A warm, honey-sweet aroma fills the house when homegrown sweet potatoes are baking in the oven. Only their unbelievable taste surpasses the deliciousness of the rich, homey fragrance. Like so many other vegetables, sweet potatoes from a home garden explode with flavor. Oh, what great sweet potato pies they make for Thanksgiving!
And get this: sweet potato plants love poor, sandy soil. What’s more, they experience few pest problems, require little regular tending or fertilizing, and thrive in our summer heat!
In north Florida, we plant sweet potatoes late March through early June. They can be planted a month sooner in central and southern Florida. Sweet potatoes grow best in hot weather, so I generally plant them in my garden about the middle of April. I begin harvesting them in November, or earlier for some varieties or for “baby bakers.”
I enjoy having sweet potatoes growing in my garden during the summer because they have such lush green foliage to look at when most everything else is dead or dying.
Recommended varieties of sweet potatoes for Florida are Porto Rico, Georgia Red, Jewel, Centennial, Coastal Sweet, Boniato, Sumor, Beauregard, Vardaman. Beauregard, or “Mississippi Red,” is a favorite of many local gardeners and is one of the favorites in my household.
Purchase sweet potato slips (sprouts cut from tubers) from local farm supply stores or reputable seed companies through catalogs or on the Web.
Set plants 12 to 14 inches apart in mounded rows that are eight to12 inches high. A higher row allows more space for the sweet potatoes to develop. The rows should be about 48 inches apart.
You can mix in a little low-nitrogen fertilizer before you plant but many growers believe the tasty roots are even sweeter when grown without fertilizer.
You will probably only have to weed once or twice, when the plants are young. As the plants get larger the dense foliage helps to shade out weeds.
Throughout the growing season, some gardeners like to lift the growing vines off the ground on occasion to pull up any roots which may be forming along the vine. This is done in order to get larger sweet potatoes in the main root area.
The biggest pest to sweet potatoes is the sweet potato weevil. These pesky critters destroy sweet potatoes by tunneling through them. There are no good control measures for the weevils but you can help reduce the number of weevils in the soil by avoiding planting sweet potatoes in the same place year after year.
Don’t have much garden space? Try growing sweet potatoes in a large container. A container about the size of a bushel basket works well for one plant. Just fill it with some potting mix or sandy soil and keep the plant watered throughout the summer.
Your sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest in about four to six months. They can be harvested earlier if you prefer smaller sweet potatoes.
Carefully dig out the roots, removing them from the soil by hand. The skin is tender and should not be damaged. Put them in the shade to dry for a few hours if the weather will allow. Dry them indoors for about 10 days at 80 degrees or more to toughen the skin.
For sweeter sweet potatoes, store them for at least three weeks, and up to eight weeks, before eating.