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Starting sweet potatoes the old-fashioned way.

About the middle of April, I decided to raise a few sweet potatoes and set out to find some plants - slips they are called. None were available to my knowledge, so I went the old-fashioned way, hoping it was not too late.

I went to the store and looked through the sweet potato bin for smallish potatoes that showed signs of sprouting. The commercial potatoes are treated with some kind of chemical to retard sprouting, but a few will begin to show little pink eyes.

I found four and brought them home, careful not to damage the tiny sprouts. Then I picked four wide-mouth quart jars and suspended each potato with toothpicks, stuck in two sides, halfway down in the jar of water. Of course, with the eye end up. These I set in a row on my outside washstand and waited for something to happen.

In about four days, tiny white roots began to grow out from the end in the water and within another few days, the tiny pink buds that were there when I bought the potatoes began to swell. And others began to appear. By the first of May, my little sweet potato plants were growing rich and green, some with red stems and veins and some all green. They drink a lot of water and the jars must be refilled every few days.

After about two weeks, the new plants are ready to pull away from the mother potatoes and plant in the garden.

I dug planting patches in the beds where the greenbean plants had been pulled out, a circle area about 20 inches across and 30 inches apart. These beds have been enriched by the nitrogenfixing nodules on the green bean plant roots, and the hay mulch, and no extra fertilizer is needed.

The new plants should be about four to six inches long. If some have gotten much longer, break them in half just below a joint. Stick three or four of these slips in each hill in the loose dirt, about half their length, and water in. They will quickly put out roots and take off growing.

My four potatoes made 27 slips for the first planting. I kept the jars filled with water and got about a dozen more within another week. By the first of July, the beds are almost covered with a mat of rich green vines. If I wanted to expand the planting, there's still time to break off the ends of these vines and keep planting for another couple of weeks.

I usually plan on digging the sweet potato hills toward the end of October, later if no frost is threatened. To leave the potatoes in the ground after the vines are frost-killed will cause the potatoes not to keep well, I've heard. But I don't know this for a fact because I can never wait this long to dig them. It is exciting to puff the vines back to the original hills and dig the big fat red potatoes out of the soft dirt.

Unlike Irish potatoes which cannot be left in the sun and light, sweet potatoes need to be left lying in the sun for several days to cure before storage and to grow sweeter.

For a special house plant, put a sprouted potato in a container of water and trail 20 or 30 feet of rich green vines over a window frame. This is an old-fashioned decorating trick that costs nothing and added interest to the sparse furnishings and unpainted walls of farm houses many years ago.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ferguson, Mary
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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