I’m a sweetpotato fan. My grandfather would always grow about an acre of them, and at harvest time, he’d pull a green Army surplus trailer with a white star through the field while cousins and aunts and uncles loaded up the harvest. Then we’d haul them all to the cellar.
Today, I’ve been distributing slips to our Grow Appalachia participants, giving them the choice of Norton, Beauregard or White Triumph. Plus, I have a few bedded at the office that are beginning to yield some slips that our growers can get in a week or two.
I read a plea from a sweetpotato growers’ group several years ago, encouraging people to differentiate these from Irish potatoes by writing it as one word, sweetpotato, rather than as sweet potato, so I’ve committed to doing that.
This crop is native to North America and high in fiber and Vitamins A and C. Its storage ability and versatility make it a good addition to many fall and winter meals, whether served as a side vegetable or used in a cobbler or pie. For commercial growers, this storage ability allows the crop to add variety to CSA baskets in the spring, baskets that may otherwise be full of nothing but greens. Sweetpotato is an attractive and interesting garden plant that will perform well in many gardens, provided some basic requirements are met.
Because this is a warm-season crop, one should wait to plant sweetpotatoes after all danger of frost has passed. Slips should not be set in the garden until the soil temperature has climbed above 65 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, air temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit can damage the plants.
Sweetpotatoes do well in sandy to loamy soils that drain well. While this crop can tolerate some clay content, a heavy clay soil will result in numerous spindly and misshapen roots. Well in advance of planting, pH should be corrected to a range of 5.6 to 6.5, in accordance with a soil test, as sweetpotatoes planted in soils near 7.0 are more prone to disease issues. Gardeners often create ridges that are approximately eight to 12 inches in height by 18 inches wide, as this will provide for adequate drainage, similar to the benefits of established raised beds.
When it comes to selecting sweet potato transplants (known as “slips”), it’s wise to first peruse literature from your state’s Cooperative Extension Service to learn which varieties do best. They can all be classified as either firm-fleshed (with colors ranging from orange to yellow to white) or soft-fleshed (orange in color). The former is better suited to longer storage periods.
Many gardeners tend to steer away from sweetpotatoes due to the perceived space requirements. While it’s true that the vines will spread over a large area, it’s also possible to train the vines on a trellis or even keep them clipped back within a reasonable space. A few compact, bushing varieties are now entering the marketplace, as well.
One thing to note is that deer love sweetpotato vines. After I lost my first planting last year to the neighborhood deer, I decided to protect the second planting with row cover all season long, which worked very well.