During a catch-up session by phone with my sister Jessie in Montana, I mentioned I was cooking the Thanksgiving sweet potatoes again this year.
“Me too,” Jessie said. “I’ll use the last of the ones I grew.”
“You grew sweet potatoes? How did they do that far north?”
“A couple of them didn’t produce anything, but the rest of them averaged a half an ice cream pail of tubers each.”
“Mine did about that,” I said, hoping she couldn’t see the mental adjustment from gallon to half-gallon pails.
“How did you plant yours?” Jessie asked.
I swelled. Jessie is the baby of the family, and I take my responsibilities as an older sister seriously. Here was a chance to give her a little Instruction. I wasn’t going to miss it.
So I Instructed.
“I ordered sweet potato slips from a catalog,” I told her. I didn’t mention that with the cost of the slips, shipping, and the “idiot tax” I’d paid when I allowed some of them to freeze, I could have almost paid market value for the tubers I harvested.
The idiot tax is probably my biggest garden expense.
Quite a few catalogs offer sweet potato slips. I’d ordered mine from a website whose URL included the name “Tatorman.” Ordinarily, I’d be wary of a name like that, but I’d seen the company praised in several blogs. The slips were in good condition when they arrived.
The company sells several varieties. I chose Vardeman because it stores well. I might have gotten better yields if I’d planted Georgia Jets, which are recommended for Northern gardens because they mature quickly. The popular variety Beauregard is only a little slower than the Jets, and is likewise recommended.
After I finished informing Jessie, I asked where she bought hers.
“I didn’t,” she said. A few of the sweet potatoes she bought at the store to eat sprouted, and she planted them just like potatoes.
I pointed out her error in assuming the two “potatoes” were related. I’m sure that if I teach her the good practices I use, her yields will be on par with mine.
Both of us missed out on the cheapest way to get the most plants for the least money, and that is to start slips from sweet potatoes you buy at the store.
There are two ways to do this. You can suspend a tuber, cut in half or not, in a jar of water with toothpicks, or you can half-bury the tuber in moist potting soil. It helps if you keep a warm house; they sprout best at eighty degrees.
In either case, when the sprouts get a few inches tall, you can gently remove them, and root them in water, or plant them in potting soil. I have not tried this method, but I understand that if you’re gentle in removing the slips, the eyes will regrow, and you can get quite a few plants from one tuber.
You will have to think ahead, and allow yourself several weeks to accumulate enough slips and get them rooted. You will want to wait to plant them outside until after danger of frost is over, or protect them with plastic or row cover.
Next year, I plan to get slips from store-bought Beauregards. I’ll begin in late March or early April. With attention and care, they should be ready to harvest before the first frost in September.
That will give me several months to think up a scientific reason to give when Jessie’s sweet potatoes once again outproduce mine.
When Teresa Howell is not performing her big-sister duties, she teaches English at Great Basin College.