The cartloads of veggie flats parading out of garden centers in the spring baffle me. Cash registers spit out endless receipts as everyone digs deep in their pockets to put simple food in the ground. Friends lament that growing a garden is expensive and time consuming, citing withered $3 tomato seedlings planted too soon and costly little pots of herbs.
Our first large-scale veggie endeavor, at a community garden in Denver, cost us nearly $100 and then wilted with a late spring snow. After that, we learned to save seeds and grow food the old fashioned way, trading with friends and growing things from kitchen scraps. Purchasing an instant vegetable garden from a hardware store is a relatively new concept, and the convenience is costly.
This year, I grew months worth of sweet potatoes from a single grocery store bought tuber that started to sprout in a corner cabinet. Those late winter months of checking on the sprouting slips sated my desire to have green growth in my life. While frost still sparkled on the ground, my little purple and deep green sweet potatoes sprang to life on the windowsill.
Often, first-time gardeners are seduced by vigorous, rambling plants like tomatoes, squash, and watermelon. These wild plants take over whole beds and change the look of a tidy backyard completely. Tomatoes aren’t pretty, and lots of folks abandon vegetable gardening after tending to a couple of tomato plants for a summer.
Sweet potatoes ramble, too, but in such a beautiful way. So many people keep them as houseplants, and their glossy leaves are a cool and inviting ground cover in any garden. This summer, the deep green “ornamental” snaking through our beds delighted friends who really don’t like the look of veggies. I smiled as I announced that the pretty plant was a simple sweet potato.
Sweet potato leaves are edible, too, so this lovely, low maintenance plant also provided nutritious food all summer long. Unlike cool weather greens, like kale and lettuce, sweet potatoes love heat, and so I didn’t worry about bitter bolted plants. When we wanted some cooked green leaves, we could just pick some. (Note: do not eat regular potato leaves–they are poisonous!!)
After the soil cools in the late fall, it’s time to harvest the delicious tubers. They are a little soft, so it’s best to use a spade. Sometimes, bumper crops make me nervous. There’s the mad dash to eat as much zucchini as possible in July, and then the endless glut of eggplant. Home gardeners are always looking for creative ways to use and preserve huge yields of crops. The delicious surprise of unearthing cluster after cluster of sweet potatoes is like the best birthday ever. Sweet potatoes can keep for a long time if you let them. I have friends who eat them every day, so I’m sure they would devour their crop long before they went bad. If you forget about one or 2 in your root bin, though, you just have fodder for the crop for next year.
If you’re considering any level of permaculture, sweet potatoes should be at the top of your list. So often, when I look at square foot gardening plans and permie planting calculators, the lists call for things that I only occasionally eat. I don’t need to devote whole rows to beets because they aren’t a staple in my diet. Sweet potatoes are delicious and packed with nutrients and calories. They are the best starchy staple when you want to grow your own food. They are affordable at the store as well, though, so I understand the allure of growing pricey heirloom tomatoes instead of humble tubers. Still, when a few plants provide so much beauty, symbiotic garden benefits, and nutrition for less than $1, sweet potatoes will star in my garden indefinitely.
Sweet Potatoes in 5 Easy Steps:
- Slice an older sweet potato in half and put a few toothpicks about halfway down each half. Use the toothpicks to balance the sweet potato half over a glass of water so that it is partially submerged and place in a sunny window.
- Watch as the little sprouts, or slips, unfurl! I like to snap slips of the tuber when they are about 3″ long and let them root in water. You can also just let them grow and pull them off when it’s time to plant.
- Sweet potatoes are tropical, so you have to wait util the soil is really warm to plant. These hardy plants can take a lot of abuse, but they won’t survive chilly spring nights. So, patiently keep those vigorous little slips on the windowsill until the soil is really warm. When it’s time, just work the soil lightly and slide the slips into the beds. Spacing recommendations vary between 3 feet of space to much less. The tubers will all cluster together, so I think it’s fine to plant them close. Mine were about one foot apart. Then, you’ll get a dense mat of green rambling vines and have less digging in the fall.
- Water regularly and let the plants go! If you want to eat the leaves, wait until midsummer when the plants stretch all across the beds. Then, pick a few whenever you crave a green with dinner.
- Now, it’s time to wait again. Sweet potatoes will be tastiest if they are harvested after the temperatures drop significantly. Long after the late season tomatoes have shriveled up and most of the garden is asleep for the winter, it’s time to dig up the sweet potatoes. I wait until after the first few frosts, but before my hardy herbs and kale are damaged by the cold. Dig carefully because the tubers are pretty tender. I like to start with a big shovel around the area with the tubers and then do the detail work with a spade. Let them cure for a few days and then enjoy!
If you’re reading this in the late fall or the quiet depths of winter, go ahead and pop part of a sweet potato in water for a wonderful twining houseplant. If you don’t grow too attached to your pretty roommate, you can plant the large rambling vines in the spring, too.
Gardening feeds my soul, and sweet potatoes feed my family. So much of what we grow provides essential nutrients, but isn’t exactly filling. In the summer, we might eat a meal of strictly tomatoes and basil now and then, but this could never sustain us. I love that something as humble as a sweet potato provides a summer of beauty and nutrition and also fills our bellies on the coldest nights of the year.