The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to start sweet potato slips

Starting sweet potatoes on a heating pad"Fascinating - I have never seen this before!   I thought you just plant [sweet potatoes] like regular potatoes.  Can you post pictures as they sprout and what you do with them later?  Thank you!"  --- Alice R.

I thought I'd already made a cohesive post about propagating sweet potatoes, then realized I was thinking of the chapter I included on sweet potatoes in the second edition of Homegrown Humus.  For those of you who haven't given that ebook a read, here's my tried-and-true method of making homegrown slips --- the little rooted plants that you use to grow sweet potatoes in the garden.

Sprouting sweet potatoAs Mark posted earlier this week, we start by sinking a few skinny tubers halfway into wet gravel in the bottom of a seed-starting tray (with the insert removed).  I generally save out skinny tubers on purpose, selecting ones that are less than two inches in diameter since they seem to spit out slips quickly without wasting too much food.

I place a heating pad turned to medium or high (depending on the weather) under the flat, and then mostly ignore it for a few weeks.  You can choose to put the clear top on the seed-starting tray, in which case you really can ignore the contents (although mold might start to form).  Alternatively, you can leave the top off and just add water as needed to keep the gravel moist.  The warm, moist environment will soon tempt your tubers to grow little sprouts like the one pictured above.

Once these sprouts start popping up, it's time to take off the top of the tray (and to make sure you keep the tray well watered).  The sprouts will grow quickly, and several will pop up on each end of most tubers.  Once a sprout is about four inches long, simply snap it off the tuber and place it in a vase or other container of water so the bottom half inch of the sprout is Rooting a sweet potato slipunder water.  Within a week, each sprout should have at least two or three roots an inch or so long --- you've grown your own sweet potato slips!

Sweet potatoes like it warm, so wait until after the frost-free date to plant them out in your garden.  Pick an overcast day (or set them out in the evening) and plant each slip so the leaves are above ground and the roots are below ground.  Water them in well, and come back by the next day to water again as needed.  After that, they'll take off and will provide a carefree crop (as long as you keep the deer away).  Happy sweet potatoing!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Anna, Glenn Drowns at Sand Hill Preservation Center has a ton of sweet potato info on his website. He has raised organic sweet potatos for years and amassed lots of info. It would worth your time to check it out. I enjoy your posts.

Comment by Michael Fri Apr 4 12:07:36 2014
Thank you so much for this great post! I've wanted to try growing my own slips for a few years, but haven't been 100% sure how to do so successfully. Did you order a special variety of sweet potatoes the first time to make sure you had a good selection for your area?
Comment by Michelle Fri Apr 4 13:48:08 2014

Do you not worry about actually selecting the least productive, vigorous, high yielding, disease resistant roots/plants, when you choose the smallest roots to propagate? I'm just curious to your thoughts on this.

While you are "cloning" the sweet potatoes, mutations still occur, regional adaptations etc, and viruses that affect out put, size of the roots, and vigor still accumulate. So while you may lose a few of your best looking roots wouldn't it be better to choose those ones out to regrow, and eat the smaller, possibly less healthy for growing stock, sweet potatoes?

Comment by T Fri Apr 4 14:19:58 2014

Great comments, everybody!

Michelle --- We started with Beauregard slips from our local feed store our first year. Then, the next year, we made our own slips from those tubers. They were so productive and tasty, we didn't feel the need to explore further.

T --- Excellent, thought-provoking point. It is true that, as Carol Deppe would say, if you're not actively breeding, you're probably letting the variety get worse over time. The small sweet potato roots don't tend to be from plants that are all small potatoes, though; instead, they tend to be the tubers that start late in the year off clumps that already have lots of big potatoes in them. But it probably would be better to collect them when I dig the hills, taking the small potatoes from clumps that have lots of big potatoes in them. I'll have to start doing that!

Comment by anna Fri Apr 4 15:09:19 2014
I'm sure you've said before, but I don't remember. Would you mind sharing your planting zone?
Comment by M Fri Apr 4 15:42:29 2014
M --- I don't mind sharing at all. We're in zone 6, with a frost-free date around May 15.
Comment by anna Fri Apr 4 15:48:53 2014
Thank you. I am supposedly in zone 6, as well, but we have a very harsh little micro-climate perched on the brink of the prairie. Most of the perennials I plant die their first winter. I'm learning to select hardier varieties than our zone is supposed to require, and having better success that way.
Comment by M Fri Apr 4 16:53:07 2014
Thank you for posting this. I read about planting slips in the 5 gallon buckets and really wanted to try it but first, I had to figure out what the slips were! (I'm a novice to this gardening, food growing thing.) This explanation was just what I was looking for.
Comment by Karmen Paterson Sun May 22 12:09:56 2016

OMGosh, I haven’t done that since I was a kid! Mostly we didn’t plant them…just had fun watching them grow. I have some sweet potatoes in the pantry, and I think I’ll start them to plant outside. Thanks for the tutorial. Visiting from My Turn for Us, Freedom Fridays.

Comment by Abner Wed Nov 23 01:04:08 2016

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