Sweet potatoes are delicious and easy to grow, not to mention really nutritious. I think many people don’t grow them because they don’t know how. Sweet potatoes are grown from small plants called slips, although I usually refer to them as sweet potato starts. You can order slips from catalogs and sometimes find them at your local garden center, but I would like to encourage you to grow your own. The ones coming from far away often look pretty battered and they were probably started in climates different from your own. I start the sweet potatoes to grow my slips in my coldframe, keeping the cover handy in case the weather dips. I don’t put them in until about the time of the last expected spring frost, which is April 25 around here. That’s when space opens up in my coldframe. I know I’m showing off a little with that picture, but I got 20 slips off that one potato! That variety is Ginseng. I usually figure to get at least about 10 starts off each potato. I also grow Beauregard and the leaves are different. I put the sweet potato halfway into the soil, laying it down as a boat. When the sprouts grow out, you nick them off the potato and don’t worry about there being little or no roots. Plenty of roots will grow off the stems. That gives you a plant with a tiny piece of the potato attached. Put it into the garden bed right up to the leaves.
Sometimes I might nip the plants off when they are much smaller. In that case I would put them in a pot or flat, buried right up to the leaves, allowing them to grow out a little more until going into the garden. You can leave the potato in the ground when you nip off the first slips and more will grow. Sand Hill Preservation Center has some great information about growing sweet potatoes. They are located in Iowa and grow all their slips. If you are worried about getting your sweet potatoes in too late or that your nights are too cool, you will find their information helpful.
I used to be in a hurry to get them in the ground soon after the last frost, but sweet potatoes do best when the soil has had a chance to really warm up and with the rotation I’m working with, I don’t need them until about the first week of June. I usually interplant sweet potatoes with corn, putting them in about two weeks after I’ve transplanted the corn. The corn gets transplanted into a mulch of rye and Austrian winter peas about two weeks after that cover crop has been cut and left in place. The rye/winter pea cover crop is cut with a sickle when it is shedding pollen, which is usually about the first week of May here in Zone 7 in Virginia.
On my website at www.HomeplaceEarth.com, you can see a picture of what the rye looks like when it’s shedding pollen. In my DVD, Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden, I talk about that system and you see me digging the sweet potatoes at harvest. I usually harvest them around the first week of October to make sure to get them out of the ground before the frost. This picture of sweet potatoes interplanted with popcorn can be seen in my garden in my DVD, Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan. The companion CD with that DVD has a copy of the rotation plan for the seven beds in that garden. The sweet potatoes grow out and become a living mulch for the corn. There are other ways of starting sweet potatoes, but this is how I do it. I hope you give sweet potatoes a try in your garden.
Coming up on Saturday, May 7, I’ll be in Kidron, Ohio at Lehman’s Hardware for their Spring Open House. Look for me in the Garden Room from 10am-3pm meeting people and answering gardening questions. If you live close, come on by. If you live far away, it may be time for a road trip if you’ve always wanted to visit Lehman’s. Be sure to introduce yourself and tell me about your garden.