What’s more effortless, rewarding, nutritious, delicious and fully sustainable than growing sweet potatoes in Florida? They’re easy to grow, thrive in our hot summers, require little water and store for months. They’re delicious and high in nutritional value. Once they’re started, you’ll have everything you need to grow them year after year. Yep, I’m a big sweet tater fan.
Years ago a friend gifted me with a handful of slips. My Mom and I each planted some, teasing each other about whose crop would produce the best yield. She planted hers like her grandparents did – at the top of high dirt mounds. I planted mine all crowded together in a flat area. We both won the competition because this plant thrives no matter how you plant it or care for it. We ate our taters all winter and into the spring retelling the story of our competition.
So, it doesn’t matter how you do it – just plant some! You can’t go wrong. Here’s what I’ve learned so far. Admittedly I’m a sweet tater novice who hates sweating in the heat, so it’s full of short cuts. Perhaps some of you experts will tell us the “right” way to master this crop. But trust me, my lazy way works.
You can get started from sweet potato slips purchased at local feed stores. Or from tubers and vines from a friend who grows them. If you’re working with tubers left over from last year’s harvest just cut them into cubes, making sure every section has an eye or sprout. Both slips and cuttings go directly into the dirt ideally between March and June. I planted some in late July once and still had a banner yield. They like loose, well-drained, sandy soil.
In a few weeks, green sprouts will pop up. Over the weeks and months they produce luscious vines with beautiful purple flowers. Make sure you give them plenty of room for expansion because the vines spread quickly, taking over anything in their way. In previous years I watered them daily. Silly me. Now I realize they don’t need any water or care. Even in the 2011 heat and drought, they thrived in full sun! I don’t even fertilize them, but then I plant everything in my homegrown, rich, organic compost.
In the fall, check on them. Dig up an area by hand to see if they’re ready to harvest. Or wait for the leaves to turn yellow from the first frost. I find they’re quite flexible on harvest time. I left some in the dirt one year until the first frost turned all the leaves black. I dug them up immediately to find they were even sweeter and tastier than usual. Some people harvest using a spading fork. But be gentle because they spoil quickly when bruised. I like to sit by the garden bed and dig them up by hand. I find it fulfilling. Harvesting is easiest when the dirt is dry.
CURING AND STORING
Let your taters dry in the sun on top of the bed for several hours (or days). If you like, you can gently wipe off the excess dirt. Just be careful not to bruise them. I find they store longer when I don’t wipe off any of the dirt. You can eat them fresh out of the ground, but they get sweeter when fully cured. It helps heal some of the harvest injuries and prepares them for long-term storage. They’ll develop thick skins that help them store for months! I put my harvest in newspaper-lined boxes, then place the boxes on my back deck out of the sun for a week. Then I move them to my garage. Perhaps someone could tell me how to create a makeshift root cellar!
Both the roots and leaves are loaded with nutritional value and oh so very delicious. Oddly, I’m not crazy about baked sweet potatoes, so each year I experiment with new recipes. You’ll find some recipes posted here. My all-time favorite is roasted! I select the smallest ones and scrub the skins really well. Some need to be cut into bite-sized pieces. I put them in a large mixing bowl with other garden goodies (onions, leeks, garlic, fennel bulbs, baby carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, etc). Coat them with olive oil and whatever fresh are growing (rosemary, cilantro, basil, oregano, thyme, etc – plus sea salt and pepper). Let them marinade for minutes or even hours. Then I roast them on a 350 degree preheated cast-iron skillet in my oven for about 30 to 45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes or so. With every bite, I’m glad I spent the little effort required to grow them!
Don’t forget the leaves are also edible. I put them in green smoothies all through the hot summer months when most other greens aren’t growing. Some people sauté the leaves, but I’m not a fan of that. I don’t know what my hens would do without the abundance of sweet potato leaves and Okinawa spinach – the only greens that thrive in our garden during the relentless summer heat.
NEXT YEAR’S CROP
Each year I set aside the ugliest, least desirable tubers to create next year’s crop. By late spring they’ve sprouted. I cut them leaving an eye on each piece and stick them in the ground. Often I don’t need to plant tuber’s because the area where I grew them last year is full of volunteers. Often I give both tubers and volunteers to friends so they can start their own tater patch.
In tropical regions they grow year round in permanent patches making a beautiful ground cover. I tried growing them year-round here, but didn’t like digging up monster-sized, tough, old potatoes. And I even attracted some root pests that ate holes in my taters. So, now I’m back to harvesting as I want to eat them throughout the fall, then digging up the entire plot after the first frost. I turn under the vines so they’ll grow again on their own.
How easy is that? They’re the ultimate, sustainable crop for a lazy Jacksonville gardener like me.