PHOTO: Kevin Fogle
Kevin Fogle
September 29, 2014

Looking over the seed catalogues in the winter months is always a favorite pastime. I love getting to know all the new vegetable cultivars and unexpected heirlooms now on the market and happily imagine them all growing in my very own garden. In one of these gleeful moments of garden lust I decided to order some heirloom sweet potatoes for the front yard.

I placed my order last January and had to wait five long months until the starts finally arrived at my doorstep. The bare-root sweet potato slips aren’t shipped until planting time, based on your zone’s frost-free date.

I ordered the All Purple sweet potato, a traditional Japanese heirloom with purple skin that reveals luscious purple flesh when peeled or cut open. This cultivar’s vines are light purple with contrasting luminous green foliage. While a little less sweet and starchier than common orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, they’re ideal for any number of culinary applications, from crispy purple sweet potato fries to homemade sweet potato pasta.

It seemed like such a long excruciating wait until May when the starts were delivered that I ravenously tore open the box, only to find a small bunch of slips with brittle leaves, severely wilted from the arduous mailing process. I immediately put them in the ground, though with low expectations based on their poor condition.

Fortunately, sweet potatoes thrive in the South Carolina heat, and my slips not only survived the shipping damage, they quickly began to vine and take over their corner of the garden. Just this week it was finally time to harvest my sweet potato crop. I took a rounded shovel and gently dug up the plants.

Growing and Harvesting Tips

If you’re missing sweet potatoes in your garden, consider putting in an order next year. Plant the slips in rows about 1½ to 2 feet apart with at least 3 feet between each rows. The All Purple sweet potato takes anywhere between 90 and 120 days to fully mature, but consult the seed catalog for the grow time of the variety you choose.

When digging sweet potatoes, plant your shovel farther away from the plant and work your way toward the center, slowly turning the earth. With every shovel of soil, keep your eyes peeled for any tubers so as not to slice or bruise them. Harvest the tubers before the first frost, and pick a dry day, as extra moisture may damage the tubers.

Cure the sweet potatoes in a warm, humid space for several days, followed by an extended period of storage in cooler conditions around 55 to 60 degrees F for several weeks. The curing process will ensure that your sweet potatoes are moist and sweet.

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