In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2013
Regional Report

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Sweet potatoes are one of the easiest and most healthful of all garden crops to grow.

How Sweet It Is

Once relegated to the Thanksgiving dinner table, sweet potatoes are more often finding their way onto our plates year-round, and not just for their wonderful flavor. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A, in the form of beta-carotene, as well as vitamin C, plus many other nutrients. For something that tastes so rich and sweet, you might be surprised to find that they help stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance -- but only if you eat them simply roasted, steamed, or boiled, then served with a bit of butter -- no marshmallows!

Although the average annual American consumption of sweet potatoes declined from its high in the 1940s, there has recently been a resurgence in its popularity as we better understand not only the many nutritional benefits but also that they are a crop easily grown in the home garden. Accompanying this resurgence is the re-introduction of heirloom varieties as well as those more often grown in other parts of the world, such as ones with dark purple or white flesh.

Will Sweet Potatoes Grow in Your Garden?
Traditionally grown in areas with long, hot summers, sweet potatoes need at least 90 to 100 days of warm, frost-free weather. Some varieties require a longer growing season, so be sure to choose a variety that suits your summer. Although sweet potatoes do tolerate poor soil, the ideal location would be a sunny garden area with well-drained, humus-rich garden loam. If space is limited, try growing sweet potatoes in a container.

How to Get Started with Sweet Potatoes
Local garden centers, mail-order vegetable catalogs, and specialist sweet potato growers offer what are called slips in the spring. Have you ever bought sweet potatoes and had leafy stems start growing on them? These are sweet potato slips. The old-fashioned way to start your own slips is by suspending a sweet potato in a jar of water, where the slips develop roots. When about 6 inches long, the slips are removed and potted, to be transplanted into the garden when the weather is warm enough.

Growing Sweet Potatoes
Often, you'll see directions to plant sweet potatoes on a ridge of soil, but that's not really necessary. You'll have to allow plenty of room in the garden for sweet potatoes, as the trailing vines will reach 4 feet or more. To deal with the vines and required long growing season, many gardeners set their sweet potato transplants into water-permeable black plastic mulch. In the fall, just before the first frost, dig your crop and let them dry in a single layer in a warm, dry place to cure. Store them in a dark location no colder than 50 degrees F.

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