sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes may be the perfect crop for not-allowed vegetable gardens. The plants are lovely, with long, trailing vines and purple-tinged leaves. The late-summer flowers look like pale purple morning glories (no surprise there: sweet potatoes and common, garden-variety morning glories both belong to the Ipomoea family). And, unlike many vegetables (I’m looking at you, exhausted and unattractive October tomatoes), sweet potatoes continue to look glorious right until the moment they are zapped by frost.

What more could we ask for in an incognito vegetable garden? Oh, yeah, there’s that whole edible thing. Sweet potatoes are, well, sweet. They’re also nutritious, versatile and very, very long-storing. Plus, these plants are productive! A single plant will produce 1.5 – 2.5 pounds of edible roots. That adds up real fast when you’re dealing with a plant that only needs a few feet of space. In fact, I’ve read more than once that sweet potatoes produce more calories per acre than any other crop. I believe it.

The only problem with sweet potatoes, in my opinion, is how they insist so stubbornly on growing their edible tubers underground. I’m not sure what your soil is like, but I’m working with the type of dirt that potters swoon over. Thick, heavy, red clay. Not the sort of dirt that inspires root vegetables to thrive. Nor — let’s be honest — the sort of dirt that inspires gardeners to reach happily for their shovels or pitchforks. This is the sort of dirt that inspires bricks. That’s about it.

So, I grew my sweets in bushel baskets.

sweet potato in a bushel basket

I purchased about a dozen bushel baskets from my local farmers’ co-op, and planted seven of them with sweet potatoes (the rest were planted with regular potatoes). Each basket cost about $3, and took another $2-3 worth of leaf humus and purchased compost. I filled each basket about 2/3 with leaf humus, compost and dirt. Then, I planted a single slip in the center of each basket. That’s it. I watered when I remembered to, which was probably not as often as I should have (I don’t think it rained once in July). I mulched a few of the baskets with grass clippings, but others spent the whole summer unmulched. Despite infrequent watering and often-dry soil, the sweet potatoes thrived.

Since this is a not-allowed, front yard vegetable garden, looks are important. And, I think these sweet potato baskets looked pretty darn good. Especially once the summer heat really kicked in, and the plants put on some serious size.

Sweet potatoes, overflowing their bushel basket

And, here’s what I found when I harvested the first sweet potato over the weekend (click on the photos for larger images, with captions):

So far, I’ve harvested two bushel baskets of sweet potatoes. One plant (grown in a shady spot, and tormented by squirrels more than once) gave me just 3/4 pound of skinny but usable tubers. The other plant (grown in nearly full-sun, and lightly grazed once or twice by deer) produced almost 2.5 pounds of big, fat, beautiful tubers. I have another five baskets that need to be harvested. Here’s hoping those remaining five plants produce 2.5 pounds each!

I’ll be doing this again next year. Definitely. In fact, I might grow more. Because, really, is it possible to have too many sweet potatoes?

The only hitch is that the baskets barely survived the summer. I’d love to get two or three seasons out of them, so I might try lining the inside of bushel baskets with fabric or cardboard next year. Hoping it’ll help the baskets retain water and slow their decay. We’ll see…

In the meantime, I need to devise a system for curing these tubers if I want them to last through the winter. I’ve read they need to spend 5-7 days at nearly 90°F and in high humidity. I’m going to see what I can do with an incandescent bulb and a large plastic storage bin. Wish me luck!

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Update! If you liked this post, you may love the new Sweet Potato Grow Guide. It’s a 45-page ebook that covers everything from starting your sweets in the spring to harvesting them in the fall, with lots of tips about keeping them happy all summer long. You can get your copy here ––> Sweet Potato Grow Guide.

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