Nature Study: Starting Sweet Potato Slips with the Dirt Method

Nature Study Starting Sweet Potato Slips with the Dirt Method

Here is a link to my latest post on the “Homeschooling with Heart” blog:

Nature Study: Starting Sweet Potato Slips with the Dirt Method

To see my post on starting sweet potato slips with the water method, click here.

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Winter Garden Update: Starting Sweet Potatoes with the Dirt Method

For the last two years, we’ve started sweet potato slips as a nature study project and eventually transplanted them to a container in our vegetable garden.  The first year, we only ended up with some small potatoes, which I sliced up and cooked in a pot of chili.  Last year, we started them earlier and supplemented with some slips that I purchased.  The result was this:

sweet potato plant, container gardening

In October, frost was threatening and we dumped the bucket they were planted in.  We didn’t get a huge haul, but it was an improvement over last year.

sweet potato haul

I cured them in a cardboard box with some holes poked in it that I kept in the kitchen for warmth.  I finally baked the largest ones in the end of November.  They were so delicious!  They had a creamy texture that I’ve never experienced in a sweet potato before.

homegrown, baked sweet potato

I started looking up recommendations on the best time to start my slips.  I read that the fresher your sweet potatoes are, the more slips they will produce.  I also came across some videos from people saying that they had better success with the dirt method than the water method, which is what I’ve used in the past.  I was curious to try it, especially since some of my potatoes took so long to sprout last year that the potatoes started to get too mushy for the toothpicks to support them anymore and I ended up having to throw some of them out.

In mid-December, I followed these instructions to start slips using the dirt method:

  1. Buy some organic sweet potatoes.  Most conventional potatoes are treated with chemicals that prevent slips from growing.
  2. Get two disposable, aluminum baking pans approximately 3 inches deep.
  3. Poke a couple of holes in each side of one of the pans for drainage.
  4. Place something small in each corner of the other pan (I used extra Play Doh lids) and put the pan with holes inside, on top of the lids.  This gives extra moisture somewhere to escape.
  5. Fill the pan halfway with potting soil and lay your sweet potatoes in the pan, covering them part of the way with soil, but leaving the top half exposed.
  6. Put your pan on top of a plant heating pad and keep it in a spot where it will get either sunlight or direct artificial light during daytime hours.
  7. Keep the soil moist.  In a few weeks, you should begin to see little shoots emerging from your sweet potatoes and in the soil around them.  These are your slips.

Since I had some small potatoes left from what I’d grown, I used those.  I also put them in soil from the bucket I’d grown them in.  I began to see slips appearing in late January.  Once they began, they grew rapidly.

sweet potato slips, dirt method

Once my slips reached at least six inches high, I removed them from the potatoes by grasping them as close to the base as possible and gently twisting them one way and then the other until they came loose.  I placed them in a small jar of water in a sunny spot so they could grow roots.  Since my window sills are small, I found that herb jars worked well.  I made sure the water level was below the leaves.

sweet potato slips

Now that some of them have nice, established roots, I planted them in pots to keep indoors until the threat of frost has passed.  The sweet potatoes in the pan are continuing to produce new slips.  At last count, I had about forty slips altogether, counting the ones I’ve already picked and the ones that are still in the pan.  This is exponentially better than what I’ve been able to grow in the past using the water method.  I believe that using potatoes from my own garden made a difference as well.  They were grown organically, not treated with any chemicals, and very fresh.

sweet potatoes, slips, pots

Now, I just have to find room to keep all of these slips for the next two months, until I can plant them in the garden.  I think I’m going to need more than one bucket this year!

 

Here is a post on the water method and the nature study pages that we utilized last year.

 

Starting Sweet Potato Slips as Nature Study

sweet potato 1

Now that spring is here, my children and I are spending a lot of time studying nature.  We are classical homeschoolers, but we incorporate some of Charlotte Mason’s ideas about education into our homeschool, especially her emphasis on nature study.

The first thing we decided to grow this year was sweet potatoes.  My son came home from Cub Scouts last spring with a sweet potato in a cup of water, and we patiently waited for something to happen.  It took quite a while, and I was on the verge of throwing it out, when it finally got roots.  Eventually, we transplanted the slips to the garden.  It was a bit late in the growing season, so the sweet potatoes that were produced were pretty small, but still tasty.  This year, we figured we’d get a head start, and hopefully, end up with a larger harvest.

washing sweet potato

To start your own, follow these steps:

  1. Buy some organic sweet potatoes from the store.
    1. Technically, you should be able to use any sweet potato, but most conventional potatoes are treated with chemicals that prevent slips from growing.
  2. Wash your sweet potato.
  3. Cut it in half.
  4. Stick 3-4 toothpicks in, across from each other, about halfway down your potato.
  5. Balance the toothpicks on the edge of a wide-mouth jar. We’re using salsa jars.
  6. Add enough water so that half of the potato is submerged.
  7. Keep them in a warm, dark spot for the first week. We placed ours in a cabinet above the refrigerator.
  8. Check the water level and refill as needed. Change the water if it becomes cloudy.

chopped sweet potato

Keeping them in a cabinet for the first week is a trick I just learned, and roots appeared much quicker this year than they did for us last year.  After that, you can move your jars to a warm, sunny spot.

sweet potatoes in jar

We’ve been making official observations on their progress every Monday.  I ask my children what changes they notice, we discuss it, and they update a nature journal page.  We’ve been using a template that we used to chart tomato seed progress last year and it’s worked really well for us.  I found it on Notebookingpages.com.  They are very compatible with a Charlotte Mason approach to education.

Here are some of the ways that we have used these pages over time:

nature study pages

Eventually, your sweet potatoes will grow little plants on top called “slips.”

  1. When the slips reach 5-6 inches high, you can carefully pull them off and place the roots in a glass of water with the leaves above the liquid.
  2. Put them in a sunny spot and allow them to keep growing. Your sweet potato should continue to produce new slips.

At this point, you can take your study even further, if you like, and plant the slips.  When the ground is warm enough (at least two weeks after your last frost date), they can be planted in the garden.  You can plant them directly in the ground or in a container.  We used a large 10-gallon bucket last year.

sweep potato bucket

To plant your slips in a container:

  1. Drill holes in the bottom of the bucket.
  2. Find a spot next to a fence or trellis for the plant to climb.
  3. Prop the bucket up on something to allow for drainage underneath.
  4. Add a mixture of potting soil, peat moss, and manure to the bucket.
  5. Moisten your soil well, keep it loose, and shape it into a slope.
  6. Plant your slips on their side, with the top end toward the fence.
  7. Water as needed to keep the soil moist.
  8. When the leaves have dried out and turned yellow in the fall, dig up your sweet potatoes.
  9. Cure them in a cardboard box, unwashed, in a cool place (55 to 60°) for about 6-8 weeks for maximum sweetness.

One of the things we liked about growing them was that they were low maintenance.  The plants are a pretty addition to the garden as well.  I hope you enjoy growing sweet potatoes as much as we do!

pinkk flowers