By Janice Brown of On the Grow
A staple of the southern fall diet is the yummy and nutritious sweet potato. Luckily for us growing sweet potatoes is all too easy here in the South. To harvest the tubers we are accustomed to, we usually plant the vines, called slips, during summer around May, June, or July and let them grow all summer for an early fall harvest. Here’s a bonus for growing your own: You can also harvest leaves as the roots grow, as they are abundant and are a great source of nutrition! You can toss the leaves in with other salad greens or sauté them like spinach for a new summer green.
Sweet Potatoes or Yams?
Sweet potatoes are actually a part of the morning glory family, so enjoy the lovely purple flowers and beautiful, vigorous vines while you wait for your sweet fall treat. Now for the age old debate, are yams and sweet potatoes one in the same? The answer is, “No.” While sweet potatoes are part of the morning glory family, yams are closely related to lilies and grasses. Yams have brown skins with white flesh, are native to Africa and Asia, and vary in size from about ¼ pound to over 100 pounds. There are over 600 varieties of yams and 95% of these crops are grown in Africa. Compared to sweet potatoes, yams are starchier, drier, and less nutritious. Sweet potatoes on the other hand range from white to yellow, red, purple or brown. The flesh also ranges in color from white to yellow, orange, purple, or orange-red. They are what we are familiar with eating. The true yam is not commonly found in the North American market.
Growing Sweet Potatoes
Now that that’s settled, let’s learn to grow our own sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are grown from plantlets called slips. I rarely see the slips/plants in any nursery, but it’s easy to grow your own. To get slips, simply purchase an organic sweet potato, sit it in the pantry and wait for vines to start growing. Snap these vines off and place them in water on a sunny window to begin rooting. Roots will form in just a few days. After the roots reach several inches or so, plant them in a pot or in the ground.
Another way to grow leaves quickly is to simply put a sweet potato, pointy side down, in a jar of water. Make sure a couple of inches of the tuber is covered by the water. You can stick toothpicks in the sides of the potato to hold it up if the mouth of the jar is too wide. Place in a sunny window and wait for the vines to start growing. Snap the vines off just like in the first method and root them in water.
Once you get them growing in the garden, they are almost carefree. Depending on the variety, leaves will grow two to 4 inches wide and the vines will grow rapidly. Give them space because they can certainly fill it!
This is important. Once the vines get going, start tucking areas around leaf joints underground. These will start to form roots which will lead to more potatoes. If you want to get oodles of potatoes, keep tucking the vines every couple of feet or so. I had a home garden client once who got over 120 potatoes from two raised beds! Sweets love our extended summers so let them grow about four months. I usually plant in May and harvest in September. But keep in mind you can plant them as late as July and still get a decent crop. And don’t forget that you can eat those leaves! Another added bonus is that once you sweet potatoes, they usually come back on there on the next year from immature roots that are left in the ground during harvest.
Check back in September for a primer on how to harvest and cure sweet potatoes. Meanwhile, start your slips now. See you soon!
On the Grow is a garden coaching service launched by Janice Brown to teach people how to be successful gardeners in the sometimes difficult, Gulf Coast climate. On the Grow provides garden education for the home gardener, children in outdoor classrooms, neighbors in community gardens, and employees in workplace gardens. Whether you want a new idea for a girls’ night out, a new way to engage children in nature, or want to implement a fresh wellness program in your company, On the Grow is here for you. Your coach will take you step by step teaching you the basics, while presenting you with a fresh perspective by helping you experience the healing benefits of gardening. Our mission at On the Grow is to help everyone experience the joy of a garden and build a greater connection to Mother Earth. Connect with One The Grow on Facebook and Twitter!