Because I’m lazy, sweet potatoes are one of my favorite crops to grow. It always amazes me how well they can perform in the worst part of the garden, with little or no attention. They always outgrow the weeds and provide a large harvest relative to the area planted. In my metro-Atlanta area, I plant sweet potatoes in early May and harvest at the end of July to make room for fall crops. Even in this short amount of time, the size and quality of the harvest is consistently good. From a 4′ x 12′ patch, I harvested 40lbs of fist-sized and larger tubers, plus several pounds of smaller ones.
How to Harvest
Harvesting sweet potatoes is a bit labor intensive, particularly in heavy clay soil. There are a few tricks to make the job easier.
- Keep a three-inch layer of mulch on the patch. This will keep the worms working and loosening the soil below.
- Harvest after a cold front moves through, or at least do it in the cool of the evening.
- Water the patch deeply a day or two before harvesting sweet potatoes, then let it dry out for at least a day. This will ensure the soil is soft down deep but not muddy.
- Remove the vines completely before digging. That way you are not tripping over them or fighting to dig around them. (Check out this recipe for sweet potato vine stir fry.) Finally, use a spading fork instead of a shovel. The fork will sift through and lift mostly potato and less soil.
When I am harvesting sweet potatoes, I like to turn over the patch from one end to the other. Especially in more mature patches, you will discover tubers several feet from the original plant because the vines spread fast and root in as they grow, and because the original roots keep growing out. Be prepared to find sweet potatoes in unexpected places if the vines have been allowed to spread unchecked! Start at the edge and work toward the middle as you harvest from one end of the bed to the other. Go slowly or else you’ll stab the potatoes. As you unearth the tubers, pile them up on the soil that you have already worked. Let them dry for a little while before bringing them in.
How to Cure Sweet Potatoes
In order for the sweetness to develop, sweet potatoes must be cured after harvest. While they are edible immediately, the taste at that point is not what you would expect (it’s not sweet yet). The curing process also helps to heal wounds from the harvest process.
For at least two full weeks after harvest, store sweet potatoes in a hot, humid location (85-90 degrees, 60 percent humidity or greater). Before moving them to cooler long-term storage, taste one to be sure it’s ready. If it’s not sweet, leave them there a couple more weeks. I leave mine in crates on the front porch to cure, then move them to the basement for storage. Other locations for curing would be a cold frame (which in summer is quite hot), attic/crawl space, etc.
After curing, store sweet potatoes in a cool, humid place (55-60 degrees) where they can be kept for several months. Enjoy the fruits of your summer labor through winter!