Harvesting, Curing and Storing Sweet Potatoes (A Visiting Professor feature)

Submitted by Ray Eckhart

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are warm-season plants in the morning glory family (Convulvulaceae). The part we eat is the fleshy storage root of the plant, which is a little different than the regular Irish, or white, potato (Solanum tuberosum), a plant in the family Solanaceae. In that case, the part we eat is a fleshy underground stem of the plant, called a tuber.

Although sweet potato roots continue to grow until frost kills the vines, an extremely hard frost can cause damage to the ones near the surface. Chilling injury also results when soil temperatures drop to 50°F or lower, and this can result in internal decay in storage. The greatest danger from delayed digging is the risk of cold, wet soil encouraging decay. So the best time to dig is around the time of first frost in your area, or shortly thereafter. The vines can be clipped approximately 5 days before digging to improve skin-set or reduce the incidence of skinning the roots during harvest. To avoid exceptionally large sweet potatoes, a few hills should be dug in advance of the anticipated harvest date to determine the size of the sweet potato roots.

Puerto RicoFreshly dug sweet potato ‘Puerto Rico’

You can cook newly dug sweet potatoes right away, but their flavor, color and storage quality is greatly improved by curing at warm temperatures immediately after harvest. It is during the curing process that starch is converted to sugar.

Cure sweet potatoes by holding them for about 10 days at 80-85°F and high relative humidity (85-90 percent). Commercial producers have temperature and humidity controlled housing to guarantee good results, but for the home grower, they can be cured near a furnace or heat source to provide the necessary warmth. If the temperature near your furnace is between 65-75°F, the curing period should last 2-3 weeks. To maintain the required high humidity (85-90 percent relative humidity), stack storage crates or boxes and cover them with paper or heavy cloth.

CuringSweet potatoes curing

Once the sweet potatoes are cured, move them to a dark location where a temperature of about 55-60°F can be maintained, like an unheated basement, or root cellar. Sweet potatoes are subject to chilling injury, so don’t refrigerate them. Outdoor pits are not recommended for storage because the dampness encourages decay. Good results can be obtained by wrapping cured sweet potatoes in newspaper and storing them in a cool closet. Sweet potatoes can also be stored in sand.

Ornamental Sweet Potatoes
Have you ever wondered what, if any, is the difference between the ornamental sweet potato vines grown as a season-long ground cover, or, as “spillers” in container arrangements, and the vegetable we grow as food? The answer is – not much. They are just different cultivars of the same plant species, Ipomoea batatas. The ones we grow for food are selected and bred to produce large, uniform, good tasting roots, high in nutrients for eating, whereas the ones we grow ornamentally are selected for the striking shapes and colors of their leaves. Plant breeders introduce new variations every year. If you dig up the earth around your ornamental vines, you’ll find the same fleshy roots (different colors, perhaps) as the familiar ones we grow, or buy, for food. So, can you eat them? Well, technically, yes – but there’s no guarantee how they’ll taste. Most ornamental varieties are pretty bland. However, if you dig, cure, and store them as above, it’s possible they can stay viable until spring, when you can try to continue their growth for another season.

PropagationPropagating new plants (called slips) the following spring


Ray Eckhart is a former Penn State Extension Educator and avid home vegetable grower, with a weakness, bordering on obsession, for home grown tomatoes.

Our visiting GP takes on fertilizers

Like many readers of this blog, I’m like a kid in a candy store where plants are sold.  I try to justify the extra cost of a large annual pot instead of a scrawny 4-pack, or I imagine I’ll find room for that lime green Heuchera and my wife will learn to love it.  But unless I keep my blinders on and stick to the shopping list, I’ll probably leave with a fertilizer.  This year, I’ve purchased 12-0-0, 5-6-6, sulfur, and some 5-1-1 liquid.  Those go with my 6-9-0, 11-2-2, 9-0-5, 2-3-1, and 4-6-4.  I can explain why I ‘need’ each one.  I have a decent idea what my soil is like because I’ve had it tested (though I’m due for another test). But I’ve always questioned how those bags of fertilizer can know exactly what my garden needs.  The rates listed on the bag imply they’re universal under all circumstances and will give great results if the directions are followed.   Is that true?   And at what cost?

