If you’ve been enjoying the growth of standard summer crops this year, you may have a hankering to try something a little different next season. Sweet potatoes are much-loved but can be a finicky crop to grow at home, especially in cooler growing regions like Long Island. Here are some of my best tips and tricks from years of trial and error. Let my mistakes serve as your what-not-to-do guide!
Trellising: While not a conventional trellised crop, keeping sweet potato vines on a trellis, garden border fence, or even in a hanging pot can save space on these notorious space-hogs. Trellising makes the resulting tubers larger when there is a shorter growing season. By not setting down as many roots, those that do establish, produce larger potatoes in a shorter timeframe. The vines themselves are aesthetically pleasing, with pretty purple and white flowers, so they are decorative as well.
Use grow pots: Nurseries have realized that many people want to grow sweet potatoes at home, but few have acres to dedicate to a single crop, and home gardeners enjoy growing various vegetables. The result has been the development of pot-friendly varieties of sweet potatoes, and grow pots are the perfect vessel. Because the plant isn’t able to set down new tubers, pots encourage the plant to concentrate its growing energy. The openings on the side of the grow pots let you check on growth and harvest as-needed. This allows the plant to keep producing post-harvest, instead of pulling up the whole vine at once. The biggest bonus is that the pots eliminate hours of back-breaking harvesting.
Watch the weather: Here on Long Island, we love to talk about the weather because it can be unpredictable, particularly during spring and early fall. It’s also really important when it comes to vegetable gardens. It is critical to pull all sweet potatoes before the first frost. While they typically go deep, any near the surface (typically the oldest and largest) will get frostbite.
Be careful at harvest time: Sweet potatoes like to grow deep, sometimes more than 6 inches below the soil surface. Be sure to dig up the entire planting area to make sure you don’t miss any. Use a gentle hand when harvesting. Even garden gloves with grip support may tear the skin until the potatoes have cured. Don’t use any tool, otherwise you’re likely to lose a lot of your harvest to damage. For curing, place in a single layer, not touching, in a paper bag. Let them sit at least a few days for enhanced sweetness; otherwise, they can be eaten right away!