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Foodscaping with sweet potatoes

By DEBORAH HAGGETT - Garden Club of Cape Coral | Feb 11, 2021

I’ve read that growing sweet potatoes in Southwest Florida is a “no-brainer.” Can anything be that easy? I’m skeptical given my history and my husband’s description of my flower pots as coffins! Even with the odds against me, I’m willing to give it a try. I’m tempted by the promise of a vegetable plant that doubles as a beautiful ornamental and feeds more than my wish for an aesthetic garden.

Sweet potato plants grow either as a trailing vine or as a small bush, depending on the variety. Centennial and Beauregard, two vine varieties, and Varda-man, a compact bush variety, grow well as an annual in Southwest Florida. As a member of the morning glory family, its beautiful purple and white funnel-shaped flowers open in the morning and close in the afternoon. It is known, however, for its edible heart shaped leaves and very tasty tubular root which is nutritionally rich with vitamins, minerals, and carotenes.

While there are at least a few methods to propagate sweet potatoes, they are commonly either grown from slips, the sprouts of a mature sweet potato, or from vine cuttings. Slips are grown and then removed from portions of a potato that has been partially submerged in water. Once removed from the potato, the slips are put in water to develop their roots and leaves. When the plants are about 6 to 9 inches long, they are ready to be planted 12 to 14 inches apart and 4 to 5 inches deep in well-loosened, well-drained soil. The plants thrive in the summer heat but require water every day for the first week, every other day during the second week and then regularly, especially during dry spells. The details for starting your own sweet potato slips are available in the references below, however, many growers recommend buying your slips from reputable nurseries to know the variety you are growing and to better ensure pest free transplants.

In warm climate regions, such as Florida, sweet potatoes are easily propagated from vine cuttings. Cuttings, ranging in length from several inches to a foot, may be snipped from healthy, robust vines. Leaves should be removed from the cuttings to minimize water loss. Cuttings may be planted directly into garden beds, making sure that the top of each cutting faces up, with water provided at least once a day to prevent the cuttings from drying out.

Planting may also be delayed by placing cuttings, top up, in a bucket of water and away from direct sun. Submerge the bottom half of the cuttings in the water. Rooting initiates while the cuttings soak for a few days, up to a few weeks. Replace water every few days until planting. When planting the cuttings, cover at least half of each length with the soil to allow for adequate root and tuber development. As with slips, water cuttings at least daily until they are established.

If you are growing your own slips, you may want to start soon. Sweet potato plants are a summer crop typically planted in April, May or June. However, Rick Burnette, a grower I spoke with, suggests starting in February or March due to the uncharacteristically hot and wet summers we have been experiencing. The tubers need about 4 months to develop and are harvested in late summer or the fall. Once harvested sweet potatoes are cured for two weeks in a dark, warm, humid space kept at about 85 degrees to convert the starch to sugar. After curing, the potatoes can be stored in a cooler pantry. Do not store in the refrigerator and avoid storing them with onions as the gases from the onions will cause the potatoes to over-ripen and spoil.

There are several wonderful ways to enjoy the fruits of your labor. My favorite is to roast sweet potatoes unwrapped in the oven at 350° for an hour. Wrapping them in foil doesn’t allow them to caramelize. Eat them as they are or smear with butter, salt, and pepper to taste. For a sweeter delicacy, simply smear with butter and a pinch of brown sugar. However, if you really want to go all in, try my sister’s Bourbon Sweet Potato recipe below.

Let’s hope the research is right and growing sweet potatoes is as easy as they say. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an abundant crop!

Happy gardening and bon appétit!

Deborah Haggett is a Lee County Master Gardener Volunteer and a member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral. Visit us at www.gardenclubofcapecoral.com

Special thanks to Rick Burnette, local grower, co-founder and technical director of Cultivate Abundance. Visit him at www.cultivateabundance.org

https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/edibles/vegetables/sweet-potatoes.html

https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/gardening/how-to-plant-and-grow-sweet-potatoes

https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/gardening/how-and-where-to-store-sweet-potatoes

https://www.botanical-online.com/en/botany/ sweet-potato