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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That’s really it…you just gently push the slip into the soil a few inches.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ah! Orange deliciousness.
A pretty big reward, for relatively little work.
I’m sure you have your favorite way to prepare these nutritious powerhouses, but here are two of mine.
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.
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!