easy with the towers.

A little harder with my Yukons.  It was a little bit of a challenge to try and make an effective hill in such a small space without the walls of the tower to hold the dirt in place.

Growing YukonsIt was about this time in the process that I developed a problem with the burlap in the towers.  My plan was working perfectly.  I was very pleased.  Unfortunately, the neighborhood squirrels were also pleased.  Pleased that I had kindly provided them with an awesome nesting material.  They went to great lengths to pull as much of the burlap out of the holes in mesh as the little buggers could manage. Grrrrr.  New plan.  I had window screen in my garage…surely squirrels can’t use window screen to build nests.  Surely not.  I wrapped the screen around the base of my towers…

Screen around the TowersAnd sewed it on with wire.  Take that, squirrels.

Seam on screenIt worked.  For the record, the burlap would have worked perfectly if I hadn’t had thieves in my garden.  Grrrr…..

More growing, more hilling…

GrowingAs the plants grew, it became harder and harder to hill dirt around the Yukons in the small space, but hilling the towers was a breeze every time…just pour a little more dirt in and spread it around with your hand and move on to other garden adventures.

You continue to hill your potato plants periodically until they flower.  When they start flowering is when they are also busy growing potatoes under the surface.  So exciting.  You can start sticking your hands down in there to hunt for baby potatoes a few weeks after flowering, or wait until a few weeks after the plants die to harvest larger potatoes.  I chose to wait.

I harvested the Yukon Gold potatoes first, mostly because they were in front.

Freshly dug Yukon GoldThe harvest went fine, but required a lot of careful digging to find all the potatoes without damaging any of them.

Yukon HarvestWith the Yukons out of the way, I just pulled up the stakes holding the towers in place…and tumped the first one over.  And joy, oh joy, potatoes just spilled out the bottom.

harvesting the towersBeautiful red potatoes.

Red PotatoIn short order I had dumped all the dirt out of the towers, collecting all the potatoes as I went.  Easy breezy.

Freshly Washed Although I got similar yields from the towers versus the in-ground method, I found the towers to be a better solution for my small space.  Easier to prepare the dirt, easier to hill, and WAY easier to harvest.  And since the towers, themselves, survived the whole process without incident, they will be able to do this all over again next year!

All that remains now is to get washed up and start eating!

Baked YukonBake them up and top them with roasted poblano peppers…also from your garden.

Roasted PotatoesRoast them with garden onions.

Or my personal favorite…

Waffle BrownsShred them, stir in a smidgen of olive oil, and cook them up in your waffle iron to make what I call Waffle Browns.  Outstanding.

However you like to eat them, with a potato tower, you can grow delicious potatoes in your garden even if you don’t have a lot of space. Would love to hear your ideas on space saving ways to grow potatoes, or your experiences trying potato towers.

Get out there and get your hands dirty!

It’s Time to Plant for Fall!

 

IMG_5929This is a gardening alert:  It is time to be planting that Fall garden you’ve been thinking about – at least if you live in North Texas, like I do.  I know it’s still hot, but gear up and get out there.

Grab your hat, sunglasses, and cooling neck band, and get out there!

Grab your hat, sunglasses, and cooling neck band, and get out there!

Here in Texas we have a nice long Fall growing season, starting in late August and going until the first freeze – usually sometime in December.  And since we start out good and warm in that time window, we aren’t limited to just cool weather plants.  Fact is, you can grow just about anything in the Fall in Texas, as long as you get it growing soon enough for it to mature to harvest before it is killed off by a hard freeze.  The good news is that there are lots of plants that mature quickly enough for that and lots that are cold hardy enough to handle a few light freezes – unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of cross over between the two lists.

To help make it easier for you to plan your Fall garden, here is a list of common garden plants and roughly how long it takes each to mature:

The Fastest Garden Growers (mature in 30 to 60 days)

Beets,     Bush Beans,     Chard,     Kale,     Leaf Lettuce,     Mustard Greens,     Radishes,     Spinach,     Summer Squash (yes you can plant it in the Fall),     Turnips,     Turnip Greens

The “Middle of the Road” Growers – speed-wise (mature in 60 to 80 days)

Broccoli,     Chinese Cabbage,     Carrots,     Chard,     Cherry tomatoes,     Cucumbers,     Corn,     Green onions,     Kohlrabi,     Lime beans,     Okra,     Parsley,     Peppers

The Slow Growers (mature in 80 days or more)

Brussels Sprouts,     Bulb onions,     Cabbage,     Cantaloupe,     Cauliflower,     Eggplant,     Garlic,     Irish potatoes,     Pumpkins,     Sweet potatoes,     Tomatoes,     Watermelon,     Winter squash

Now, the other important part of the equation as you choose what to plant for the Fall, is which things are the most frost tolerant and which aren’t.  By comparing the two list, you can see things like Kale grow fast and hold up well to the frost…so if you like Kale it’s a great Fall choice.  But Eggplant takes a long time to mature, and is not frost tolerant, so might be a bit of a gamble in the Fall.

