TLC for mail-ordered sweet potatoesSometimes DIY sweet potatoes just aren’t enough.

Oh, I love them. And I know y’all do too. Just look at the comments and sharing-on-Pinterest love you’ve given to my post on starting your own sweets from store-bought tubers. I’m still shocked at the number of times y’all have shared that one post on Pinterest — 214,000 times, and counting! Wow. That’s some real sweet potato love there.

DIY sweet potatoes are popular for a reason. Actually, several reasons. They’re easy and cheap to grow — a single starter sweet will probably cost you about $2, give or take. The whole thing is great fun for kids and adults. And it’s an amazingly productive process — one tuber can give you dozens more come harvest time.

Best of all? It works!

sweet potato slips on tuber

>> Check out the Outlaw Garden Sweet Potato Grow Guide for more on starting, growing, and harvesting your own sweet potatoes.

But, DIY sweet potatoes have one serious limitation. Variety. Or, rather, lack of it. If you are very lucky, your local store might stock two or three varieties of sweet potatoes. More likely you will have one option — something generic and orange. You probably won’t even know the name of the variety, which means you have no idea about the particulars of its growth habits are harvest window (all sweet potato varieties are good with 120 days of growth, but some can be ready 30+ days earlier).

The world is populated with purple sweets, orange sweets, white sweets, and sweets with speckles and spots. Some grow fast and some grow slow. Some flower, others don’t. Some are ideal for containers and petite gardens while others will quickly sprawl and ramble to cover unsightly bare ground, retaining walls, or hillsides.

If you want to dabble around with something more than ordinary orange, you’re almost certainly going to need to look beyond your grocery store.

First, order your sweet potatoes

This is the time to reach for your gardening catalogs. I’m a big fan of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I hear good things about Sand Hill Preservation Center as well. But, really, most gardening catalogs sell at least a few varieties of sweets these days. Go with your favorite or try something new.

My suggestion is to order one or more new varieties each year, keeping track of the superstars, the duds, and the mehs. Once you’ve identified some sweets you especially like, it’s easy to reserve a few of your own tubers for starting your own slips the following spring.

Yes, mail-ordered slips can be a bit pricey — $12 for six slips seems pretty typical. But, think of this as an investment and remember that you only need to buy a variety once. If you like it, just save a couple tubers. Simple as that.

Haven’t ordered your sweets yet? It’s a little late for the 2014 planting season, but you just may luck out and find a supplier who still has sweet potatoes in stock. As of May 28, it looks like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, and Pinetree still have sweets in stock, but that could change fast at this time of the year. If you’re eager to grow sweets this year, better hurry and place an order!

Then, love your sweet potatoes

There’s really no nice way to say this — mail-ordered sweet potatoes almost always look rough by the time they arrive. We’re talking toss-them-on-the-compost-pile rough. Dried leaves, yellowing stems, and sometimes stinky, icky roots.

Your first impulse will be to throw them away and have a tantrum. This is totally understandable, but also wrong.

Chances are very good your sweets are just fine. Promise.

I don’t know why it is that sweets suffer so much in the mail, but even sweet potato suppliers recognize the problem. When Southern Exposure Seed Exchange emailed to let me know my slips had shipped, they included this warning in their message:

Expect your slips to look wilted and sad after their journey — they’ll appreciate having their stems put into water upon arrival.

I’m glad they do this. They almost certainly save some gardeners from tantrums and some slips from too-early composting every time they include this message on their shipping notifications.

So what to do about this mess (these slips actually look pretty darned good compared to some)?

mail-ordered sweet potatoes

It’s actually very easy.

You want to unpack your slips as soon as possible. Seriously, just stop what you’re doing and take five minutes to give them some loving. A little TLC now will go a long ways later.

First, gather as many jars as you have sweet potato varieties. Fill those jars each about half-way full of water. I ordered three new-to-me varieties this year, so this was three-jar project for me.

Then, one variety at a time, gently unwrap your slips from their packing material. They probably shipped wrapped in plastic and moist paper. There may be some dirt there too. Just unwrap the whole mess. You should expose firm stems and —hopefully — some white, healthy roots.

mail-ordered sweet potatoes ship wrapped in plastic

mail-ordered sweet potatoes with roots exposed

Check your slips over just to be sure you don’t have a totally dead one in the mix. Rely on touch here. Even if there are no roots, you’re probably fine — a firm stem means a live slip, and a live slip will generate roots very quickly.

Then, just stick your slips in their jar of water. Set them somewhere sunny and warm — a windowsill is perfect for this. And, if you ordered more than one variety, be sure to keep each label with the proper slips.

mail-ordered sweet potatoes in their jar

That’s it! Give your sweets a few days to build strength before planting, changing the water if or when it gets funky. I like to wait 3-7 days, or until I see signs of new growth (look for new leaves poking out along the stems). Once you’re seeing signs of happiness, you can either transplant your slips to 4-inch pots for further growing, or move them directly out to the garden (once nights are staying near or above 50°F).

happy sweet potato slips

Want more information about growing sweets, from slips to harvest? Click here to check out my new ebook on sweet potatoes!

What do you think?

Are you a fan of DIY slips, mail-ordered slips, or a mix of the two? Click here or scroll down to share your comments below.

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