Whether fried, baked, candied or in pies and casseroles, I love sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes have long since been a staple in Southern gardens. One of my fondest memories as a kid is the pan of …
Whether fried, baked, candied or in pies and casseroles, I love sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes have long since been a staple in Southern gardens. One of my fondest memories as a kid is the pan of baked sweet potatoes my grandmother always kept on her stove during the winter time. That old pan was blackened from years of cooking and baking, but it always had sweet potatoes in it during the cold winter months.
A relatively easy crop to grow, sweet potatoes are even becoming a common appearance on restaurant menus. In fact, I love to order baked sweet potato in place of the standard Irish potato when eating out. They go great with steaks, pork chops, lamb, or just about anything else you would ordinarily eat a baked potato with. (Take it from me, I love to eat!) Whether this is your first time to grow the plants or if you have been growing sweet potatoes for years, you are sure to be pleasantly surprised with the coming harvest.
Sweet potatoes, (Ipomea batatas), are thought to have originated in Central and South America. Today, sweet potatoes are grown around the world, often (incorrectly) called a yam. One important note is that a sweet potato is a sweet potato and not a yam. Yams are a completely different crop botanically speaking, that originates from Africa. To prevent confusion, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that sweet potatoes be labeled as sweet potatoes.
Growing sweet potatoes is easy, assuming that you have plenty of water, well-drained soil and a strong back for harvest time. Sweet potatoes are grown from transplants or sprouts called "slips" produced from the roots of the previous season's crop and from vine cuttings. If choosing slips, be sure to ask for "certified" slips to avoid plant diseases. Being one of our warm season crops, sweet potatoes are extremely susceptible to frost, so they should be planted well after the last threat of frost in spring. Generally speaking, these plants are not very susceptible to insects or disease, making it a great crop for home gardens.
Sweet potatoes should be grown in ridged planting beds 12 inches wide and 8 to 10 inches tall. Plant after soils have warmed to at least 65°F and all danger of spring frost has passed. In Walker County, sweet potato slips can be transplanted from early May through early June. Plant slips with the cut end down 4 to 5 inches deep and 9 to 15 inches apart. Rows should be 3 to 4 feet apart. Planting slips farther apart in a row will often provide a gardener with an earlier harvest or larger sweet potato roots.
Proper nutrient management begins with a soil test. Test results will include recommendations for fertilizer application rates. In the absence of a soil test, apply 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 15 per 1,000 square feet and incorporate prior to ridge formation and planting. Your sweet potatoes can be side dressed with an additional 15 pounds of 5-10-10 a few weeks after planting.
One of the most common questions that I receive as an Extension Agent concerning sweet potatoes is “When can I harvest them? Sweet potatoes (unlike many of our other typical garden vegetables) don’t truly “mature”. They form their edible tubors early on during the growning season and they continue to enlarge throughout the season, but as mentioned before, sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures, so harvest should occur well before cold temperatures begin to set in, certainly ahead of first frost. The tubers generally begin to mature after about 90 days and should peak by 120 days after planting. Harvest before frost because cool soil temperatures can reduce the quality and storage life of the tubors. When harvesting, it is best to cut and remove the vines before digging; be gentle while digging due to the soft, thin skins of fresh tubers.
Lastly, one of the most important things to remember is that you can grow some of the best potatoes in the county, but if not cured and stored properly, you will lose them to various rots and other quality reducing factors. Sweet potatoes should be cured to heal wounds and to convert some of the starch in the roots to sugar. The optimal conditions for curing are to expose the roots to 85 °F and 90-percent humidity for one week. Few home gardeners can supply these conditions, so place the sweet potatoes in the warmest room in the house, usually the kitchen, or in a warm outside storage shed for 7-10 days. No curing will occur at temperatures below 70 °F. After the curing period, never refrigerate sweet potatoes but keep them stored in a cool, dry, dark place where temperatures will not drop below 50 °F.