Here are some of the common garden crops that tend to be frost tolerant, but that will still die off in a hard freeze:

Beets,     Broccoli,     Brussels sprouts,     Cabbage,      Carrots,     Cauliflower,     Chard,     Collard greens,     Garlic,     Kale,     Lettuce,     Mustard Greens,     Onions,     Parsley,     Spinach,     Turnips

And here are the garden crops that are not frost tolerant – these guys will perish if the temps just touch freezing:

Beans,     Cantaloupe,     Corn,     Cucumber,     Eggplant,     Okra,     Peas,     Peppers,     Irish potatoes,     Sweet potatoes,     Squashes – both winter and summer,     Tomatoes,     Watermelons

Another thing to keep in mind, is that here in North Texas we get a few very short dips to freezing in the first part of Winter – and usually don’t get long hard freezes until after New Year.  Those plants that aren’t frost tolerant may die during that dip, even though temps after that climb back up and the plant would have been fine.  That means that if you can keep your frost susceptible plants warm for those tiny dips in the first part of the Winter, you can sometimes keep them alive and producing for a little longer.  You can use frost blankets and cloches, or, you can try what I did last year, Christmas lights – the old school ones that get warm, not the new LED ones.  I draped them all around my delicate plants and they came through those short dips to freezing just fine.

Keeping little plants warm with old school Christmas lights

Keeping little plants warm with old school Christmas lights

Whatever you decide to plant, it’s time to do it now…so stop reading my blog and get to it!

Variety is the spice of life – even in the garden!

For me, one of the fun parts of having my own garden is all the variety you can grow, even if you don’t have a lot of room to work with.  You don’t have a plant a bunch of one thing to be successful, in fact, if your garden size is limited, I encourage you not to.  I suggest you can get the most out of a small garden by planting a bunch of different types of things. That way, you don’t end up with a huge surplus of one type of produce that is ready to harvest all at once – unless you want to, of course.  By planting lots of different things, that all ripen at different rates, you can get a steady flow of produce from the garden to your table.  Once the growing season is well underway and things start to be ready for harvest, you can have, at least, one ingredient from the garden at every meal.  And that, my friends, is worth all the digging.

When I say “different types of things,” I mean, not only planting several varieties of something like peppers, but also to plant every kind of fruit and veggie you like, that you can possibly cram into the space you have. Don’t get so focused on growing tomatoes that you miss out on lettuce, and melons, berries…oh goodness, I good add to this list for days.  As I have found in my small space, with a little planning and some creative vertical supports, you can grow an amazing variety of produce.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t feel limited by the selection at the local nursery.  Go online – there are SO many seed stores online that sell, not only seed packets, but also plants.  Grow purple carrots and orange cauliflower.  Try all the different types of kale.  If it’s rated for your zone, go for it!  All the variety is fun…and if you don’t like something, or all your squash gets destroyed by pests or weather, you only lost a tiny portion of the garden.

Not convinced?  Need a little more motivation to put on your gloves, grab a shovel and start digging?  Alrighty then…lets chat for a moment about the kind of variety I know for a fact you can get out of a small garden like mine.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have roughly 200 square feet of in-ground garden, two six-foot long sheep troughs, and a three-foot round metal tub for all my planting.  Now I am going to share with you all the variety you can squeeze out of that kind of space.

This year my garden yielded:

Lots of Leaf Lettuces

Leaf LettucesGreens: Kale, Chard, and Beet greens (plus the beets are awesome too)

GreensA wonderful variety of beautiful tomatoes!

TomatoesEggplantEggplantSo many squashes!

Zucchini, Butternut, Spaghetti, and Magda squashesString Beans, Sugar Snap Peas, and Soybeans, oh my!

String BeansSugar Snap Peans and Soybeans

Okra – oh how I love okra

Okra

Melons – Cantaloupe and cucumbers

Cantloupe and Cucumber

Onions

OnionsPeppers, peppers, peppers

Sweet Bell, Poblano, Serrano, and Pepperchini peppersSunflowers – will be harvesting seeds any day now!

Sunflower

A wide variety of herbs – only a few pictured here

Basil, Sage, Oregano, and ChivesAnd last, but certainly not least….berries!

Berries

See what you can do with even a small garden?  Remember, all this came out of roughly 200 square feet of space.  Look out in your backyard and consider where you can squeeze in a garden, or what you can do to make great use of the garden space you already have.  If I can do it, you can do it.  I hope this visual display of all the bounty a home garden can produce has motivated you to grab a pair of gloves and a shovel…and get digging.