Published on 04/01/02

Have Fun Growing Sweet Potatoes

Photo: Wayne McLaurin

Sweet potatoes

Everyone ought to grow sweet potatoes. The most nutritious (per unit eaten) of the vegetables we eat, they convert sunlight, moisture and a few minerals into one of nature's near perfect foods. And what other plant can lose up to 70 percent of its leaves with no effect on the yield?

Here's how to grow them.

Go to the grocery store. Buy 8 to 10 nice sweet potatoes. Most of what you'll find will be "Beauregard," a cultivar that originated in Louisiana.

When you get them home, wash three of them and place them in an unheated oven. Heat it to 425 degrees for 15 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 375 for about 45 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are soft.

Cook 'em, Taste 'em, Plant 'em

Take them out, cut them open and slather them with butter. If they taste good, set aside the remaining unbaked potatoes for making slips.

Let me explain.

Sweet potatoes aren't just planted. They produce shoots called "slips" that you plant to create the sweet potato vines, which ultimately produce the sweet potatoes themselves.

To grow your slips, take the remaining five roots and find the proximal and distal ends. That's not as hard as it sounds.

A Botany Lesson

The proximal end actually produces the slips. It's the narrow, pointed end where the sweet potato was attached to the mother plant.

The distal end is the growing point that produces the roots and is usually a little larger. It's sometimes called the bulbous end. See? You can still get through a botany lesson.

Fill glass tumblers or glass jars one-half full with water. Put the distal end of each sweet potato in the water and set each glass in a sunny window. The water should come up and cover the bottom third of the root (you may need to insert toothpicks in the sweet potato, extending over the edge of the glass, to keep the sweet potato at the proper depth).

Wait ... Watch

Then wait. And watch.

In a few weeks, roots will begin to appear. And shortly after that, little sprouts -- the slips -- will break forth from the proximal end.

When the sprouts get 6 to 8 inches long, cut them from the sweet potato. Cut just above the surface of the sweet potato, leaving green stubs.

Put the slips in another glass of water. Leave the roots in place, and more plants can be harvested in a few weeks. You can add about 1/8 teaspoon of liquid fertilizer (per 8 oz) if you wish to encourage growth, though this isn't necessary.

How to Plant

Plant out the slips after the soil has warmed up. This will be about mid-May in middle Georgia, earlier in south Georgia, later in north Georgia.

Plant the slips 1 foot apart in rows spaced 3 feet apart, and let them grow. Don't plant sweet potatoes in soil that contains significant organic matter, which encourages diseases of sweet potatoes. Sandy or clay soils are best.

What other vegetables can you "taste test" before you grow them? Don't you wish it was that easy with tomatoes?

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.