Sweet Potatoes – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

I have grown sweet potatoes for many years and now I would like to share with you a few of the secrets of growing this hearty plant. Florida enjoys a perfect climate for growing sweet potatoes and with an extended planting season (February through June) you too can enjoys this desirable vegetable in your own yard. Because they grow so easily and prolifically, get ready to start enjoying sweet potatoes from your own garden. Today, I will explain to you how to prepare your garden in preparation for planting, I will also go over how to start your “slips” or the vines you will use to start your new crop of sweet potatoes, and finally the care necessary to produce a bountiful harvest. You need to start your sweet potato garden now so lets get going.  

            Anytime you want to plant in our native Floridasoils there are a few things you need to do. First you need to determine the size of the garden you wish to use. I recommend you start out small maybe about a five by five foot area and each growing season you can enlarge the garden until you get to a size that will accommodate all your vegetables. Next you will need to prepare the soil for the new plants you will be enjoying. The richer the soil is, the deeper you till the soil, and the more nutrients that are available to your plants, the better your final yield will be.

            Because sweet potatoes need good drainage and most of our soils are sandy, you will only need to add enough compost and peat to make a soil mixture that will easily hold its shape when compressed in your hand (soil preparation is the same for potatoes and sweet potatoes). For most people this means you will have to add at least a couple twenty five pound bags of Black Kow and two or three twenty five pound bags of a good potting soil or peat for a five by five foot garden. You will also need three to four pounds of a good 8-2-10 fertilizer spread evenly over the top of the new garden area. Next you will need to work these items into the soil to a depth of one foot with a shovel. If you are working a raised garden then this will be even easier.

            Now that the soil has been prepared you need to either purchase new slips (small rooted pieces of the tuber) or you can make your own using a sweet potato. I prefer to purchase my slips from a feed store or garden center as these slips are normally certified as disease free and are ready to plant. If you want to start your own or you can not find a feed store that carries the slips then you need to start rooting a sweet potato now. Some people start sweet potatoes in a glass of water and when the vines grow large enough do not like to r(about six inches in length) they will cut them off and use them to start their new plants. I oot my sweet potatoes in water because this takes too long but if you have the time, go ahead. Producing slips from a sweet potato in water can take up to six weeks so be sure to start this process early.

            People that do start their plants in water can start their plants much earlier than those of us that start our plants in the ground. This is beneficial when planting time is a few months away and you want to make a head start on the season. Just put a sweet potato into a glass of water pointy side up and when your potato starts growing and your slips are at least six inches long, pull them off the mother plant then put all the slips in a new glass of water. The water should only cover the bottom of the slips. In a few weeks the slips will start producing white roots. When the roots look thick enough, separate the slips and plant in one gallon containers and continue to grow the slips for several more weeks. This will give you a much healthier plant and good foliage. Once planting season is here, take your hardened off plants directly into the garden and plant them.  

            Even though rooting in water sounds pretty easy I have had just as much luck rooting my sweet potatoes directly in the garden. Cut your sweet potato lengthwise and push the cut side of the sweet potato into the prepared garden soil about one inch. Next you need to cover the top half of the sweet potato with about two inches of potting soil. Place the other cut side of the sweet potato on the other side of the garden and cover with soil. Make sure you water and keep the soil moist but not wet. In about two weeks shoots will form and leaves soon after. As the new vines grow they will put out small roots. As the vines grow the leaves will enlarge. When the vines are about six to eight inches long you can break them off the mother plant by pulling the vine with your thumb and forefinger. Many times you will see small white roots already starting to grow into the soil. This is natural and it is ok to remove the slip and plant this in the garden on fifteen inch centers three feet apart. You should have plenty enough slips to fill this garden and more. This five by five foot garden needs a maximum of three to four plants on each side.

            Sweet potatoes like it hot so do not be afraid when temperatures rise. Remember, the tuber is below ground so you should not have to worry about your plants drying out as long as you water them on a regular basis. Most sweet potatoes are slow to put on their foliage as most of their nutrients go to root production first then foliage production. Remember, sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family and although the plants are not widely known for their flowering characteristics, they will sprawl so try to keep them in check. Be sure to weed the garden every two weeks and pull all weed grasses by hand so you do not injure the soft skin of the developing tubers (new sweet potatoes). Weed grasses have thick root systems which will steal nutrients from your developing plants so be sure to remove these weed grasses as they emerge. Some people will add straw around the rooted slips to help keep weeds away.

            Now that your plants are growing, keep checking on them and inspect for insects and disease. If you see something that does not look right, take a sample to the cooperative extension service for advice on how to control the problem. In about three to four months your potatoes will begin to mature. Unlike potato vines which wither and die signaling a ripening crop, sweet potato vines continue to grow. Start checking your sweet potatoes for proper size by digging a few up by hand. Be sure to be careful while digging your potatoes because any injury to the sweet potato can cause the potato to rot very quickly. If your sweet potatoes are of proper size, and this will be based on the cultivar you planted, then it is time to harvest.

            Try to dig your sweet potatoes on an overcast day or in the early morning to lessen the chance of injury to your new tubers. Harvesting always damages some of the potatoes because of the tools used tend to slice into the new tubers before they have had a chance to cure. This is why I told you earlier to till your garden to a depth of at least one foot. The less pressure needed to unearth the tubers the less chance of crop injury. Be sure to dig at least two feet away from your plants in all directions as not to miss any of the wandering tubers. After you have unearthed all the tubers, allow them to dry on the ground for a few hours. After they have dried, sort out all tubers that were damaged, sliced, or bruised and use these first as they will tend to rot quickly.

            Curing the rest of your harvest is done by storing your unwashed tubers in a warm and dark place. This process toughens the sweet potato and seals out disease organisms. After curing you can wash your sweet potato crop and place in dry storage for months to come. Your five by five gardens will produce more sweet potatoes than you may think so get started now and enjoy the fruits of your labor. There is no better feeling than enjoying fresh vegetables produced from your own garden so do not be a couch potato! Thanks for reading this and remember, without plants we would not be here!

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