Growing up, Sweet Potatoes were far down my list of favorite foods – relegated to indulgent Thanksgiving memories and coated with brown sugar which only served to mask their natural taste.
It took a long time to learn how to properly harness the natural flavor of the orange oblongs, which when perfected, deliver an onslaught of naturally sweet, warm, molten orange or a hearty addition to stews and pan-fries.
Sweet Potatoes are now a regular part of our existence; for their health benefits, their ease of growing and for the fun factor.
Growing Sweet Potatoes makes sense and should make the cut for your backyard garden, we’ll explain why…
Does Growing Sweet Potatoes Fit The Formula?
We throw all decisions for our backyard garden against our simple space planning formula, which I explain in great detail here. But if you are looking for the abridged version, here goes: by their very nature, backyard gardens have limited growing space so the choices of what to grow must be analyzed against these three questions:
- How much space does it take to grow vs the yield it provides?
- Is it cost-effective to grow vs. buy in the grocery store?
- Is it healthy and will our family eat it?
We score every vegetable, fruit or herb from 1-5 (Five being a garden Rock Star), and an overall score of 12-15 has a pretty good chance at making the cut.
Let’s analyze the virtue of growing Sweet Potatoes:
Most of the action of growing Sweet Potatoes takes place beneath the soil, the only tell-tale signs above ground are vines.
The vines will spread and take up a decent amount of space in your garden, but the saving grace is the yield you get from each plant – over a pound of sweet potatoes per plant!
There are two factors that need to be represented when deciding the cost-effectiveness of growing Sweet Potatoes, the most obvious is price. The average cost of a pound of organic Sweet Potatoes is around $2, not overwhelming, but considering each plant will deliver that home-grown amount, it does add up.
The other less obvious factor is storage – properly cured and stored Sweet Potatoes can last up to 5-12 months! That makes Sweet Potatoes a garden staple that lasts.
Hello Beta-Carotene! Sweet Potatoes are off the chart for Vitamin A, and recent studies have shown the absorption rate to be even higher in children. Sweet Potatoes are also extremely high in Vitamin C, Manganese, Copper and various B vitamins.
As for will the family eat them? Heck yeah. Meals like Sweet Potato cakes are a staple of our diet, awesome stuff that is easy to make.
Winner! One other factor that deserves consideration is timing your harvest – if everything you grow harvests at once, you will be overwhelmed with rapidly deteriorating produce, needing time to be canned, dehydrated or eaten.
Having some products that can store for a longer time is a worthy endeavor.
Keep in mind, Sweet Potatoes are by nature a tropical plant and grow best in warm climates. They require at least 90-120 days of a frost free growing period to have a worthwhile underground product, so do your math before you commit your garden space.
Sweet Potato Grow Guide
|Most Sweet Potatoes are started from slips which can be purchased online or local garden centers. Get your slips in the ground quickly after you receive them – they like heat, so start them in the ground 1 month after your average last frost date.||Your slips should be planted in loose, well-drained soil approximately 2-3 inches deep, 12-18 inches apart and rows 3 feet apart. This allows the vines room to grow.||Cool fact – after the plants are established they can survive without much water. Best practice is to provide even water through the grow period to prevent cracking and splitting, but these are a low maintenance plant!||Did you know you can eat the greens? Harvest them throughout the year, just don’t take too much at once or you could stunt the undergrowth. As for the Potatoes themselves, about 90 days in get in there with your hands and feel the tuber underground – if it’s a good size go ahead an pull them up, or you can give it another week and check again. I use a pitchfork about 6-8 inches back from the vine and 8 inches deep – push your handle down to the ground slowly to avoid bruising and they’ll come right to the surface!|
Companion Plants for Sweet Potatoes
I’ve spent many years growing based on where things fit from an organizational, rather than scientific, stand-point. Some years I sat back and wondered – why didn’t this plant grow as well this year?
That question was answered once I began paying attention to companion planting (aided by the book Carrots love Tomatoes). Now, I have much more consistent yields.
After seeing the positive results first-hand, I am now a full-time advocate of companion planting – what grows where, is something you always need to consider.
Growing Corn near Sweet Potatoes can be helpful because Corn attracts parasitic wasps which prey on leaf beetles – a common troublemaker for Sweet Potatoes. Dill, Thyme, Beets and Parsnips are also considered good companions for Sweet Potatoes.
Keep Your Distance
Sweet Potato vines can be invasive, not like Mint invasive, but the smothering sort. Plants that grow over 20-24 inches high are not affected by the vines, but smaller plants can be engulfed and therefore shaded from the sun they need, so keep that in mind.
Avoid growing squash near Sweet Potatoes, their vines and low canopies compete with each other and stunt vegetation growth.
Sweet Potato Recipes That Will Rock Your Senses
Sweet Potatoes aren’t just the colorful alternative to a Baked Potato, destined to take up residence next to to a medium-rare steak – they can take the lead as we share in these show-stopping recipes:
- Mediterranean Baked Sweet Potatoes: I’m a sucker for Mediterranean themed foods since the regions seem to have mastered pairing fresh ingredients with simple sauces to create unique combos
- Sweet Potato Cakes: We aren’t making cakes here, although sweet potato pies and cakes are popular too, these crispy masterpieces are sure to delight all ages at your dinner table
- Sweet Potato, Ricotta and Arugula Flatbread: Peppery arugula, creamy ricotta and flavor-packed sweets combine effortlessly on a flat bread – perfect for entertaining, especially if you grow your own Arugula too!
- Sweet Potato, Kale and Sausage Bake with White Cheese Sauce: I’m a vegetarian so I skip the sausage, but this meal tastes incredible without it so I can’t imagine all you carnivores being disappointed
- Black Bean Sweet Potato Enchiladas: This masterpiece of simplicity can be made as is, or you can make subtle changes – add spice, change the cheese, pack in more veggies – to your liking.
Final Thought on Growing Sweet Potatoes
We briefly mentioned curing above, but this is an important step that can’t be overlooked if you want to develop the best possible flavor from your Sweets. Sweet Potatoes are not the type of vegetable that you can dig up and eat immediately, curing must take place first, here’s how:
- Immediately after harvesting, let them dry completely
- Lightly brush off excess soil
- DO NOT wash the Sweet Potatoes – this will lead to premature rotting
- Keep them in a hot and humid area, ideally 90% humidity and 85 degrees, for seven to ten days
- Your Sweets are ready to eat or store!
As for storage, if you keep your well cured, bruise-free, Sweet Potatoes in a cool, 55ish degree, dark, dry area – think basement – they will store for 5-12 months!
Now that’s a gift of the garden that keeps on giving.