I cannot think of a more rewarding vegetable. The tubers (roots) and leaves can be prepared in a variety of ways for delicious and nutritious side dishes and who can resist a sweet potato pie. However, the culinary value is just one of the rewards for growing them in your garden.
Sweet potatoes are easy to grow because they can thrive in our Houston summer heat, they grow fast, they are not bothered by a lot of diseases or insects, and thus they make a great ground cover for raised beds to keep weeds under control and once established they can tolerate less water than other summer vegetables. There are a few steps you should take when planting them to maximize your yield.
First choose a variety that grows well in Houston. The most popular and best variety for Houston is “Beauregard” because it is resistant or tolerant to white grub and soil pox and is high yielding and stores well. Another popular variety is “Georgia Jet” which is known for rose skin and orange flesh.
First step is preparing the raised bed. Push the soil to the center from both sides to create a horizontal super mound. In the center of the mound, make a trough and mix in a little Micro-life or other organic fertilizer. Plant healthy slips every 9 inches and slightly alternating them to the side of the raised hill. Bury them so that only the green part of the stem and leaves are above soil level. Carefully water each slip thoroughly. Next, the troughs on each side of the mound should be covered with newspaper (no slippery ad sheets) and filled with mulch. Use alfalfa hay, pine needles, or oak leaves. Keep the entire bed thoroughly watered and moist until the slips show signs of new growth. They will probably need watering every day for a couple of weeks. After established, you can reduce the watering to probably once a week. The mulched troughs on both sides of the center mound keep the vines off the soil which keeps them from rooting along the stem and thus makes for larger tubers. Sweet potatoes should be ready for harvest in 90 – 100 days, so keep track of the date you plant them.
There are a few steps you should take to harvest them.
- After carefully digging the tubers with a tined tool to keep from damaging the skin, cut the vines off and gently wash the tubers and dry them in a sunny location.
- To get them at their best flavor, you must cure them at around 80 to 95 degrees for a few weeks. A warm place to consider is in a box lined with newspapers on top of a refrigerator. Be sure to protect from insects.
- Next, put them in a cool storage place (55-60 degrees) for a few weeks. A cool closet or cupboard will do. Again, protect from insects.
- Check regularly and remove any that show signs of rot. Do NOT put them in the refrigerator because they rot in cold conditions. According to LSU Ag Center, storing the tubers for 6 to 8 weeks, further develops the sugars and maltose sugar-creating enzyme.
- Baking at 350-375 degrees also helps the enzyme to kick in to give the sweet potato a sweeter taste.
You do not have to wait for the tubers to mature to harvest edibles from your sweet potato plants. You can harvest four inches of vine tips and cook them like spinach. You should limit harvesting the vine tips to 3 times during the season or the tubers will suffer. To give the leaves a little flavor, try frying some onions or garlic and then saute the leaves until soft like spinach and you might like adding Balsamic vinegar or cooked tomatoes for more flavor.
There are a variety of ways to serve sweet potatoes. The most common is bake or boil them and make sweet potato salad or sweet potato pie. Oven fries – chips tossed in vegetable oil and baked or cut and deep fried like Irish French fries are becoming more popular.
Keep sweet potatoes at the top of your favorite vegetable list. They are worth the effort.