Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – Sweet potatoes
By Sarah Bostick and Carol Wyatt-Evens
Gardening in Florida can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating, at the same time. If you are new to the region, you soon learn that gardening in the Sunshine State can quickly become a full-time job. While our subtropical climate is perfect for growing an abundance of different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, it also can present some overwhelming challenges.
We can help! UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County agents and staff have created an online edible gardening resource center. The website features short videos from our 25-episode “Edible Gardening Series” webinars, along with blog posts and resources lists for episodes. Get help on an array of topics that befuddle many gardeners.
This week’s Question of the Week:
I really want to grow sweet potatoes, but I’m not sure how to start. What do I need to know?
If you have never grown a sweet potato, add it to your list of easily achievable New Year’s resolutions! Edible gardening in Florida can be incredibly challenging. Growing sweet potatoes is not.
Let’s start with the benefits of growing sweet potatoes in Florida and other hot, humid regions:
- Sweet potatoes grow best during the summer when it is too hot for almost any other common edible plants.
- Sweet potato plants are beautiful! They are a sprawling tangle of green and purple leaves and vines that cover the soil like a blanket.
- Their ability to cover the ground like a blanket means that they are an edible ground cover or living mulch, which protects your soil from harsh summer sun and erosion-inducing rain.
- When you dig your sweet potatoes up in late summer or early fall, the thick foliage can be added to your compost pile, mowed and tilled into the soil, or used to mulch your next crop. All of that beautiful foliage is pure organic matter!
- Sweet potato leaves are EDIBLE!! And not only edible, but delicious and nutritious. They are very commonly eaten by cultures around the world. Do an internet search for “sweet potato greens recipes” and thousands of recipes from around the world will pop up.
- Sweet potatoes thrive in nutrient-poor, sandy soil. It’s true.
- Sweet potatoes do not typically need to be watered in Florida. The amount of rain we receive during the summer in Florida is usually the right amount. If you live somewhere that is dry during the hot months of the year, you will need to do some supplemental watering.
- Sweet potatoes need very little fertilizer compared to other garden veggies.
- Most pests leave sweet potatoes alone. That means that you can leave the pesticides on the shelf and let beneficial insects do the job of taking care of your plants.
- By growing sweet potatoes in your garden during the summer, you will have an edible harvest from your Florida garden year-round.
So, how to get started?
- Read this concise and very helpful tutorial on growing sweet potatoes in Florida: https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/sweet-potatoes.html
- Pre-order sweet potato “slips” at least a couple of months before you plan to plant them. Sweet potatoes are not planted from seeds. They are planted from “slips”, which are a sprouted cutting from a mature sweet potato tuber that is then coaxed into making a root system.
- Although you can grow your own slips, the only way to be sure that you are starting with disease-free plants is to purchase your slips from a reputable company that sells certified pest and disease-free slips
- Plant your sweet potato slips in April, May, or June. Many seed companies and specialty sweet potato growers sell slips. They will arrive in your mailbox in special packaging to keep them alive and healthy, but you will need to plant them asap after receiving them!
- When your sweet potatoes are ready to harvest, plan to “cure” them for a few weeks in a dark, hot place. This curing process gives the sweet potatoes time to convert some of their starch over to sugar – this is the part of the process that makes sweet potatoes sweet!
The Edible Gardening Series and blog series is a partnership between the following UF/IFAS agents and Sarasota County staff:
- Sarah Bostick, Sustainable Agriculture Agent
- Carol Wyatt-Evens, Chemicals in the Environment Agent
- Mindy Hanak, Community & School Gardens Educator
- Kevin O’Horan, Communications Associate