Belonging to the morning glory family, sweet potatoes are versatile, hearty kitchen staples and make for beautiful summer crops. While not the most difficult vegetables to grow, they do require patience and care for successful yields. Here are five essential tips on how to grow sweet potatoes for delicious results.
If you’re wondering, “Can I just plant a whole sweet potato,” the answer is yes — well, kind of. Through a process called chitting, you can definitely start sweet potatoes from a sweet potato you find at the grocery store. If you’re going this route, it’s best to go with an organic sweet potato, if possible. Nonorganic sweet potatoes are often treated with inhibitors that prevent growth, so you may not be able to yield good sprouts from them.
After selecting your sweet potatoes, place them on a tray of regular potting soil, keeping the medium moist and covering your tray with plastic to retain humidity. Over time, shoots, also called slips, should start to grow from the eyes on your sweet potatoes. When they’re prime for picking at 5 to 6 inches tall, pull off the sprouts plants carefully and root them in water. Then, transfer them into containers of potting soil and eventually move them to your garden in the spring or summer. Of course, you can skip these steps by sourcing sweet potato slips at your local nursery.
Native to tropical areas of the Americas, sweet potatoes are hardy in zones 8 through 11, but are often grown as an annual vegetable. If you live in a northern region, start your sweet potatoes indoors. Even as you bring your sweet potato slips outside, consider mulching your soil and using row covers (or even black trash bags) to protect your crops from the cold. You can also plant your sweet potatoes in raised rows to keep them off the ground.
What month do you plant sweet potatoes? Slips are prone to transplant shock, so move your seedlings out into the garden a month after the last frost, ideally when it’s above 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside. If you live in a colder area, you might not want to bring your slips outdoors until May. Sweet potatoes thrive best in sunny locations with temperatures between 75 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. They appreciate some afternoon shade in hot regions but generally do best in full sun. They also require quite a bit of space for their roots and vines to spread, so they aren’t necessarily ideal hanging vegetable garden plants.
Sweet potatoes need anywhere from 90 to 120 days to mature, although some varieties may take up to 150 days. Once your sweet potatoes are ready for harvest, the end foliage will look slightly yellow. At this point, you can remove the foliage and carefully pull up the sweet potatoes — avoid breaking the skin to keep your harvest fresher longer. Keep in mind the longer you leave your sweet potatoes in the ground, the higher their yield and vitamin content will be.
To cure your sweet potatoes, dry them out in the sun for a few hours and leave them in a hot, humid location, about 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, for two weeks. Cured sweet potatoes can last for several months.
You won’t need much beyond the fertilizer you mix into your soil when you plant your sweet potatoes because they aren’t heavy feeders. Overfertilizing can actually encourage leaf growth instead of tuber growth, especially when you use plant food with too much nitrogen. The first value in an N-P-K fertilizer, nitrogen, should be the smallest number. A 5-10-10 or 8-24-24 ratio is recommended — you may want to take a soil test to determine the best N-P-K ratios. Skip animal manure, which might result in thin or stained roots. You can mix in compost and other rich organic matter like kelp and bone meal when planting your slips.
While their tuberous roots are sensitive to overwatering, sweet potatoes have better yields with thorough watering during hot, dry summers. A weekly cadence is ideal, and it’ll help your sweet potato roots grow and spread. Toward the end of the growing season, cut back on watering.
Sweet potatoes aren’t notoriously difficult crops, but getting them started and being patient with their long growing period can be a challenge. With these five tips, grow robust sweet potatoes for delicious recipes, whether you’re baking them into a pie or simply roasting them for a perfect autumn side dish. And remember to save a few sweet potatoes to start slips for next year’s harvest!
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