Sweet Potatoes are an Easy [and Delicious!] Addition to any Vegetable Garden
Have you ever considered growing sweet potatoes? Yes, they are technically a tropical crop, but you can tweak things just a little and grow them successfully in the north as well.
And the best thing? You’ll end up with a bountiful harvest of yumminess in the fall that’ll last through the winter (unless you eat them all first!). What could be better than that?
Welcome to the final installment of my Crop of the Week series. You can find them all under “Outdoor Plants”, then “Crop of the Week” in the main menu above, but here are a couple for you to check out: Growing Beans and Growing Raspberries. If you’d like the FREE printable cheat sheets that go with each crop, sign up here for my FREE Resource Library and weekly email newsletter.
How to Get Started
You’re going to want to grow or order slips to plant. Slips are the small sprouts from existing sweet potatoes that create new plants.
If you’d like to grow your own, you can find detailed instructions here.
Otherwise, be sure to order certified, disease-free slips for planting. I just ordered some ‘Murasaki’ Japanese sweet potato slips from Burpee last night. I also buy slips from a local farmer (Savitsky Farm) who sells ‘Beauregard’, a variety that does really well in my colder (Zone 6b) climate.
So, what variety should you grow?
‘Centennial’ is supposed to be very good in the north, and I’ve had great success with ‘Beauregard’ (other than last year when the stoooopid deer ate all my plants)!
‘Jewel’ is a copper-colored potato, while ‘Stokes’ is purple. If you have limited space, ‘Vardaman’ is a good choice, as it’s considered a bush type and doesn’t get as crazy long and viney as the others.
I’m giving ‘Murasaki’ a try this year as I absolutely love the flavor of Japanese sweet potatoes. They’re much lighter in color (on the inside) than a typical sweet potato as you can see above, although the skins are very dark purple. They are, however, very sweet, and taste almost caramelized when baked.
YUM!!! I don’t know how they’ll do here, but I’m willing to give it a shot.
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As with most other crops, pick a site in full sun. A good dose of compost incorporated in the soil before planting will make your plants happy.
DON’T, however, add a high-nitrogen fertilizer as it’ll give you lots and lots of lovely vines…..and no sweet potatoes.
You can add a bit of extra seaweed extract and potash though, as this will encourage more underground growth, precisely what you want! If your compost has a fair amount of wood ash mixed in, that’s great too, and you won’t need the supplemental potash.
Black Plastic to Warm the Soil
If you live in the North like I do, one of the best things you can do to encourage success with your sweet potatoes is to lay black plastic on your soil. Do this a couple of weeks before planting (although I did it when planting 2 years ago and they did just fine). This helps to warm the soil, which the plants LOVE. When it comes time to plant, just make small holes in the plastic and plant right through it. DO NOT use clear plastic, you’ll fry your plants!
I buy black contractor bags and slit the seams so I can spread them out. Then I lay them flat in the garden where I want to plant the sweet potatoes and weigh down the edges. Easy peasy!
Where to Plant
If your soil is heavy, has a lot of clay, or otherwise drains poorly, you’ll want to create raised rows or plant in boxes or containers. Sweet potatoes don’t do well in wet or soggy soils, and you want to give the roots room to grow (since that’s what makes your crop!)
I plant mine in a 15 foot x 4 foot x 18 inch deep box (we REALLY like sweet potatoes!) but any deep container will work. Just be sure there’s room for the vines, as they grow to impressive lengths.
As sweet potatoes are tropical plants, they’re extremely frost-sensitive. Therefore, waiting until 3 to 4 weeks after your last frost before planting is a really good idea. For us in Zone 6b, that’s usually right around Memorial Day, although it can be a bit later.
You do need to balance the need for planting in warm weather with the fact that sweet potatoes need a LONG warm period to mature, some as much as 170 days. Again, using black plastic will help with this.
When you plant, dig your holes about 6 inches deep and a foot apart. If you’re planting in rows, they should be 3 to 4 feet apart to give the vines room to grow. I tend to plant in staggered rows in my box and just let the vines run as they will. It doesn’t seem to hurt anything.
One thing you want to avoid is the need to prune your vines. You need the strong top growth to nourish the underground growth that’s creating your potatoes.
