Whether fried, baked, candied or in pies and casseroles, I love sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes have long since been a staple in Southern gardens. An easy crop to grow, these delicious tubers are becoming a common appearance on restaurant menus. Whether this is your first time to grow the plants or if you have been growing sweet potatoes for years, you are sure to be pleasantly surprised with the coming harvest.
Sweet potatoes, (Ipomea batatas), are thought to have originated in Central and South America; with sweet potato remains being dated back to 8000 BC! Today, sweet potatoes are grown around the world, often called a yam. One important note is that a sweet potato is a sweet potato and not a yam. Yams are a completely different crop botanically speaking, that originates from Africa. To prevent confusion, the United States Department of Agriculture requires that sweet potatoes be labeled as sweet potatoes.
Growing sweet potatoes is easy, assuming that you have plenty of water, well-drained soil and a strong back for harvest time. Sweet potatoes are grown from transplants or sprouts called "slips" produced from the roots of the previous season's crop and from vine cuttings. If choosing slips, be sure to ask for "certified" slips to avoid plant diseases. Being one of our warm season crops, sweet potatoes are extremely susceptible to frost, so they should be planted well after the last threat of frost in spring. Generally speaking, these plants are not very susceptible to insects or disease, making it a great crop for home gardens.
One of the most common questions that I receive as an Extension Agent concerning sweet potatoes is “When can I harvest these?”. As mentioned before, sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures, so harvest should occur well before cold temperatures begin to set in. The tubers generally begin to mature after about 90 days and should peak by 120 days after planting. For those gardeners who are not very good at record keeping, harvest the sweet potatoes when 30 percent are larger than 3½ inches in diameter. Harvest before frost because cool soil temperatures can reduce the quality and storage life of the tubors. When harvesting, it is best to cut and remove the vines before digging; be gentle while digging due to the soft, thin skins of fresh tubers.
Lastly, one of the most important things to remember is that you can grow some of the best potatoes in the county, but if not cured and stored properly, you will lose them to various rots and other quality reducing factors. Sweet potatoes should be cured to heal wounds and to convert some of the starch in the roots to sugar. The optimal conditions for curing are to expose the roots to 85 °F and 90-percent humidity for one week. Few home gardeners can supply these conditions, so place the sweet potatoes in the warmest room in the house, usually the kitchen, for 14 days. No curing will occur at temperatures below 70 °F. Never refrigerate sweet potatoes but keep them stored in a cool dry place where temperatures will not drop below 50 °F.
Sweet potatoes are an easy crop that, if watered and harvested correctly, can be a crop that lends to a winter of healthy and delicious meals. For more information about sweet potatoes and other gardening topics, contact your local Alabama Extension office or visit us online at ww.aces.edu.
Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.
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