These herbaceous perennial vines are VERY welcome volunteers…all over my yard, offering a leafy ground cover I can eat as a salad when young, as a cooked spinach substitute when older, and of course, a tuber I can use in a variety of tasty edible treats.
Being a follower of the Paleo Diet, I have to limit my starches, so the sweet potato, while starchy itself (it is called “sweet” for a reason) make a great substitute for white potatoes. And FAR better baked fries, in my opinion.
The availability is one of the great things about the plant, and the reason I’m writing about it this week. It seems to LOVE the heat, growing wildly after a heavy summer rain. The variety I am growing now I started from a sweet potato that I paid 50 cents for two years ago. I started slips from it, and have had vines popping up all over the yard every time we get a good soaking rain. In fact, two days ago, I saw a young slip staring up about three feet from one of my raised beds, and went to collect it for PG, a friend that asked about getting some slips for his yard (more on that later). As I grabbed the young shoot, about a foot long at this point, I found it was attached to a tuber…that weighed about 6 ounces, quite large enough to harvest to bake! And NOT one I had ever planted. (I wonder how many pounds of sweet potatoes I have growing in my yard right now, all volunteers, effectively.)
In order to get sweet potato plants, the fastest, easiest way is from slips, or cuttings. In order to get slips you need a sweet potato – seems like the chicken or the egg dilemma, doesn’t it? And when getting this potato, you should avoid those from grocery stores, they are typically treated with a growth inhibitor that will almost completely prevent the tuber from sprouting, making it sort of a zombie potato. (Do you REALLY want to be eating something like that?) Farmers markets are a great source for starter potatoes.
My method (there are dozens of variations, all work – it’s THAT hard to grow these things), is to slice the tuber in half at the thickest point, so that the two ends will stand upright. I then place each in its own jar or coffee cup with just enough water to keep the bottom half or so wet. I then set it on a windowsill that stay warm and gets plenty of sun, remember they LOVE the heat. Leave it, making sure to keep enough water to keep the bottom wet. And that’s it. It will either rot on you, or sprout. About 1 in 4 rot on me, and no rhyme or reason to it. I’ve had one half rot, and the other sprout, so it doesn’t seem to be the tuber itself. Trust me, you’ll only need one to start sprouting to have all you need in no time. One tuber sprouting in a window will provide you with 6 or 8 slips in just a couple weeks, and as you cut them back, they will grow more. Life IS tenacious!
Once the shoot get 5 or 6 inches long you can plant them directly into your garden bed. Some folks like to allow the vines to get 12-16 inches long before planting them, stripping off all but the top leaves, and burying the entire vine. It is said the vine will produce tubers at every buried leave junction you remove. This is the method I will be trying the next time I intentionally grow some.
Even if you don’t plan on eating them, wouldn’t it make sense to plant an edible ground cover in your yard for emergencies? The make a lovely sprawling vine, and will ofetn flower in the fall. If allowed to grow, they will provide a dense mat of vegetation to cover any area, with each point the vine touches the ground becoming a storehouse of tasty tubers. Just in case.