Ask most people about sweet potatoes and they’ll tell you they are just like potatoes. Or even worse, they’ll call them yams.
The truth is, they’re sort of in class of their own in the vegetable garden. To plant them in the garden, you’ll need slips, or little transplants, to plant. You can buy them in bundles at some garden centers late in the spring, but they are getting harder to find — plus you usually get more than most small gardens can handle.
Unlike white potatoes which are tubers, you don’t cut the potatoes into pieces and plant them. You’ll need to start out with transplants. That’s where the DIY attitude comes in. You can start your own sweet potato slips. It is a relatively simple process.
You can either start your sweet potato slips indoors or by using a cold frame outdoors. If you are starting them indoors, you’ll need a container that can hold a few inches of sand or potting media, yet is wide enough to hold all of your potatoes. I think something like a disposable aluminum roasting pan would work (with holes in the bottom for drainage).
To start, select healthy looking sweet potatoes that are around 1½ inches in diameter. If you grow sweet potatoes and have saved some from last year, those will work great. You may also be able to find some seed sweet potatoes. While it may not be the best, you can also try it out using store-bought sweet potatoes.
Put a few inches of moist sand, vermiculite or very light potting mix in the bottom of the container (or cold frame). Lay the seed potatoes horizontally in the media, making sure not to crowd them too much. Cover with more media until the roots are about 1 inch deep.
Be sure to keep the sand or medium moist to get the best growth. Place the tray in an area that is 75 to 80 degrees during the day. You may need to have a heat source, such as a heating mat, to get it to work.
Once the slips are 4 to 6 inches tall, you can twist them off of the potato. The potato may continue to produce new slips. Before you plant the slips in the garden, you’ll want to put them in a glass of water or pot them up for a few days for them to grow roots.
Plant them outside after danger of frost has passed, and you could be eating tasty sweet potatoes by late summer. You may also get some beautiful blooms — sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family, after all. Oh, and this will also work with those ornamental sweet potatoes — dig up the roots at the end of the season before frost and store them during winter. You may be able to start your own next season.