Growing Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) were never one of my favorite foods… until I grew and ate one. It was a transformational experience. An entirely different experience from store-bought. If you’ve never had nor liked white sweet potatoes, grow one and try it. Or if you have to load marshmallows on top to get the orange ones down, you won’t need that gook with home grown. 

And by the way, what you find in a US chain store are all sweet potatoes, although the USDA calls the yellow ones yams just to make them different. A true yam has a rough bark-like skin and is an African dietary staple.

I put them in curries, steam them and top with a little vegan butter, cinnamon, chili-con-limon, a very light sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of lime. I eat them here, I eat them there….. anyway, you get the picture. Not only are they low in fat and heavy in beta carotene, but people who eat a lot of healthy starches such as sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, potatoes, etc. have fewer chronic illnesses. Just don’t load the starch down with salt and fat.

Sprouting and growing your own sweet potato is different from growing the common potato, which is a swollen tuber in the solanaceae family. Sweet potatoes are tropical vines that need sunshine and warmth, and a lot of room to spread.  Give them space or provide a support because the vines can sprawl ten feet. The shiny leaves, unlike potatoes, are edible and very decorative.  You can grow them in large pots in the house as long as you have space for the vines (up and over the window?). The flowers are pretty, too. 

There are all kinds of sweet potatoes and crosses: purple inside, purple outside,yellow, orange,
white and combinations thereof. They are all delicious. Some grow with clumps of potatoes directly under the plant, and some spread out and grow  wherever the vine roots. You can grow them inside or outside, as long as they have warm soil and sunshine. For warmer areas, plant slips out in May or June. Its extremely easy to grow sweet potatoes. Here are some options:

Buy an organic sweet potato and keep it in a warm, dry, semi-dark place until you  begin to see it sprout.  Allow these slips to grow until they are several inches long. Then give them a gentle pull; if they come off easily they are ready to root. You can keep sprouting from that potato, or just eat it. Put the slips in a glass of water in a bright window for a few days and you’ll see them begin to root. After that they are ready to plant.

Or, take your organic sweet potato and cut it into wedges about an inch long. Suspend the chunk, cut-end down, over a glass of water so that the bottom is wet but the piece isn’t submerged. Do this by sticking three toothpicks around the sweet potato so that the toothpicks are over the edge of the glass. Many sprouts can come from a chunk, so you can keep harvesting until the base starts to go bad. Follow the directions above for removing the slip, rooting and planting it.

What you don’t want to do is to bury an entire sweet potato. It might sprout, but the plant will have all the nourishment it needs from the big potato and won’t form many if any new ones. By planting slips you are forcing the plant to grow storage units, or sweet potatoes.  

Be sure they are planted where the soil is well-draining, and watch out for animals in your area because sweet potatoes are very yummy to everyone.  The soil should be enriched with compost, but not straight manure. Give the tubers a fighting chance by gently loosening up the soil under and around the planting hole with a garden fork. Remove any visible rocks or stones that might misshape or injure the tubers.

If you live where you can plant bananas outside, sweet potatoes are a great companion plant in a banana circle/guild. I’ve planted them as a groundcover (and choosing those varieties that root directly under the center, planted them in gopher cages). They are very ornamental.

 In the right conditions you can grow sweet potatoes year round inside. Sweet potatoes want warmth so they are ideally suited to being planted indoors in areas where there are short summers. This is an excellent use for old fishtanks. 

In the fall the vines will die off, and that is when you dig up the roots and enjoy them! Now you cure them – an important step for flavor development. Be sure that the roots are dry on the outside and keep in place at about 85F – 95F with a lot of humidity – about 80%, for five – ten days. They will develop a thicker skin, have a deeper flavor and be better keepers.  Keep one for resprouting.

So sprout and grow your own, and don’t keep them just for Thanksgiving. Bake them like a regular potato and really enjoy a fabulously healthy meal. And maybe you’ll find one that looks like a walrus.

 

 

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