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    How to Grow Sweet Potatoes

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    How to Grow Sweet Potatoes

    For many of us, it was love at first bite when we first tried sweet potato fries. But did you know this delicious root vegetable is easy to grow and offers many nutritional benefits?

    Whether you choose to fry, mash, roast, stuff, bake, mash, or add them to a soup or casserole, sweet potatoes are high in carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and micronutrients. They also are heat- and drought-tolerant and susceptible to few pest and disease problems. This article shares what you need to know to grow sweet potatoes in your home garden.

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    Not really a potato

    The first thing that may surprise you is it is not a potato. Although both the potato and sweet potato originally came from Central and South America, they come from different plant families.

    The potato is in the nightshade family, while the sweet potato is in the morning glory family. Although people (including grocers) often confuse yams for sweet potatoes, the yam is related to the plant family that includes grasses and palms.

    All three have in common that they are root vegetables that are excellent sources of fiber and carbs. However, the sweet potato's bright orange color makes it a course of Vitamin A and other essential micronutrients.

    Additionally, the entire sweet potato plant is edible. That means you can eat its leaves and stems in addition to its tasty tuber. What's more is that one sweet potato plant produces many tubers, so it is a great choice for a base crop for your homestead garden.

    How to grow sweet potatoes

    Sweet potatoes prefer warm weather and warm soil, but you can find short-season varieties that will grow in colder climates. You can also grow them indoors in containers placed in sunny spots during the winter.

    Outdoors, you'll want to select a spot with full sun exposure and well-draining somewhat sandy soil. Sweet potatoes need space for their roots to grow down eight to 10 inches, so a raised bed may be the answer if your soil contains clay or is rocky or compacted.

    Sweet potatoes grow from slips – rooted sprouts from mature sweet potatoes — not seeds. You'll want to plant slips outdoors, about a month after the last spring frost when the soil has warmed to a minimum of 65°F and nighttime temperatures are at least 55°F. If a late frost is predicted, protect the slips with row covers or overturned plastic milk jugs at night. See your area's typical frost dates here.

    You can purchase slips from a nursery, or you can use your own. One sweet potato can produce three to five slips. According to the Oklahoma State University Extension Service, a bushel of sweet potatoes can yield up to 2,500 slips in two or three slip harvests.

    You can grow your slips in soil or water. This article describes the pros and cons of each method.

    No matter which slip method you choose, the next steps are the same. When sprouts are about six inches tall, remove them (with roots attached) from the sweet potato by gently twisting or cutting them off at the soil level.

    Remove any lower leaves and place each slip in a jar of water. You'll see roots begin to appear in only two days. Place the jar in a warm location and keep the water level high as the roots continue to grow. Replace the water about once a week and toss away any slips that become wilted or rotten.

    Planting sweet potato slips

    After eight weeks or so, the slips should have leaves and roots measuring six to eight inches. If it is not yet warm enough to plant outdoors, you can place the slips in potting mix and keep them moist until things warm up. It's helpful to harden off the slips for a week or two by setting them outside in the sun for a few hours each day.

    When you're ready to plant, you'll want first to create raised mounds about six inches tall and 12 inches wide. Allow three feet between each mound. Break off any lower leaves on the slip, leaving the top leaves intact.

    Then, place the slips deep enough into the mound to cover the roots and the stem up to those top leaves. Water your slips well with a liquid fertilizer that is high in phosphorous and water well for the next week to encourage the young plants to extend their roots deep into the soil. As you weed the bed

    in the coming weeks, take care not to disturb the tender roots. 

    Harvesting sweet potatoes

    Many sweet potatoes are ready to harvest when the ends of the vines begin to yellow – often jest before frost in northern climates – or around 100 to 120 days after planting. To avoid injuring the tubers, loosen and dig an 18-inch wide circle around the plant.

    Handle sweet potatoes with care, as they can bruise easily. After cutting away some of the vines, pull up the plant's primary crown and dig the roots out by hand. Shake off excess dirt, but do not wash the roots. To avoid moisture that could cause molding and rotting, wait to wash the sweet potatoes until you are ready to use them.

    It's best to harvest your sweet potatoes and replant next season. However, if some tubers remain in the ground, they will likely go into a dormant stage and regenerate themselves when the soil heats up. As we have seen with the previous slip information, propagating and growing more sweet potatoes from your existing tubers is an easy, economical, and satisfying process.

    Sweet potato varieties for the home garden

    Although the fastest-growing sweet potato types have that distinctive orange flesh and moist taste, some varieties have white, yellow, or purple flesh. White and yellow sweet potatoes have a creamy consistency when cooked, while purple ones tend to be drier and starchier in taste.

    Here are some sweet potato varieties and their harvest time to consider for your homestead garden.

    • BeauregardOriginally from Louisiana, this popular variety matures in 90 days and can handle a northern U.S. climate. It has dark red roots and deep orange flesh.
    • Georgia JetThis variety has red skin covering dark orange flesh. It is ready to harvest in about 90 days and can handle colder climates.
    • Centennial. Ready to harvest in about 100 days, this variety has a carrot color and produces well in northern gardens.
    • White Triumph. Sometimes called a white yam, this variety is indeed a sweet potato. One of the oldest known varieties, it has compact vines and white skin covering white flesh. It matures in about 100 days.
    • Bush Porto RicoThis one matures in about110 days and is suited to small gardens and for baking.
    • Vardaman. Perfect for small gardens or container gardening, the Vardaman variety is a bush plant with blue or purple foliage, gold skin, and reddish flesh. It's ready for harvest in about 110 days.
    • Jewel. Also called the Yellow Jewel, this variety has copper skin and orange flesh and matures in about 120 days.
    • StokesThis variety, which matures in 120 days,has a deep purple color that offers increased antioxidants and other nutrients.

    Curing and storing sweet potatoes

    Curing sweet potatoes allows them to develop a protective second skin, sweeter taste, and longer shelf life. Here are the steps to the process.

    • Spread the sweet potatoes so that they do not touch each other in a warm location (about 80°F) with high humidity (about 90%) for 10 to 14 days. 
    • After this curing period, discard any bruised sweet potatoes and wrap each other separately in newsprint.
    • Next, carefully pack them in a wooden box or basket. 
    • Store the container in a basement, root cellar, or other dry location that maintains a temperature in the 55° to 60°F range.

    When stored this way, sweet potatoes can last for up to six months. Keep in mind that exposure to heat and sunlight will cause your potatoes to sprout. Also, avoid storing them near other fruits and vegetables, as chemical interactions can cause problems.

    Cooking with sweet potatoes

    Sweet potatoes contain beta-carotene, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, some protein, and other minerals. You can use the versatile vegetable in many recipes, including entrees, side dishes, breads, and desserts.

    Here are some recipes to add to your repertoire.

    For more on growing sweet potatoes, here are a few resources to check out.

    Growing Potatoes For Beginners by Laura Overly
    Sweet Potatoes: An Outlaw Garden Grow-Your-Own Guide by Cristina Santiestevan
    A Complete Guide to Growing and Harvesting Sweet Potatoes by Crystal Pamela
    Gardener's Guide to Growing Sweet Potatoes by Paul R. Wonning

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