The rainy season has settled in, full force, and the heat of the summer is taking hold. Folks will flock to Florida for their summer vacations but to many of us who live here year round, we wonder why. The bugs are big, the sun is relentless, and the heat can easily overwhelm a native Floridian, let alone a visitor. The bugs, heat, and sun are also three big contenders for reasons to put the garden to bed for the summer. No doubt, there is a benefit to letting the soil rest while we, ourselves, take a rest. Pile on the compost, cover the area, and let it sit until the fall. Grab some lemonade and a seed catalog and dream of all that will thrive come fall and winter. Yet, there is another option for the Florida garden in the summer. One of my favorites: sweet potatoes!
From the get-go, they are easy. Take a single, organic sweet potato and cut it into large chunks. Skewer the chunks with toothpicks and submerge ½ of the chunk in water. Keep them in a sunny window until a number of stems have sprouted. Pick the sprouts off, place them in water, and allow roots to grow. In no time they will be ready for the outdoors; the piece you plant is known as a ‘slip’. Unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes grow like a vine and make a great ground cover. They require very little water, which makes caring for them easier and is a plus in terms of conserving water. Throughout the summer it would be best to water them, deeply, once per week. Watering is best done early in the morning or late in the day to avoid evaporation. They are also amenable to sandy soil, and can be grown in areas where the soil is less than ideal for other vegetables. A nice sprinkling of compost when you plant them should be the only amending the soil needs while they grow. Sweet potatoes are one plant that I do pay attention to spacing requirements for when planting, because the vines need room to spread out and the potatoes need space to grow. I like to plant one slip every foot or 18 inches.
Within three to four months the sweet potatoes should be ready to harvest. Checking the size of the potatoes is an easy way to determine if they are ready to harvest. If they seem a good size for eating and the bugs have not found them, then call it a success and harvest! Carefully dig them up, and leave them to cure so that they will not rot. Curing is an easy process, whereby you keep them in a warm and dry place for seven to ten days. A box lined with newspaper is easy to make and a good way to store them during curing. Although you can use sweet potatoes right away it is best to let them cure as the process also helps the sugars to develop.
There are many recipes out there, from sweet to savory, making them a favorite of many folks. I strongly encourage you to give them a try as it’s nice to have a fall harvest of homegrown sweet potatoes as the cooler weather begins. For more information, there are online and print resources as well as our local experts at the Duval County Extension Office. Happy Gardening!