Originally published in Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Gardener’s Corner (a Q&A series for gardeners by Chris Smith).
I've thought about growing sweet potatoes for a number of years, but I'm concerned about the space requirements. I've heard they vine all over the place, is this true?
Sweet potatoes are typically planted in May and June from live ‘slips’ or baby plants. These slips will produce tubers under the ground and vines above the ground. It is true that sweet potato vines can be quite rambunctious, but this certainly shouldn’t be a reason not to grow them. Sweet potatoes are delicious, nutritious and they store through the winter. Add in the fact that they are the North Carolina state vegetable and they become a must-have crop in any vegetable garden!
With limited space, your first option would be to choose a ‘bush’ variety. The Porto Rico is a variety offered by Sow True Seed that maintains more of an upright shape and is less prone to vining. While this variety produces a tasty copper-skinned, orange fleshed tuber, it seems sad to limit yourself to just a handful of bush-style varieties…
Your second option is to cut back those adventurous vines. The reason the sweet potato vines spread far and wide is because, in warmer locales, the vines will send down roots and produce more tubers. In our climate we do not have enough time for these additional tubers to form, so the attempt is wasted energy.
By cutting back the longer vines you, 1. Focus more energy on the main tuber, 2. Control the sprawl, and 3. Harvest an edible summer green (sweet potato leaves taste great!).
So, you can happily plant purple, orange and white sweet potatoes without fear of being overrun!