Gardeners’ World: Monty Don shares advice on planting potatoes
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Sweet potatoes are not related to regular potatoes, but are actually a member of the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae). They are vigorous climbing plants with vines reaching 1.5m in length and red, white or purple potato-like tubers. As the name suggests, sweet potatoes are sweet to taste, rich in vitamins C and A, and packed with carotenoids, potassium and fibre. They can be boiled, roasted or made into chips, and the shoots and leaves can be eaten like spinach. But where and how do you grow them in the UK?
The heart-shaped, fresh green and lush foliage is highly ornamental, making sweet potatoes an excellent crop to grow in a more ornamental garden, or a conservatory.
According to gardening experts at Gardeners’ World, sweet potatoes grow “best” when they are in a “warm environment”.
They said: “Sweet potatoes do best in a warm environment, typically at temperatures of 21 to 26 degrees, so in the UK are ideal for growing in a greenhouse, either in large pots or the greenhouse border.
“You can grow them outside but the crop will be smaller than if grown with protection.
“The trailing stems can be trained up an obelisk or wigwam of bamboo canes to save space.”
Gardeners can grow these plants outdoors, especially in warmer regions.
The experts advised: “Choose a sunny, sheltered spot and pre-warm the soil with black polythene.
“Then simply cut a hole in the polythene to plant the potato, and so it keeps the soil warm to increase your chances of a good crop.”
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Sweet potatoes are usually grown from slips.
These are unrooted cuttings from existing plants and are available to buy via mail order from April onwards.
When they arrive, the gardening pros suggests putting them “in a jar of water for a couple of days to perk up”, then potting them up into small pots of moist, peat-free, multi-purpose compost, burying as much of the stem as possible, to encourage plenty of roots to develop.
The pots should then be covered with a clear plastic bag or placed in an unheated propagator until they root and show signs of growth.
Those planning on growing sweet potatoes outside, the ground must be prepared by “removing weeds” and “adding organic matter, such as garden compost or well-rotted horse manure”, according to the gardening gurus.
They continued: “Then cover the area with black polythene to warm the soil and suppress weeds – the earlier you do this the warmer the soil will be.
“Once all danger of frost has passed, harden off the plants by gradually acclimatising them to outdoor conditions, and then cut holes in the plastic about 30cm apart, and plant one sweet potato plant in each.”
To aid temperatures further, gardeners can use a cloche to cover the plants as they establish.
These are low enclosures used to cover plants and, depending on their style, offer protection against harsh weather and pest attacks.
As sweet potatoes “do best” when grown “undercover”, a greenhouse, polytunnel or conservatory make for the perfect spots.
The gardening pros said: “Plant them in the greenhouse border in well-prepared soil, spacing the plants 30cm apart (there’s no need to warm the soil with polythene as you would if growing outside).
“You can also plant them in large containers filled with peat-free multi-purpose compost enhanced with well-rotted manure or compost.”
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