Starting Sweet Potatoes


It’s a sunny, albeit chilly Saturday morning, and I finally worked my way through all the final paper critiques in my composition classes as of yesterday’s snowy afternoon, while making a thick stew of roasted sweet potato, Lundberg Old World pilaf, and local bacon.

The rich sweetness of the orange-fleshed tuber made me remember I had one (purchased from an Iowa farmer at the Firehouse Market in Sioux City) growing little branches in the basement, and I should probably figure out how to root all those little sprouts, so I can grow some of my own for next winter’s pantry.

Sprouting Sweet Potato

I was about to get online to figure out how to do so, when I cast my eyes to the left of my laptop and saw my newest garden book acquisition: Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, which told me everything I need to know.

I’m going to clip off about six inches off the top of each sprout and root them individually in moist potting mix next to my light shelf in the basement.  Considering this is a Northern Iowa-grown sweetie, it should be a good variety for my Southeastern South Dakota climate as well.

The book recommends burning the original tuber and the potting soil as well after the seedling rooting process is over, as sweet potatoes can carry a lot of diseases.  I don’t know as I’ll go that far–I’ll likely just dump it down my back hill in the woods, where it shouldn’t cause problems.

I grew sweet potatoes several years ago from slips (that is, rooted sprouts) I ordered from a seed company–but sweet potato slips are incredibly expensive, so I’m glad to have even this few (I think there’s about seven or eight) for free.

Sweet potatoes are really marginal in this climate, but you can get a reasonable crop if you get them in after danger of frost and leave them in until right before the fall frosts.  If they come early this year, I may even cover the plants to give them an extra week or two.

Last time I planted them, I tried digging one or two in late August and they were tiny, spindly things.  Then, after the fall rains of September, and into the first week or two of October, I dug the rest, and they’d gotten really fat and happy.

The vines are rampant sprawlers (they are a morning glory relative) unless you can find a compact variety, and they crave hot soil.  Some people grow big crops under black plastic, but I have sworn off the stuff as wasteful and non-renewable (not to mention a pain to lay in our windy climate).  I’ll grow them in a hot area of the garden and take a smaller harvest if I have to.

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