State of The Garden Address
Making A Simple Shrub

How (Not) To Grow Sweet Potatoes

A few days ago, maybe it was Friday, I opened an email from The Natural Gardener and read, to my delight, that sweet potato slips were in. I had been regretting my lack of ambition to get my long anticipated potato tower constructed and ready for irish spuds and the plant date came and went. The potato tower was to serve two purposes: contain potatoes in a small area while adding an intense splash of color to the garden.

For those of you that aren't familiar with a potato tower, it is a method of growing potatoes in a container, starting them at the bottom, then as they grow you add another board and cover their leafy greens with more soil. When the new green growth emerges you cover it again with soil forcing the potatoes to reach, reach, reach for the sky blue sky, continually sending out roots which in turn developed lots of little spuds. It's sort of an artifical method of hilling them and the yields can be remarkable. I think it's something you have to play around with for a season or two. Some varieties probably stack better than others.

I purchased my lumber a year ago but did not have the energy or focus or whatever it takes to get the things put together. Instead we picked at our little wood pile using the  cut lumber for other projects and before we knew it all of our tower material had been gone through. The tower was slowly becoming the garden monkey on my back. When I read that the sweet potato slips were in I jumped at the opportunity to get my act together.

I called the garden center to ask a few questions and learned a few things.

  • The sweet potato is in the Morning Glory family.
  • Their greens can be eaten, unlike their Irish spuddies.
  • They are NOT related to yams.
  • The enemy of the sweet potato are: wireworms, sweet potato weevils and bad nematodes
  • They can withstand poor soil to some extent and should not be doused or dosed with excessive amounts of nitrogen.
  • They cost $6.95 for 25 and two varieties were available: Beauregard & Vardaman

I chose the Beauregard. Why? Because the fellow I talked to on the phone said that one of the varieties was exceptionally heat tolerant and could withstand the Texas summer. That's saying something. Only  thing, I forgot to ask which variety it was. Once at the garden center, no one else seemed to be aware of this. The telephone guy was at lunch. I was on my own. I looked down at the two galvanized buckets of potatoes, Vardamans on my left, Beauregards on my right. I reached for the information sheet. There was none to be found. The Vardamans had a purple leaf. Very pretty. The Beauregards looked "eh" but the bucket was nearly empty. Clearly the choice of many gardeners probably better educated in potato growing than myself. I reached for the Beauregards. Hundreds of gardeners couldn't all be wrong.

I finally had my potatoes slips, I bought some beneficial nematodes to ward off evil and I purchased a couple of bags of manure. Off we went. I prepared the ground, digging and pulling rubbish from the soil. I only needed a 30" x 30" area and after an hour or so I felt the little spot was clear enough of weeds and debris to place the tower. In went the compost and soil, a little sprinkling of water. I unwrapped my slips but they were not at all what I had imagined. They were not pieces of potato but little spindly plantlets with roots.

I smelled a rat. Something was amiss. These weren't tower material at all. Michael had worked so hard I was afraid to tell him what my gut was telling me. I'll just keep mum, I told myself. I buried the rooty little things and watered them. I applied the beneficial nematodes. I stood back. Then I ran the magic box. 

Dear Mr. Google, Can sweet potatoes be grown in a tower?

Dear Overly Ambitious Gardener: No.

You can't believe everything you read on the internet so this morning I got back on the phone with the nursery. Evidentally, some things that you read on the internet are, in fact, true. Sweet potatoes can be grown in a container and the roots will travel downward but I was advised not to hill the beast lest I be left with a lengthy vine and no taters. They do not have the same growing habits as their Irish spuddies.

It's okay. A little adjustment will need to be made. We'll just have to build the tower as tall as we want it, fill it with soil and replant the slips so the roots can travel downward. It's all fine, it's copacetic, my friends. Live and learn. Live and learn.



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