Sweet Potatoes LOVE Florida’s smoldering heat and humidity, making them one of the few perennial vegetables that can be grown in the Sunshine State. What’s more effortless, rewarding, sustainable, and delicious than growing a crop that thrives in our hot weather, requires little water, is resistant to most pests and stores for months?
Known for their colorful and tasty tubers, the vibrant flesh is an excellent source of vitamin A and vitamin C. Although they require a long growing season, you will be rewarded greatly for your patience. The leaves of the sweet potato plant are also edible and highly nutritious. They make a great addition to smoothies and salads, especially during the summer months when most other greens aren’t in season.
There are two ways to start growing your own sweet potatoes. The first is to grow new sweet potatoes from an old sweet potato, also known as a “slip.” You know that gnarly potato that’s sprouting “eyes” in your pantry and scaring your guests? Well, that can be planted in the dirt and grow more potatoes. Just make sure to start with an organic sweet potato, because non-organic varieties are treated with sprout-suppressing chemicals.
The second option to start growing sweet potatoes is to root a cutting from an existing sweet potato vine. For my first season, I was gifted some cuttings from the nursery where I purchased my organic soil. When I told the gentleman who worked there that I wanted to grow sweet potatoes, he snipped 8 pieces off of his flourishing plant, and told me to root them in water for a few days before planting outside.
If you choose to grow your own slips, wait for it to get about 6 to 8 inches long on the mature potato it sprouted from. Once it’s long enough, trim the slips from the old potato, and put them in cups filled with a few inches of water on a window sill.
In just a few days, you’ll notice roots starting to emerge. After they’ve rooted for 4-5 days, it’s time to plant the slips outside. My raised bed measures 3×8, so I plant them in a single row down the middle of the bed with 12 to 14 inches between each slip. If you have room for more than one row, space the rows 4 feet apart.
Sweet potatoes grow best in rich, crumbly soils that drain well. The crop needs full sun for best growth. Be sure to give them plenty of room to grow because the vines spread quickly, taking over anything in their path.
Nearly four months (100 days) after planting, your sweet potatoes will be ready to harvest. The tubers will be very fragile. Gently remove them with your hands and do not wash off the dirt. Let them dry in the shade for two weeks to “cure.” You can eat them fresh out of the ground, but it won’t taste like you’d expect them to. The curing process allows some of the starch in the roots to convert to sugar and develop their sweetness. It also helps them develop thick skins needed for long-term storage. The ideal conditions for curing sweet potatoes is roughly 85°F with high humidity.
Once your sweet potatoes are done curing, store them in a cool, dry pantry, but not the refrigerator. Storing your sweet potatoes at temperatures below 50°F can cause them to have an off flavor, or worse, rot.
After your harvest, clip some cuttings, and root them to create new plants. Alternatively, you can set aside the gnarliest tubers to sprout for next season. This will keep your supply going year-round. Once you’ve started growing sweet potatoes, you’ll have everything you need to grow them year after year.
Planting Time: Perennial in Florida (ex: Plant in June to harvest in October)
Spacing: plant slips/cuttings 12 to 14 inches apart, space rows 4 feet apart
Soil: rich, crumbly, well-draining; does not need to be overly rich or amended with fertilizer.
Sunlight: Full Sun; can grow in part shade but full sun is best.
Water: Keep Moist. Usually FL’s summer showers are sufficient.