I had my first attempt at growing sweet potatoes last year (2013). Up until then I had been put off on the assumption that they are ‘incredibly difficult’ to grow. For those who are unfamiliar, sweet potatoes apparently cannot be grown in the same way as normal potatoes – i.e. simply planted into the ground and left to get on with it – and instead require the specialist cultivation of special seedlings known as ‘slips’ that need to be coaxed and nurtured under specific conditions … it all seemed like an awful lot of bother for a vegetable that can be bought all year round for a reasonable price in any supermarket or greengocers. But like a lot of allotment gardeners, I get a certain buzz from growing my own and the novelty of something new – and so when I saw an offer in a well known gardening magazine (five slips of the classic sweet potato ‘Beauregard’ for free – just pay postage) – I couldn’t resist.
The slips duly arrived in May, neatly enclosed and labelled in a plastic bag, they came complete with basic growing instructions – much to my relief as, having never grown sweet potatoes before. And so as directed, I potted each one individually and stood them temporarily on the sunny south-west-facing shelf of the conservatory breakfast room, conveniently siting them above the radiator, for the extra warmth.
It didn’t take long for the roots to become established, and after just a couple of weeks I moved them temporarily outside – still in the same pots. A few weeks more and it was big decision time: where to plant them – and what in?
Sweet potatoes need warmth and plenty of light together with lots of water and good drainage, and so the obvious choice was a large container in the polytunnel, and it just so happened that I had available a large wooden ottoman taking up too much room in the house and looking to be put to good use. The ottoman was duly relocated to the allotment, where it seemed perfectly fitted to the job: lined with porous black ground cover and filled with a mix of all-purpose potting medium, my own allotment-compost and a good helping of pelleted chicken manure it was ideal.
Fast forward to mid August and a polytunnel overrun with an abundance of sweet potato vines trailing literally everywhere. Being a curious sort – and rather impatient – I just could not resist a sneaky peek, just to see how things were coming along – and oh what joy to discover that first one, nestled just under the surface of the soil. Carefully replacing the soil I dutifully left them alone, and – as instructed – waited until the vivid green leaves began to turn yellow and started to die away – in my case, the end of November. I then set to work, removing the soil and digging down (very gently, mainly with hands, for fear of damage) in the hope of an abundant harvest. Here, however came that bittersweet mix of pleasure and pain known to growers everywhere – I had indeed produced a harvest, but barely any and all rather small – not much at all to show for 6 months effort and anticipation.
Where I went wrong I am not entirely sure.
No denying these are the most delicious sweet potatoes I have ever (so far) enjoyed – firm and full of flavour and no doubt bursting with nutritious goodness – it just would’ve been nice to have had a few more.
Nevertheless undeterred, I view this initial venture as a success rather than failure – an undoubted learning curve and one that U plan to continue in future years. Just the fact that they grew and produced even this many is a bonus – given the doubts expressed by those who suggested it was a waste a time.
There is, however, No denying the fact that £ for lb these are the most expensive sweet potatoes I have ever eaten: I would very much like to grow them again but would hope in future for a more abundant and economically viable return on my initial financial outlay and physical effort. With this in mind, and even before the point of harvest, I was thinking of ways that I could grow sweet potatoes again but without the expense of having to buy more slips. I was therefore extremely happy to notice, way back in July, new root systems sprouting from the trailing stems as romped enthusiastically all around the polytunnel. It took no great effort to fill a few spare containers with growing medium and relocate the self-rooted stems using the classic propagating technique of layering – placing the roots gently on the surface and covering with soil to encourage continued growth. Kept inside the polytunnel and watered regularly over the coming months, I am hoping that these will develop into several new plants that I can later grow on to provide a further crop next year – this time for free.
In addition to this, when digging my meager harvest, numerous tubers came up too small to eat but with plant and smaller roots still attached. Again it was easy to pot these up, and they now sit overwintering in various locations around the house, greenhouse and polytunnel. These too will, I hope, go on to provide an additional harvest.