Growing Sweet Potatoes

A few easy tips help even a novice gardener get started growing sweet potatoes.

| November/December 2010

When you’re new to gardening, it’s easy to get discouraged by how much there is to learn. Worrying about what kind of soil you have, measuring your soil’s pH, and puzzling out N-P-K ratios can make gardening seem complicated and overwhelming. All of this is important, of course – but so is the willingness to just put something into the ground and hope for the best.  

A novice gardener needs encouragement, and nothing is more encouraging than a bountiful crop. So if you’re looking for some almost-guaranteed gardening success, look no further than the sweet potato. Versatile in the kitchen and hardy in the garden, sweet potatoes are healthy, filling and delicious. They’re also one of the most forgiving of home garden crops. They will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and grow in all 50 states. They aren’t particularly susceptible to pests, and once they get established they don’t require weeding. The vines spread out to form an attractive groundcover that produces purple blooms. Once harvested, they keep well for many months under the proper conditions.  

My first sweet potatoes were Beauregard; pale, reddish skin with dark orange flesh. I had no experience and little information about growing sweet potatoes, but I ended up with a bumper crop that we enjoyed well through the winter.  

Sweet potato basics 

The sweet potato actually is not a potato at all. The potato is the underground part of the plant’s stem, which has thickened to provide food for the growing plant. The potato belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and tomatillos. The sweet potato, though, is a root. It is a member of the Convolvulaceae family and is closely related to the morning glory.  

Sweet potatoes also are safer to eat than potatoes. Though some people are unable to eat potatoes because of an allergy-like sensitivity to the alkaloids they contain, sweet potatoes are free of these substances. Potatoes also will produce a poisonous compound called solanine if exposed to light while growing. The presence of solanine is detectable because as it develops the skin of the potato turns green. Sweet potatoes do not produce solanine, so if a sweet potato pushes up out of the ground and its tip turns green, there’s no need to throw it away.  

The sweet potato does not have “eyes” or buds on its outer surface, and it is not started from “seed potatoes” the way regular potatoes are. When you plant sweet potatoes, what you’re actually planting are “slips,” shoots that grow from a mature sweet potato. Sweet potato slips can be ordered from a reputable seed company, or you can start your own at home.  

Chuck Mallory
12/15/2010 8:38:15 PM

And you can even eat the greens....

Chuck Mallory
12/15/2010 8:38:10 PM

And you can even eat the greens....

10/28/2010 9:13:34 AM

I wish this article wasn't so over simplified. I've been trying to grow sweet potatoes for the last two years. I've planted them on two different deep beds (never walked on, compost added every year as well as peat moss for added acidity -yes, I know- but so far this year was the best and what I got was small roots that form tight circles. I started some slips a couple of weeks ago and planted them so I can have slips for next year. I wish I knew what I was doing wrong.

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