By Terry Kelley
University of Georgia
The vegetable is as much a part of Georgia culture as boiled peanuts and University of Georgia football on an October Saturday. And it’s a good thing gardeners are growing them. The sweet potato weevil, which emerged in Georgia several years ago, just about wiped out the state’s commercial production.
Sweet potatoes are still a mainstay of Georgia gardens, and the growing methods haven’t changed too much. There are some new varieties, but gardeners can still get most out of the ones that have been relied on for 30 years or more.
In commercial production, varieties such as Georgia Jet, Georgia Red, Carolina Nugget, Jewel and Centennial have given way to varieties such as Beauregard, Hernandez and Covington. Some of the newer varieties may produce more, but gardeners seem to savor the flavor of the older choices.
While saving roots from year to year may seem like a good idea, a variety’s characteristics will mutate over time. It is better to obtain plants from plant producers who use certified seed stock or obtain your own certified seed stock.
Almost any type of soil will produce sweet potatoes, although a heavy clay soil may not produce very large roots. The best option is well-drained sandy loams.
For a good crop of sweet potatoes, plan ahead. Wait until all danger of frost has passed and choose a site that is weed-free and has no history of nematodes.
Plant sweet potatoes in rows that are 36 to 40 inches apart. Leave eight to 12 inches between plants. Pack them snug in beds that are about eight inches high. Plant them deep with about three nodes (joints where leaves are attached) below the surface.
Apply about three pounds of 10-10-10 or similar analysis fertilizer per 100 feet of row and work into the bed at planting. Sweet potatoes grow best with a soil pH of 5.8 to 6.0, which is lower than is required for most vegetables. Water them in with a little starter fertilizer such as 10-34-0. Mix these according to label directions and pour enough around the plants to settle the soil.
Monitor your plants for any signs of insect and disease trouble. They’ll be ready for harvest when they are between 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 inches across.
If properly cured, sweet potatoes can be stored for up to a year. To cure, place keep them at 80-90 F with a high relative humidity for five to seven days. The roots should be kept well ventilated during this time. After curing, the roots can be stored between 55 F and 60 F.
(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)