Sunday, October 31, 2010

Garden Experiment Pays Off with Sweet Potato Harvest

Although much of my experience at the SACG has been one experiment after another, I have also experimented in other ways. Sometimes, I try planting something way outside my comfort level (i.e., seedlings purchased at a nursery or seeds purchased through a catalog with lots of handy directions). Generally, the most adventurous I've been in the garden is to plant a new variety of bean, tomato or flower. However, this year, I tried something really wild. I planted sweet potatoes.

Last year, Jeannie and Beth both asked me for help planting sweet potatoes. I'd never planted them before and was already getting crazy by planting regular potatoes for the first time. I'd never considered planting sweet potatoes and didn't know where to get the seed potatoes or anything.

Over the winter, I started reading blogs and other information on the internet and learned that sweet potatoes grow differently than regular potatoes. For one, they don't grow off seed potatoes. You can buy things called "slips" at some nurseries. Second, they are a tropical plant and are extremely sensitive to cold temperatures. Third, the potato is a root and not something growing off the roots, like regular potatoes.

One blog said that I could start a slip simply by buying a regular sweet potato at the grocery, but gardening sites advised against this. I chose to experiment anyway. Beth lacked my faith, and asked me to buy her a slip at a reputable nursery.

Beth harvested lots of sweet potatoes from two slips I purchased at DeMonye's Nursery near the airport. I harvested the sweet potatoes you can see in the picture. My way was less expensive.

According to the blog I read, you can do the following to grow sweet potatoes.

  1. Put a sweet potato in a mason jar filled 1/3 with water in your kitchen window or other reliable light source. Although it will take a while, the potato will form roots which will take over the jar.
  2. Leaves will begin to sprout from the sweet potato after a few weeks. When the leaves get big enough to form a stem and a couple of companion leaves off the same stem, snap it off at the base and put the base in some water. (I used a shot glass in my kitchen window).
  3. When the stem forms its own roots after just a couple of days, plant it in potting soil and put in a sunnier (or better lit) location that is protected from cold drafts. Sweet potatoes grow quickly, so don't skimp too much on the size of the container.
  4. When the plant gets at least six inches long, and the outdoor temperature is reliably above 50, plant in the ground. Mounding is recommended, but I did not do it this year. Our ground at the SACG is well tilled.
  5. Rumor has it that they need six months to grow. However, I planted mine around Memorial Day weekend and harvested them this weekend. I did ok.

I recommend putting a marker of some sort where you plant so that you know where to aim when you water. The roots grow underneath and the vines spread, so it can be difficult to know where to focus your efforts.

I planted mine with zucchini and squash, so they did not get much sun until the squash bugs killed all of my squash plants by the end of July. Unlike regular potatoes which grow vertically, the sweet potato vines spread along the ground. If the weather cooperates (with rain), they will form roots at various locations along the vine (and form additional sweet potatoes). I only planted two slips in my plot this year and harvested all of the potatoes in the picture (and one more which is not pictured). I found this to be fabulous considering how little sun and rain they received until August and how little rain we've received since August (i.e., 2 inches).

My single root potato was the source of many slips and I finally just pitched it into my compost bin (where it continued to grow like crazy). I started 2 slips for my SACG plot and at least one slip each for Nykkel, Priest, Martha, Jeannie and my backyard. Each planted slip yielded at least 3 sweet potatoes if planted earlier enough and received enough sun.

This was an easy and fun gardening experiment. I've read it will work in most climates. One of the visitors to the SACG this year recommended starting slips off clippings from our garden, but my clipping has not rooted even though it's been in water for over a week.

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