6/1/13

Slip Sliding Away

Note to self: start sweet potatoes on March 1st.

Sweet potatoes, a fabulous garden crop here in the Southeast, are planted as "slips", which are individual pieces of the leafy sweet potato vine, just a few inches long. These days it is possible to buy bundles of sweet potatoes, ready to plant. But old timers would keep a few potatoes from the previous year's harvest, and grow their own slips from them in early spring. The mature potato would be used to sprout these vines in early spring either by:
• planting the sweet potato in loose fertile soil (in a pot or in the ground) and watering it
OR
• submerging a portion of the sweet potato in water

Either method will stimulate the "mother" potato to sprout leafy branches, each of which grows its own root system at its base. When these short sprouts are a few inches long, they are carefully pulled off the "mother" potato to be planted in the garden or in individual pots awaiting transplanting when the weather warms.

My efforts to grow my own sweet potato slips in the last few years have been marginally successful, using the "planting-in-soil" method. So this year I switched to growing them in water, and, VOILA, I have successfully grown my own slips.

I started this project at the end of February, by buying organic sweet potatoes at the health food market. I searched the bin carefully until I found two potatoes which had some dry stringing roots already hanging off one end. By the way, there are many many varieties of sweet potatoes (different colors, different textures, different number of growing days, etc.) but the most common supermarket variety is Beauregard. One year I grew about 5 different varieties, and Beauregard was one of the top two for taste and productivity.



I saw the instructions for suspending the sweet potato so the bottom portion would be under water, with room around the potato for roots to grow easily. So I speared each one, found suitable containers, and sat them in my south-facing window where my other garden seedlings were growing. And nothing happened.

Patience is a virtue in this process (or being too busy with other stuff works too!) After what was probably a few weeks, I began to see some tiny green growth. On one of the potatoes the sprouts only formed on the very top, and that's all it has done over the last 2 months. (I recently turned it upside down and the sprouts, now submerged, are sending out roots!) On the other, the sprouts burst forth from the sides, and quickly sent white strands of roots into the water. As each sprout on this second mother potato got longer, I twisted it off at its base and transplanted it into a pot with loose soil.

Fast forward to the end of May. The first potato continued to grow little vines at the very top, none sending out roots of its own. The second potato has provided me with over a dozen slips! So I consider this experiment a success, and plan to use this method each year, perhaps starting from my own stored potato next year.

I wait until the weather is very warm before I transplant the sweet potato slips to the garden, meanwhile letting them harden off in pots I keep next to the hose so I won't forget to water them. Last year I covered my sweet potato patch with thin mesh fabric which successfully kept the grasshoppers from devouring the vines over and over (which ruined my harvest of the potatoes themselves), and also helped to restrict the spreading of the vines over a large area. If you live in the south and you haven't started sweet potato slips yourself, go buy some and get some nutritious, easy-to-grow sweet potatoes in the ground!

P.S. It has been a long time since I did any posts on this blog, and I have an excuse... all my "spare time" has been spent in the gardens. We took on two major gardening projects:
1 - making our front yard into an edible garden
2 - removing all my winter crops from the veggie garden, rotatilling it (for the first time in 3 years), enlarging it, moving it, and replanting it
3 - number 2 above also lead to the creation of a new "border" flower garden, to define the new edge of the veggie garden.

The photo on the left below is a portion of the new front yard. We moved blueberries, strawberries, red raspberries, and thornless blackberries there last fall. Since then I have also relocated many many perennial herbs and flowers. I have too many gardens all over the yard, so it's an effort to consolidate. My iris and daylily beds, along with other perennial flowers, needed dividing and thinning, so I've had no trouble filling the new space - except to find time to do it all! In the end, I think the front yard will be like an English country garden. And the re-done veggie garden, with its new bordering flower bed (shown on the right below) is finally coming along. I'll be reporting more on that in future posts. Happy gardening!