Sweet potatoes make for delicious and filling side dishes, especially during the winter season with its savory and rich table offerings. The irony is that they are extremely frost-sensitive tubers that grow best when it’s warm.
There’s good news, though. You can grow your own sweet potatoes in a relatively easy way. You don’t even have to worry about spoilage with a generous sweet potato yield per plant – they can go unrefrigerated for months without going bad!
Choosing the best sprouts to plant
You can get sweet potato root sprouts – or slips – from quality gardening supply stores or nurseries. You can also save the roots from previous crops. If you’re buying, remember to get only untreated roots, because some stores use wax on sweet potato slips to prevent them from sprouting.
Determine the best time for planting outdoors in your location by consulting a frost-free gardening guide. This will help you plan out a growing and harvesting timeline and list, including when to buy sweet potato slips, soil, and the gardening peripherals you’ll be needing.
When, where, and how to grow them
Summertime is still the best time to plant sweet potatoes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow them indoors during winter. Count backwards six weeks from the time it’s warm enough to plant outside, and get root sprouts for planting (they are best planted ASAP).
Put some moist sand in a pot or any container of your choice. You will need a warm environment – around 75 degrees – to plant the slips. Place the slips in the moist sand. Wait for the shoots to sprout to about six inches long before cutting them off at the root.
Check outdoor temperature to see if it’s warm enough to transplant the sweet potato sprouts. Dig holes six inches in depth and 12 inches apart from each other. Bury the sprouts up to their top leaves – make sure to do this under a full sun and not when it’s overcast. Tamp down soil firmly over and around the sprouts before watering. After two weeks, use dark-colored rubber mulch to help keep weeds away, and to retain moisture at the roots. An inch of water a week is enough to keep sweet potatoes thriving.
When to harvest and store
Sweet potatoes mature between 90 to 170 days, so check for tubers around that time. If they’re still too small, leave them for a week more before checking. During this time, you can already use the young shoots and leaves for other dishes, but take care not to disturb the tubers too much. Bruised tubers can easily get diseased.
As with planting them, sweet potatoes are best harvested on a warm day when the soil is dry. Use a small spade or gardening fork to dig around 12 inches away from the main tuber, at an angle so as not to damage the sweet potato. Go around six inches in depth before gently lifting the freshly-dug potatoes. Dry them in the sun for a couple of hours before curing.
Keep the tubers you won’t be using for wintertime dishes in a well-aired space for about two weeks. The temperature should be around 80 degrees. Afterwards, you can keep your harvest of sweet potatoes in a cool, dry place (such as a pantry) for months.