The Dirt On Growing Sweet Potatoes

Community/allotment gardening year five:

I have certainly thought about blogging about gardening during the past season but that’s as far as it got.  Thinking about it.  Don Marquis, an American poet and journalist said “procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday” .   And while it didn’t happen yesterday, here’s the story of our experience with a brand new crop this year.   Sweet potatoes.

Our growing/hardiness zone is 4B in Ottawa, ON.  We had talked about growing sweet potatoes in previous years before but had concluded we weren’t in the right zone.  That changed when we learned that a local organic seed distributor sold sweet potato slips.  They aren’t available until June here. You plant them only after the risk of frost had passed.  

We had intended on buying enough slips to fill an entire 20 foot row but when I learned about the steps you have to take after harvest, I bought enough for a half row as a first try.   Here’s the dirt on growing sweet potatoes this past season: 

  • Tilled and mounded a 10 foot row.  Laid a wide strip of black plastic over the row (sweet potatoes like warm soil) and secured it at the edges .  
  • Make a slit in the plastic every 2 feet and plant a slip.
  • Freshly planted sweet potato slips
    Freshly planted sweet potato slips
  • That’s it till harvest.  How easy is that!  Water and sunshine throughout the growing season and the vines grew and spread until you could no longer see the plastic.  We were all very interested to see what, if any harvest would await us when the time came.
  • The vines begin to spread
    The vines begin to spread
  • Harvesting must occur after the first frost when the vines turn black.  Here’s where we started to wonder if sweet potatoes were all that darling or if they were just plain finicky.
  • Digging sweet potatoes is not that easy.  We learned they grow vertically and try to find their way to the other side of the world.   Down into the clay they went (some of them were 18-20 inches long).  They bruise and break easily when bringing them out of the ground. There was a bit of exasperation when we started and found we had to scratch around a great deal with hand trowels to see if the potatoes had traveled hither and yon. We got better at digging with the garden fork after a hill or two.  If the soil isn’t nice and loose the potatoes break.  There were cheers when we removed potatoes in tact.  
  • Success!
    Look at the size of 'em

      The potato on the right was on its way to China

    We harvested 30-35 pounds of sweet potatoes from 5 slips.  Not bad.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Sweet potatoes need to be cured.    I looked for advice on how to cure then and found there were as many ‘recipes’ as there were advisors.  Basically the potatoes must be kept in a place that is very warm (25-29C) and humid (85-90%) for 3 days or 7 days or maybe 21 days.  What??  One consistent message was curing must occur-conversion of sugars and making it so they will keep longer.  Avoid scaring or bruising the potatoes lest they start to spoil.  I layered the potatoes between sheets of newspaper and put them in 3 containers in our downstairs bathroom. I covered each container with a garbage bag (thinking it would help with humidity) and then a blanket/quilt.  A little heater helped keep the temperature up, as did having the lights on day and night.  Once in a while I would turn on the shower to up the humidity.  Such finicky darlings, sweet potatoes.  I checked them regularly.  The humidity never got as high as recommended (had a little temp/humidity gauge in the room).  After 3 weeks we reclaimed the bathroom, wrapped the tubers individually in newspaper, storing them in a cool dark place and now hoping to have sweet potatoes for the next several months.  

  • We haven’t decided if we will grow them again next year.  By spring the effort of harvest and curing this fall will be mostly forgotten and we will be enthusiastically entertaining thoughts of garden bounty.

Community Gardening-Year Four

We are well into our fourth year of tending our 1,000 sq. ft. community garden plot.  Looking back:

Year One

Our first year was about discovery and learning the ropes.  It had to be about something for it certainly wasn’t about garden bounty.  The soil was hard, there was lots of clay and we spent hours weeding (unsuccessfully) as it was pretty much impossible to dig down to most roots.

Year Two

Year Two we decided to go big or go home.  We invested in 9 cu. yds. of mushroom compost, an irrigation system, uber row covers and more straw for mulch.  The results were outstanding.  Broccoli plants higher than your waist, tomato plants burdened with fruit and weeds that were much easier to remove. And bounty was an issue, a good issue at that.

Year Three

We are starting to get the hang of this, sort of.  As with any garden, there were failures and successes.  There was enough butternut squash to feed a small village, tomatoes by pail and the squash beetles continued to win in the end.  As they had every year in the past.  

Year Four

We are officially an expanding enterprise.  We are now three partners tending the garden.  




There is plenty enough for three to do and it’s great in giving some flexibility in time away over the summer.  Snippets of the season thus far:

  1. A few planning sessions to determine what we’ll grow and where it should be grown (plant rotation and all that).
  2. Everyone took on starting some plants from seeds.  For the most part, we all had success.
  3. More mushroom compost was ordered and delivered in spite several false starts and an almost saga of a stuck dump truck.  
  4. Introduced our friend and new gardening partner to the garden and the neighbours.  
  5. Garden progress to date:
  • Late start to spring/summer
  • Everything is planted (sometimes twice)
  • Trying to grow leeks from scratch. Am thinking we may be lucky to have leeks that are the width of a pencil by harvest time.
  • Trying other new things this year, such as horseradish, kale and arugula.
  • The garlic is prolific.  
  • Irrigation system up and running, straw mulch in place.
  • Cut worms have murdered two pepper plants.
  • Squash beetles are showing up already.


No matter, it’s great to get out there with your friends or on your own.  We convene with Mother Nature and if we’re lucky, we’ll have carrots, organic carrots, from our own effort and they will average about $10 a two pound bag!  

How is your garden growing? And do you have any advice about combating squash beetles?


The Best and Worst of People

We are taking our time putting our allotment garden to sleep this fall.  Most of the plant material has been cleared except for some swiss chard and a half row of lovely fall carrots. We’d tried the carrots a few weeks ago and they were delicious.  After a frost we knew they would be even better.  

The worst of people

You can imagine our surprise (and perhaps some of the things we said) when we met at the garden this week, shovels and forks in hand, thinking of enjoying those carrots and they were gone!  Pulled up and taken.  The thief or thieves must be into composting for they pulled the tops off the carrots and laid them neatly down on top the now empty row.  The nerve!  Carrots are pretty inexpensive in the store.  Whoever you are, we’d rather you go to the green grocer for your vegetables!  You have to be a certain sort to take something someone else has planted, watered and tended.  

The best of people

On the same visit to the garden, a woman who has walked by and chatted with us throughout the gardening season came by to say hello.  We had given her some swiss chard earlier in the year and she wanted us to come by for coffee and a snack to say thank you.  And so we did.  The snack turned out to be hearty delicious Lebanese lunch complete with Lebanese coffee!  Mmmm good!

Within a 3 hour period on a sunny late fall afternoon we saw the worst of people and the best of people.