Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Tub
The traditional way of growing any kind of potato, whether it be baking, sweet or yam, is to plant slips in long parallel rows, giving the tubers plenty of room to grow. But, on a suburban homestead where the size of your lot dictates your growing space this is not always possible.
With more crops than space to grow them in we must resort to more and more creative growing methods to produce the food our family wants. Permanent beds of veggies like artichokes, asparagus and potatoes take up valuable space that could be used for root crops, beans, peas or salad greens. On our suburban homestead we have resolved the challenge by growing potatoes in large black tubs. Actually, the tubs use to hold cattle supplements; a mixture of molasses, vitamins and other nutrients used by cattlemen to keep their stock healthy (as seen in this image).
My friend and cattleman, Bill uses about a dozen of these supplement tubs each year and this is the basis of my “potted” potato patch. When the potatoes are harvested, the tubs are cleaned and stored away over the winter, leaving plenty of garden space for other crops.
A few years ago Bill gave me about 10 of these tubs, which measure 24” in diameter and are about 2 feet deep. To make them useable as a planter I drilled drain holes around the bottom every few inches using my 1-inch flat drill bit. When I’m ready to plant my spuds I fill the tub with a mix of good garden soil, well rotted compost and potting soil. Potatoes like a loamy, well-drained soil that is not too rich, which causes the plant to grow more foliage than spuds. As I stir up the mixture I remove any rocks or hard lumpy soil that can damage the growing potatoes.
I plant started sprouts that have been rooted in the house for a few weeks. To do this simply let a sweet potato sprout. When the sprouts are about 6-inches long gently remove them and place in a jar of water. Put the jar in a sunny place where it will be warm. When the sprout has grown roots it is ready to plant. You can also plant slips cut from a whole sweet potato, but make sure there are a few eyes on each slip so it will sprout.
Sweet potatoes are different from tubers like russets, Yukon gold or rose potatoes that are planted deep in a trench and mounded with soil as the plant grows taller to set the potatoes. Sweet potatoes grow down into the soil and set their potatoes from the roots.
We plant 3 rooted sprouts per tub and keep them evenly moist until they are well established, after a few weeks we water once a week. Sweet potatoes love warm weather and do well in our area even when the temperature pushes above 95. As the growing season goes on we add more compost to the tubs which helps fertilize the plants.
When the leaves and vines have begun to wither and turn yellow your sweet potatoes are ready to harvest. Most sweet potatoes reach maturity in 100 to 150 days. We grow the Beauregard variety which is a deep orange, moist-fleshed sweet potato that is ready in about 100 days. The tub grown sweet potatoes are a breeze to harvest too. All we have to do is tip the tub over and out rolls our bounty of spuds, perfect and unblemished. All tubers should be harvested before the cold weather or frost sets in; tubers are damaged by freezing or cold weather.
Once harvested and cleaned of any clinging dirt our spuds are ready to be cured for winter store. To do this we dry and harden our sweet potatoes by leaving them in the warm sun for several hours after harvesting. Next, they are moved to a dark, humid place, usually about 80 to 85 degrees for 10 to 15 days. Now they are cured enough to be stored in a dry cool place for the winter. Properly cured sweet potatoes will last for about 4 to 6 months or they can be frozen, dried or canned for longer storage.
We eat many more sweet potatoes during the winter than we do any other kind of spud. They are sweet, creamy and full of healthy vitamins and nutrients with less starch than regular baking potatoes. Many times we just bake them like a russet then add a bit of butter and salt and pepper. But, our favorite dish is baked with butter and brown sugar. To make this dish: peel and cut sweet potatoes into large chunks (one per person); melt 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter per potato used and pour over potatoes, toss to coat well. Sprinkle with brown sugar, about a tablespoon or two and dust with cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice. Now pop in a 350 oven and bake until done. They make the perfect side dish to any fall meal.