Whitesburg KY

The art of growing sweet potatoes

Points East

For Loretta and me over the last few decades, a heaped bushel of sweet potatoes is what we’ve tried to grow each year and keep ourselves gastronomically satisfied from one growing season to the next.

There was a time when I needed to set out 25 plants to produce that many but, over the years, we’ve discovered new varieties that increasingly grow more and larger ‘taters. Over the last four years, my brother, Andy, and I have only put out a dozen plants to grow a heaped bushel and we threw some smaller ones away because they wouldn’t all fit into the bushel tub. Three years ago we only had 11 plants and still had too many sweet ‘taters.

I normally start sweet potato plants in late March by sticking four or five of the smallest ones left in the ‘tater tub into a gallon or so container of potting soil. By May I usually have all the plants I’ll need and enough left over to give some to friends and neighbors. In 2009, Loretta bought two of the largest sweet potatoes I’d ever seen off the produce shelf at a local grocery store. I buried one of them in a small tub and it produced plants for half a dozen or more other people. That was the year we went from needing 25 plants down to a dozen and found ourselves better pleased with the new variety.

In 2017, my spring health conditions were such that starting sweet potato plants was the last thing on my mind but Andy was here to work the garden and we had no sweet ‘tater plants. It was already late June and we had searched high and low without finding any.

A lady at an Amish greenhouse near Crab Orchard told us she was trying an experiment by pulling sprouts of some of her kitchen sweet potatoes to see if they would start leaves and roots in a cup of water. She had 13 plants started in an eight-ounce Styrofoam cup and the leaves were a couple or three inches taller than the cup. They were not half as tall as I thought sweet ‘tater plants ought to be but beggars can’t be choosers.

To make a long story short, we lost two of the plants in a washout rain and still wound up with the largest and best tasting sweet ‘taters that I’ve ever grown. Over the next two years I started plants from them as described above, the same way I’ve been doing for decades, but this year I didn’t get a single plant. I suspect the colder than normal spring weather had something to do with the sweet ‘tater failure and they may yet sprout too late.

In the meantime, old friend and fellow Letcher High schoolmate Johnny Sexton, who now lives near Berea, showed up with 16 red sweet ‘tater plants from the 50 he had found on a trip back home to God’s Country. Andy is getting them set out right now, while I sit here writing about it. I figure that’ll be my only contribution to the sweet ‘tater patch unless Mr. Parkinson cooperates and allows me to help dig them. I’ll spend all summer waiting to see if they grow as large as the ones we’ve been used to.

If the ones I have sitting in a pot on the front porch do come up before mid July, we’ll run out and stick half a dozen of them in the garden. I can hardly bear the thoughts of losing them completely. Loretta says there are some sprouting in the kitchen so I may yet give the Amish method a shot.

In any event, I hope to continue doing what I do best in the garden. I’m about the best hand you ever saw at watching it grow if someone else is doing all the heavy lifting.

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