How to Grow Sweet Potatoes
By Linda Paquette
Like white potatoes, sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are most easily grown
from slips taken from a seed potato. Although you can buy sweet potatoes
from nurseries and garden centers, the easiest way to find them is in your
grocer?s produce department.
Growing Sweet Potato Vines
It doesn?t take too much of a ?slip? to grow a sweet potato vine. A
medium sweet potato has about 50 eyes and each has the potential to sprout
into a sweet potato vine. Typically, though, you can depend on 10 to 20
plants from one medium ?seed potato?.
The sweet potato comes from the morning glory family and like its relatives
grows into a lovely flowering vine. Because sweet potatoes are so easy to
grow, you can cut a slip from one, moisten it and plant it in just about any
type of soil. The young sprout gets its nutrients from the flesh of the
?mother root?. As long as you make sure to plant a section with ?eyes? and
keep it moist (but not saturated), your sweet potato vine should grow into a
very attractive houseplant.
When planting a sweet potato slip, it isn?t necessary to cover the whole
?mother root?. Plant your slips no more than two inches deep and wait for
the lovely green vine to begin growing. Also remember that, once planted;
?wet feet? will cause your slip to rot. Keep soil moist, but never
saturated. Sweet potatoes grow well in sandy soil, which provides your plant
with good drainage as well as a porous medium for good tuber growth. Sweet
potato vines either can be left to trail or trained to climb.
Sweet Potato Fun for Young Gardeners
An alternative way to sprout a sweet potato that?s especially fun for
young gardeners is to stick a toothpick on each of four ?sides? of a large
sweet potato slip. Hang the sweet potato slip over a jar of water so that
about half of it is submerged. Keep the jar in a darkened area for ten days
or until you see the white roots (sprouts) begin to form. Then place the jar
in a sunny spot and wait for the vine to begin growing.
From Vine to Bush (?) to Garden
If you nip the vine of a sweet potato plant, the mother plant becomes
more bush like and displays even more attractively as a houseplant or
outdoor container plant. You can either plant the nipped vine as a
transplant for another houseplant or try to grow sweet potatoes in your
garden. One caution when growing sweet potatoes outdoors is that they need
warm soil. When growing them outdoors, be sure to wait until the soil
temperature reaches about 70F. In addition, like the Morning Glory, the
sweet potato vine grows best in full sun.
As garden plants, sweet potatoes are most often grown in warmer zones. The
most common problems in garden-grown sweet potatoes are pests like white
grubs, sweet potato weevils, and wireworms. Generally, sweet potatoes are
quite disease resistant and most other problems arise from poor gardening
practices like poor drainage, too much shade, and over fertilization.
An ideal sweet potato transplant is 12-14 inches long, has five or six
leaves, and a strong stem. Cut the vine about 2 inches above the mother
plant. Although your cuttings won?t have roots, they will develop quickly
once planted in warm soil and watered. These transplants should be planted
about four inches deep. Take care to leave the terminal buds above the
Garden grown sweet potatoes should be planted in high rows to help with
drainage. When cultivating, like white potatoes, soil should be mounded or
hilled around individual plants. An early harvest is 90 to 120 days after
transplanting; however, they realize their true growth potential two to
three weeks later. The longer they are left in the soil, the bigger your
potatoes will be.
Sweet Potato Harvest
The real work in growing sweet potatoes begins with the harvest. To
harvest garden-grown sweet potatoes, first moisten dry soil to help digging
and reduce skinning. Sort and save the smaller potatoes as seed for next
year?s crop. Cover dug potatoes with vines to keep them from the sun.
Sweet potatoes continue to develop texture and flavor after harvest.
Generally, you will need to store them for six to eight weeks before use.
However, before storing sweet potatoes, it?s best to ?cure? them to makes
sure that any cuts and bruises are healed and help keep harvest damage from
turning into decay. Ideally, to cure sweet potatoes, you?ll need to provide
them with a week to ten days of high temperatures (80 to 90F) and a humidity
to match (80 to 90%). Although this is difficult for most gardeners to
achieve, the closer you can come, the better your crop of sweet potatoes
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