Homegrown Sweet Potatoes

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Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite foods. I eat them almost daily, preparing them in a variety of ways. I first saw a gardener growing them in South Africa in 2016. I was impressed with what a massive, and attractive plant it can be! Over the last few years, I have been experimenting with growing them in my own garden. It took a few years of trial and error, but I think I have finally figured out a system that works well. Now I'm excited to share my process with you!

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In late winter, you may notice growth beginning to occur in the potatoes and sweet potatoes sitting in your pantry. These vegetables, also known as tubers, have "eyes" that sprout when spring is on the way. It can be a little irritating for a cook. But for a gardener, it can be an exciting indicator that it's time to start prepping the garden for a new season of growing!

Potatoes are one of the easiest and most enjoyable plants to have in the garden. You can order small tubers to plant, or you can use store-bought organic potatoes. I usually buy Yukon Golds. They can be cut into halves or quarters, making sure that each cut contains at least one or two eyes. Then each cut can be planted, either in a large container of dirt with holes in the bottom, or directly into the ground, with a mound of dirt on top, to cover the new potatoes that will eventually grow. A plant will grow from the original tuber, flower, and then die off. That's when you know that the new tubers are beginning to grow. Make sure there's enough dirt around the plant to cover all the new potatoes that will grow, keeping in mind that if a portion of a potato is exposed to sunlight, it will develop a green spot on it and will no longer be edible. Wait until late summer to dig up your harvest. But don't wait until the temperatures dip below freezing, as this will cause the tubers to rot. Whatever is left behind in the soil will result in new potato plants the following spring.

This is the first sweet potato plant I ever saw, at the home of a gardener living in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016. The plants can grow quite large, if left untrimmed. However, the leaves are actually edible, so trimming the plant back can result in some tasty greens on the dinner table!

This is the first sweet potato plant I ever saw, at the home of a gardener living in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016. The plants can grow quite large, if left untrimmed. However, the leaves are actually edible, so trimming the plant back can result in some tasty greens on the dinner table!

Sweet potatoes can be a little more complicated to grow. I've found that potatoes sprout almost too easily after coming home from the store. In contrast, sweet potatoes can take their time sprouting growth. While a potato is planted in the dirt as a whole or cut up tuber, sweet potatoes will grow "slips" that can be cut off from the original sweet potato and planted in the dirt. In the past, I have purchased slips from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Keep in mind that these only ship around mid-May and they often arrive looking half dead, but generally do bounce back to form plants. If you want to grow slips from a store-bought sweet potato, make sure that it is organically produced, from a trusted source. Last year, I managed to grow my own slips. However, I took way too much time getting them into the ground, and as a result, they didn't have enough time to mature, resulting in only 2 small sweet potatoes from just one of a dozen plants. This year, I'm starting early!

The sweet potato plant will shoot off vines that will root in various locations around the plant. Gently pull up these roots, to maximize the growth of the sweet potatoes at the base of the plant.

The sweet potato plant will shoot off vines that will root in various locations around the plant. Gently pull up these roots, to maximize the growth of the sweet potatoes at the base of the plant.

Here is the process that I've found works well:

Cut off the top 2-3 inch section of a sweet potato. The remaining sweet potato can be used for cooking.

Insert 3 or more toothpicks into the potato, evenly spaced. The number of toothpicks will depend on the size / thickness of the sweet potato.

Balance the sweet potato / toothpicks over a glass container, such as a drinking glass.

Pour water into the glass container, filling just to the bottom edge of the sweet potato. (I've found that submerging the sweet potato more than a quarter inch can result in a moldy tuber.)

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Place the glass container with sweet potato near a window that gets a lot of light during the day. Change out the water every other day. Wait for growth.

If / when sprouts begin to appear, allow the slips to grow about 6 inches in height.

When the slip has reached 6 inches, cut it 1/4 inch away from the sweet potato, and place it into a new glass container, submerged in about 1/4 inch of water.

Prepare your garden bed for your sweet potato slips. The plant will fan out, so be sure to leave plenty of space for growth.

Wait a week or two for the slip to develop roots and then plant it at the top of a large mound of dirt in the garden, or in a large pot full of dirt. (I buy this brand from my local garden nursery.) The amount of dirt should be able to eventually cover the growth of several large sweet potatoes. You can always add more dirt, as needed.

The slip will eventually grow into a larger plant, sending out vines. Depending on how much space you have in the garden, you can either allow these to grow, or cut them off and use the edible leaves in recipes, like you would spinach. Either way, make sure that you pull up the rooting vines from the ground, so as to allow the maximum amount of plant energy to go toward growing large tubers at the original point where the slip is planted.

I think sweet potato plants make for an excellent gift idea, which is virtually free to produce, aside from the low costs of the original sweet potato, the dirt and the pot. If the recipient of this gift does not have a yard, the sweet potato can be kept as a house plant, preferably in a pot that can hang from the ceiling or wall of a balcony.

As with potatoes, dig for your sweet potatoes in late summer and enjoy your own homegrown bounty!

Check out our video about growing sweet potatoes here!

- Christin

And tell us! If you try this out, let us know how it goes in the comments below