When planting, you can bury your slips all the way up to just under the top set of leaves. I haven’t tried this yet, but will this year. Remember to remove any leaves that will be buried.
At least in the North, sweet potatoes are generally very easy to care for, and pests and diseases are rare (with a few exceptions, noted below).
Be sure to give your plants at least 1 inch of water per week, whether that’s via rain or supplemental watering. If you need some help and ideas on how and when to water, check out my FREE watering reminder cheat sheet here.
If you’re not using black plastic, you’ll want to mulch about 2 weeks after planting.
Because sweet potato vines can root along their length, if you don’t have plastic down, you’ll want to occasionally lift the vines up by hand and pull out any roots. You don’t want them to do this supplemental rooting because it’ll take away from the primary vines and potatoes.
Pests & Diseases
As mentioned, sweet potatoes in the north suffer from very few pest and disease problems. The only issues I’ve had with mine are deer and voles.
Deer LOVE the plants themselves and will decimate them if allowed access (as I discovered last year. GRRRRRR).
Voles, on the other hand, like to munch away underground until you harvest and ~SURPRISE!~ munch marks in your harvest! I lost quite a few to voles 2 years ago, although with some of them, I just cut off and discarded the munched parts and used the remainder right away (since the cut potatoes wouldn’t have stored well).
To foil both deer and voles, be sure to have your sweet potatoes fenced in AND put some form of metal mesh or screening in the bottom of your boxes or under your garden. I have fine metal screening in the bottom of my sweet potato box and a fence around it now. Hopefully, I’ll get my entire harvest this year!
In the South, however, you may also have to deal with sweetpotato weevils and several different types of rot.
If you’d like to see a picture of a sweetpotato weevil (I’d never seen one before so had to look them up myself), you can find it here. It appears that the best way to deal with weevils is to practice scrupulous garden sanitation. This means being sure to harvest every. single. sweet potato. at the end of the season so there is nowhere for the weevil to live.
Because sweet potatoes are in the same botanical family as morning glories, if you have a demonstrated problem with weevils, you shouldn’t grow morning glories on your property, as they’ll become alternate hosts that support the weevils.
Again, be sure to purchase slips that are certified clean of diseases and pests, as this will go a long way towards keeping them away. A 4-year crop rotation plan is also a good idea to avoid major weevil problems, as well as helping with our next issue….
There are several different types of rot that can affect sweet potatoes. Again, this is primarily in the South.
I know I sound like a broken record, but purchasing healthy slips and resistant cultivars will help greatly, as will a 4-year crop rotation plan. The only close sweet potato relative in a typical home garden is, again, the morning glory, so it’s thankfully quite easy to keep them away from related crops.
There is another type of rot that can affect stored tubers, but storing them at approximately 55-60F will keep that at bay.
Stop watering your crop about 2 weeks before you plan to harvest. On a sunny day when the soil is dry, and before your first frost, dig gently approximately 18 inches out around the crowns of your plants. You can cut the vines back beforehand (and I would HIGHLY recommend it!) so you can find all the crowns.
Dry your tubers in the sun for a couple of hours, then cure them in a warm, dry place (at 85-90F) for about 2 weeks. After that, they can be stored at approximately 55F in a relative humidity of 75-80% for several months.
Eating Your Harvest
I love to just bake my sweet potatoes and eat them. Although they take quite awhile in the oven, you can also do them in an Instant Pot. Instant Pots are awesome, and they make life so much easier! Although it takes more than an hour to cook a sweet potato in the oven, you can cook one in your Instant Pot in about 20 minutes. Cool, huh? And the Instant Pot doesn’t heat your kitchen up in the summer either. Even better!
Don’t have an Instant Pot yet? Why not?? You can find one here.
Confession time: I actually found the picture above first, then went looking for a recipe to go with it because it looked so good. I found this one. I haven’t tried it yet, but I definitely want to!
And if you’d like a cookbook with all kinds of amazing sweet potato recipes, check out the one below!
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post and that it’s been helpful for you! You’ll find some pinnable images below, be sure to pin so you can find me later! As always, smile and have a crazy organic day!
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