The hardest thing about growing sweet potatoes is harvesting them, but don’t let that stop you – this superfood is worth the effort! Its nutritional value is off the charts – filled with fiber, antioxidants (including vitamin E and beta-carotene) and potassium – and they’re fat- and cholesterol-free! But before you can eat ’em, you’ve got to grow ’em.
Start your sweet potato sprouts on the windowsill. It’s a great project for kids to get the garden started!
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Some sweet potatoes won’t be fully developed when you dig them, but the long, skinny ones make great sweet potato “fries.”
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Come spring, after the risk of frost has passed, you can find bundles of sweet potato “slips” at your local garden center or farm supply store. Slips are bare-root vegetative cuttings sporting two to three leaves and often sold in bundles of 50. It’s important that you keep the slips well-hydrated. If you can’t plant them immediately, you can store them in a bucket of water for a few days – just be careful not to submerge the leaves.
If you prefer, you can produce your own slips. You may have noticed that a sweet potato that’s been stored too long or exposed to a warm storage temperature will grow green, leafy sprouts (not eyes like an Irish potato). You can work with these sprouts, or you can encourage sprouting on your own by either burying the sweet potato 2 inches below the surface in a bed of sand (and wait for the sprouts to pop out) or suspending it with toothpicks in a glass of water. When the sprouts reach 8-10 inches long, they’re ready for transplanting. Just detach the sprouts with a simple twist, then off you grow!
Sweet potatoes prefer well-drained soils. Prepare your soil by tilling well and forming 8-inch-tall, flattop ridge rows that are 1 foot wide. Prior to planting you can also apply 8-8-8 fertilizer (2 pounds per 25-foot row). Plant the slip or sprout about 3 inches deep, spacing the plants about 10 inches apart. Water well immediately after transplanting, and keep a close eye on the slips for about a week to make sure they have plenty of water to support root development. Once established, for optimum development, sweet potatoes require 1 inch of water per week from rainfall or irrigation.
The crop time for sweet potatoes is about 120 days. If you forget to mark your calendar, don’t worry; just be sure to harvest before the first frost. Now, if you recall, I admitted that harvesting is the most labor-intensive part of growing sweet potatoes. You can expect each plant to produce four to five sweet potatoes, 3-9 inches long and 2-3 inches in diameter. Use a shovel to dig out the roots (that’s right, the sweet potato is actually a root), being careful not to slice through the potatoes. Digging from the edge of the row will help reduce the risk of damage, but it’s nearly impossible not to cut into a few potatoes. Don’t worry though – they’ll heal over as they cure, (but I’d try to cook up these cut ones first).
Now, what’s this “cure” stuff? Curing is a process that provides the ideal environment for the starches in a sweet potato to turn into sugars. Spread them out to dry for several hours away from direct sunlight. Once dry, put them in a box lined with newspaper. Leave the box in a dry, ventilated area for two weeks for curing. Once cured, the sweet potatoes are ready to be stored or used. Store in a cool, dry place – but not in the refrigerator. The ideal storage temperature is 55-60 degrees F. (A warm storage temperature may promote sprouting.) These root vegetables will store well for 10 months or more with no detrimental effect on quality. So even though they’re harvested in the fall, they can be eaten beyond the season.
Working sweet potatoes into your diet isn’t hard at all. These yummy sources of nutrition can be baked, boiled, broiled, stuffed, steamed, stir-fried or microwaved – even served raw – but my favorite use of them is in baked goods, including breads, pies, casseroles and cakes. There’s surely a recipe out there to suit everyone’s tastes. So don’t just grow and harvest enough for the holidays. This is one superfood that can be enjoyed throughout the year!