Sweet Potato Basics
Sweet potatoes are less popular now than they were in the 1920s, when many farm families grew them for winter food. Back then, the average yearly consumption per person was about 30 pounds. Now, with fewer people growing their own sweet potatoes, the average consumption is about five pounds per person. This is unfortunate, because like potatoes, sweet potatoes furnish us with energy, supplying sugars and other carbohydrates, some protein, calcium, iron and other minerals. They also contain vitamins A and C. Some people think of sweet potatoes only as a traditional holiday vegetable, but if you grow and store them, you can furnish your family with good nutrition for many months of the year.
All About Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a long-season, tropical vegetable, so it's no surprise that they're grown mostly in southern states. In the South, the plants get plenty of heat and the four to five months growing time they need to develop sweet, chunky roots. When the extreme summer heat makes the garden too hot for most vegetables (and many gardeners), sweet potatoes are thriving.
Growing Them in the North
It's possible for northern gardeners to grow good sweet potatoes (they're a cash crop for many New Jersey farmers), but it can be a challenge. The plants are very tender, can't take frost and refuse to grow in cool soil. Plants yield best if night temperatures average 72° F.
What's more, in many parts of the North, the frost-free period is often shorter than the 150 days required for good sweet potatoes. However, you can still harvest a pretty fair crop if you have sandy soil or if you use raised beds with a black plastic mulch. Sandy soil warms up earlier in the summer than denser clay soil, so you can put your sweet potato plants in the ground by late May. Then keep your fingers crossed. Raised beds with black plastic mulch keep the soil warm longer in the season.