Are you growing sweet potatoes? With their deep orange flesh, these edible roots have a naturally-sweet flavor and are a top source of beta-carotene. Thriving in warm soil, unlike regular potatoes, sweet potatoes will be ready to harvest just as the ends of the vines begin to turn yellow, or just before frost. Perfect timing for autumn foods and the holiday table!
The sweet potato is a large, sweet-tasting root of the morning glory family. (Regular potatoes belong to the nightshade family). This is a very undemanding crop to grow; sweet potatoes are drought- and heat-tolerant and have few pests or diseases. The sweet potato is also very nutritious and relatively low in calories. In addition, we think that the sweet potatoes’ lush vines make a lovely ground cover for beds.
The only major requirement for sweet potatoes is sun and warm soil; this is a tropical plant.
Though traditionally more of a Southern crop, there are many short-season varieties of sweet potato today which will grow in the North (even Canada!) as long as they have several months of warm weather. Mulching planting beds with black plastic warms soil in northern regions.
Sweet potatoes aren’t started by seed like most other vegetables, they’re started from slips—small rooted pieces of tuber which are sliced right off the sweet potato.
Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams
Sweet potatoes are sometimes confused with yams.
- “True yams” are rarely found in U.S. grocery stores and are starchy, dry tubers from Africa. They are related to lilies and have a cylindrical shape with blackish or brown, bark-like skin and white, purple, or reddish flesh. You can often find them in specialty stores.
- In U.S. grocery stores, you’ll often find two different type of sweet potatoes: “firm” and “soft.” Groceries stores will often call the “firm” type a “sweet potato” and the “soft” type a “yam” to differentiate the two, even though neither is a true yam. To add to the confusion, it’s the “soft” sweet potato with the deep orange flesh and copper skin that we usually plant and eat. Even if stores call it a yam! Just look carefully at the flesh and skin to confirm which is which.