For example, 2 of the bags are listed as ‘lawn’ fertilizers (the veggie garden doesn’t care about that though).  But if I apply these to my lawn at the rate listed and 4 times per year, I’m adding 3-4 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 ft2.  That’s a reasonable rate if I irrigate and bag my clippings, but I don’t do either.  Therefore, I only need ~1 pound of nitrogen, not 3 or 4 (see this publication for more info). I just saved myself some money by disobeying the bag. That extra nitrogen isn’t useful for making MY lawn healthy.

One of my fertilizers is labeled ‘tomato’.  If I do exactly as the bag tells me for tomatoes, I would be applying the equivalent of 400 pounds of nitrogen and almost 500 pounds of phosphate per acre.  So what?  Well if I look at a guide for how to grow tomatoes commercially, I’d notice that the recommended nitrogen rate is 100 to 120 pounds per acre, and phosphate is 0 to 240 pounds per acre.  Yes, those are commercial guidelines, but they shouldn’t be too far off from garden recommendations. And of course, recommendations should always be based on soil tests.  But 4 times the N and 2 to infinitely more times the amount of phosphate than is required? That’s likely a waste of money at least. And yes, those recommended guidelines are real: you CAN grow food without adding phosphate or potassium-containing fertilizers.  If the plants you’re growing don’t need much and your soil has plenty, you don’t need to add any.

Say I’ve got an acre of onions (Fig. 1; not quite an acre). One of the bags of fertilizers, were I to follow its instructions for fertilizing ‘vegetables’, tells me that I should add 100 pounds of nitrogen and 120 pounds of phosphate and potash at planting (per acre), followed by half that partway through the season (next to the row). The commercial production guidelines tell me that the nitrogen rate is similar to what the bag of ‘vegetable’ fertilizer says, but I actually need about 7 times less phosphate and potash (based on my soil test results; I have quite a bit of P and K already in my clay-loam soil). I don’t want to add stuff my soil doesn’t need, so I use my shelf full of bags, a scale for weighing pounds of fertilizer per cup, and some math to come up with a custom fertilizer regime that suits my soil and the onion’s needs (see Table 1, and remember that the numbers are for MY soil, not necessarily yours).

One problem with using extra fertilizer may be in the extra cost (wasting nutrient the plant won’t use), but that depends on what fertilizer it is and how much it costs. Another problem may not be immediately apparent, and that is nutrient deficiencies. Too much phosphorus can cause zinc deficiencies, for example. Excesses of some nutrients can create greater chances for pest and disease problems. One big problem with using too much is the potential for these extra nutrients to go where they shouldn’t be, like in groundwater, rivers, lakes, and streams. And as Jeff has mentioned, phosphorus fertilizers won’t be around (cheaply) forever.

Do the work of figuring out what kind of soil you have and what’s in it, what your fruits and veggies need, and what kinds of fertilizers can do the job for you.  Heck, you can even organize your fertilizers based on “cost per pound of nitrogen” to see where the best bang for your nitrogen buck will be.  But none of us are THAT obsessed about our fertilizers, right?…. [$ per bag / (pounds per bag * (% nitrogen/100))].

As a reminder, the numbers on your fertilizers are percent nitrogen, phosphorous (as ‘phosphate’, P2O5), and potassium (as ‘potash’, K2O).  One cup is 16 tablespoons, and an acre is has length of one furlong (660 feet) and width of one chain (66 feet), or 43,560 square feet.  Side rant: metric rocks.

Visiting Professor guest post: Native wildflowers

Recently I have been fascinated by the native wildflower field I planted last fall.  Although I seeded it with the same mixture of seeds (mixed with sand to spread them evenly), you can see that we have clumps of different flowers throughout the area.

Figure 1. Descanso Gardens, California

The area where the wildflowers were planted had several 1-2 foot raised mounds; some were in the shape of keyholes.  These were built with silty sand from a nearby seasonal stream that had some erosion problems in a rainy year.

Small differences between the temperature, moisture, light and soil on the different parts of each mound have favored different species of wildflowers.  In one of the keyholes, I even found some miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), a species I had not seeded that favors wetter areas.  If I sampled for insects, I bet I might find a similar patchy distribution as well.

As an ecologist/biologist, I am really fascinated by the way that species diversity can be affected by topography, climate, moisture, and soils.  As a gardener, I like that I could create conditions that favor different plants just by moving soil around.  Plus I think that the waves of color are lovely as well.

Rachel Young is the head of the California Garden at Descanso Gardens, just outside Los Angeles.  She has an MS degree in Ecology and Evolutionary biology from UCLA and lectures on various garden and horticulture related topics.