Sweet Potato Vines

A New Strategy for Growing Sweet Potatoes

July 20, 2010

Some veggies wilt under the summer’s heat but growing sweet potatoes is one way to make the most of high temps in the backyard garden. In fact, many growers will need to find ways to turn the heat up a few degrees in order to keep sweets happy and productive.

The opportunity for growing sweet potatoes is not limited to Southern climates, They have always done just fine in my Central Pennsylvania gardens producing tubers that are large, sweet, and tasty with little fuss and no disease or insect worries.

Why Try Something Different when Growing Sweet Potatoes?

So why would I change a good thing when it comes to growing sweet potatoes? Because that’s part of the joy of gardening and I’m always seeking out new techniques and better ways to tend the garden.

In this case I made a few minor changes and so far I’m seeing some rather surprising and noticeable changes. Of course the full story won’t be known until harvest time when the sweet potatoes are dug, and even beyond that after they are cured and eaten!

What’s New and Exciting with Sweet Potatoes in the Home Garden

For me the changes started with the sweet potato varieties that I planted this year. Rather than the popular but ordinary Puerto Ricans and Georgia Jets, I went a bit more exotic with selections like Korean Purple, Diane, Beauregard, Speckled Purple, and one variety that goes only by a number; “8633.”

My plants were purchased from Mericlone Labs this year and that leads to the next departure from the norm. If you are used to the slips sold in local nurseries that sit in water and already have a nice root system attached, you’ll be as surprised as I was by the appearance of the “slips” from Mericlone.

Their sweet potato plants were shipped from California in a plastic zip lock bag with no water, soil, perlite, or other packing material. The plants had no roots to speak of and looked like a simple vine cutting with a few leaves and part of the stem.

Growing Sweet Potatoes from Cuttings Rather than Slips

Set aside your skepticism, these plants adjusted to being transplanted faster and easier than any locally grown slips that I have used in the past. Planting was easy as inserting the stem end a couple inches into the soil, and then I just went about my other gardening tasks.

Weather conditions were mild and we did get some rain as the plants were establishing themselves but it was still amazing to watch those rootless sweet potato cuttings take off with very little set back.

A month later I took a cutting from one of the plants in the garden and inserted it into an EarthBox to see how it would do. The weather was much warmer by this time but the cutting took just as easily and makes me wonder why nurseries always use rooted slips for propagation.

Warming up to New Techniques in the Sweet Potato Bed

The next change that I implemented this season with growing sweet potatoes was to use a black plastic mulch to help warm the soil and retain moisture. This worked great and was very convenient because a small slit in the perforated black plastic was all that was needed before inserting the cuttings.

Mericlone Labs recommended using PVC hoops and clear plastic to cover the bed and running drip tape inside for irrigation. I chose to substitute a heavyweight grade of floating row fabric in place of the plastic because I thought that would work better in my climate and also allow water to penetrate, eliminating the need for drip irrigation under the tunnels.

The floating row covers also helped to increase and hold warmth for the heat loving sweet potato plants; especially on cooler nights. The covers were left in place and made it impossible to actually see the plants, but I could tell that they were growing and filling out behind the scene.

Evaluating Results of the Improved Practices for Sweet Potatoes

Well yesterday I decided to roll back the cover and take a peek to see just how the plants were doing. It was a very pleasant sight to see lush, healthy, green vines filling the area underneath the cover.

I know it’s still early and there’s a long way to go before I harvest or sample the first fruits from this trial, but so far all is good and I’m encouraged by the results. I’ll probably leave the cover off at this point, especially considering that the vines look like they are ready to stretch out beyond their tunnel area.

One final twist to report is the discovery that unseen underneath the row covers my sweet potato plants have actually been flowering! I’ve never noticed that happening before, and here’s hoping that it’s a good sign of things to come at harvest time, I’ll keep you posted.

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  • Barbee

    About the plastic…I thought the vines had to touch the ground and the tubers grew from where it touched. Am I wrong about that?

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Barbee, the vines will take root where they are able to touch the ground but they are growing fine with the plastic mulch underneath. Even when the vines do take root I have never noticed them producing tubers from the runners, all the roots seem to form where the slip was originally planted… at least where sweet potatoes are grown as annuals.

  • Max Smith

    Having previously raised sweet potatoes in the mid-west, we now reside
    in western Colorado. Will sweet potatoes grow in this high desert, arid

    Thank you

  • Kenny Point

    Max, I would think that you could grow sweet potatoes in your climate but you might want to check with your local Cooperative Extension Service or Master Gardener Program as they will be more familiar with your specific climate and growing conditions.

  • elaine

    Have you got any ideas for keeping birds off blueberries and raspberries. I am in NZ so we are just coming into spring

  • Kenny Point

    Elaine, caging the plants or covering the with netting is the only sure solution that I can think of. The netting will need to be suspended above the fruit and also be secured so that the birds can not get underneath. Good luck!

  • elaine – put hummingbird feeders and hummingbird-attracting plants like pineapple sage, etc, around your berries. hummingbirds are *very* protective of their turf and while they don’t eat berries, they will run off all other birds from getting near their flowers/feeders/etc. my mom taught me this and i have *never* needed netting or any of that. still amazes me that i don’t see this written anywhere. try it, promise you’ll love it 🙂

  • Pingback: Growing Sweet Potatoes in Containers and Small Spaces — Veggie Gardening Tips()

  • Last year we grew a few different kinds of vegetables {including sweet potatoes) and herbs in pots on a rear patio because of the poor soil quality in our neighborhood. When doing this you need to be sure the containers are large enough for respective plants possiblel root growth and you will probably need to water them almost twice as much as the soil tends to dry out.

  • Kenny–

    Nice article. I’ve been sucessfully growing sweets for several years here in western Oregon, even though our local extension service says don’t bother! I’ve been getting my slips from the Steele Plant Co. in Tennessee, but was planning to switch to MeriClone. However, they seem out of busines–there website doesn’t exist any more. So instead I’m going to the Sand Hill Preservation Center (www.sandhillpreservation.com), which offers 10 pages of heirloom varieties, all orgnically grown at the farm. Interestingly, the grower doesn’t recommend Georgia Jet or Beauregard–he says there are much better early varieties.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Christine, I had noticed recently that the MeriClone website was down. I may see if I still have their phone number to give them a call and find out what the story is. I hope that they haven’t stopped doing business. Sand Hill has a nice selection of heirloom sweet potato slips and is a good alternative but I think you have to get your order in early to ensure they don’t sell out of the varieties that you are interested in.

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