Holidays over and want to get back to the garden? Can’t garden because of the weather? Here’s a dandy garden related project for bored kids and adults alike – growing sweet potatoes!
The sweet potatoes and yams we eat are the same species, just with different common names. They are all Ipomea batata, a close cousin of the morning glory. These tasty tubers are easy to grow indoors, and can brighten your winter blahs
Will the Real Sweet Potato Please Stand Up?
Like many human crops, sweet potatoes have been selected for various qualities depending on where they were grown and what they were used for. Over time this has resulted in hundreds of varieties to choose from. Some are very sweet, some are more starchy and store well for months. Some have white, or orange, or purple flesh, while some varieties are very round and some are long and skinny. No matter the variety, they grow well from “slips” – sprouting stems – started well before planting.
How to Grow Your Own
Ideally you have a friend or neighbor that grows sweet potatoes, and they will share one with you. Failing that, you can start with a supermarket sweet potato, but no guarantees how well it will grow in our soil.
Which End Up?
This is harder than it sounds. The standard potato doesn’t care and will grow from many “eyes” but the sweet potato is a tad more picky. Look carefully for roots, or maybe tiny shoots. It it’s got shoots – then you’re lucky. “Green side up,” as we gardeners say.
Select the Right Container
Find a container that will hold the tuber upright without tipping over as the foliage grows. This is tougher than it sounds, because you also don’t want a narrow neck container. You want the plant to develop many slips, and they need neck room to do this. You also don’t want the tuber submerged too much, or it may rot. Don’t damage the tuber with toothpicks either, it all too often leads to rot. And finally, an opaque (not see-through) container is best.
Prop It Up
Ideally, prop up the tuber in the container the bottom of the sweet potato is off the bottom of the container. Smooth stones or decorative marbles work well.
Add water to halfway up the tuber. In the weeks to come, add water as needed. Carefully change the water every two to three weeks being cautious to not disturb the tender roots. Sprouts will develop in 2 to 8 weeks. It may take some time if the light or heat are not just right. Be patient!
Place your sweet potato in a brightly lit, warm location. These are tropical plants so avoid cool spots! My refrigerator sits near a window and this is actually a good location because the ‘fridge vents warm air as it cools the interior.
In spring, or earlier if the plant is getting too big, “slip” the shoots off the parent tuber plant. They will readily pull off, roots and all, generally after 6 to 14 weeks. Transplant the slips into containers with potting soil for planting outdoors once soils are above 55 degrees – usually in April. Harvest as you wish, but before the soil freezes – if it does in your area.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures that I mention on my business Facebook page. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I may get a few pennies.
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