Sweet potatoes are becoming a popular food, so it’s about time I talk about how you can grow this plant yourself in a bucket. This article will give you every detail you need to get started growing your own sweet potatoes in 20 gallon buckets – from buying your first seed potato all the way to harvesting boatloads of potatoes at the end of it all.
A Better Potato?
Many will argue that sweet potatoes are superior to regular potatoes. The popular paleo diet, for example, praises sweet potatoes for their high nutrition profile while decrying regular potatoes as being little more than starchy carbs.
I’ve done a bit of research on the differences between sweet potatoes and regular potatoes. These are the five main points I’ve seen people talk about the most.
- Sweet potatoes have a similar carbohydrate content but more fiber than regular potatoes.
- Sweet potatoes have fewer calories than regular potatoes.
- Sweet potatoes have more nutrients that potatoes – most notably vitamin A and vitamin C.
- Potatoes contain saponins, and sweet potatoes do not. Sometimes referred to as an “anti-nutrient,” saponins may be bad for your health if too much saponin is eaten.
- Sweet potatoes taste better when eaten by themselves, while regular potatoes are usually eaten with a condiment such as cheese, gravy, or ketchup.
And in case you haven’t noticed – sweet potatoes can get really big. That means that you’ll actually get more yield by growing sweet potatoes in buckets than you do growing plain jane potatoes.
This sweet potato idea is one of many plants you can grow using regular grocery store produce as your seed stock. I call this grocery multiplication. One of the best known grocery multiplication techniques is for green onions – just stick the bottom inch of a root tip in water or soil – and it will grow a fresh crop of green onions for you in a couple of weeks!
Choosing the Right Sweet Potato
In order to multiply a sweet potato, your tubers need to be capable of producing shoots. If your sweet potato won’t grow shoots, it may because it’s been treated with a chemical during the growing or shipping process. With regular potatoes, this chemical is called BudNip and it prevents potatoes from growing shoots. They’re still edible, but since they don’t sprout you can’t grow new potatoes from them.
You can ensure your sweet potato has had minimal contact with hormones or other chemical agents by selecting an organic sweet potato to use as your growing stock.
Here’s a sweet potato – it happens to be the one I’m eating tonight – that is already starting to produce sprouts. In sweet potato lingo, these growths are called slips - and it’s these sprouts that we use to grow more sweet potatoes.
A Heat Loving Tuber
Unlike conventional tubers like carrots and regular potatoes, sweet potatoes love the heat.
To make sure your sweet potato lasts long enough to sprout, never store them below a temperature of 50°F (10°C) or they will quickly rot and turn into mush. Make sure your sweet potatoes are stored at room temperature. I’ve also noticed that sweet potatoes kept in a plastic bag rot quicker. So remember – keep them warm and let them breathe.
In fact, sweet potatoes kept in cold storage at any point may never sprout, so make sure your grocery store isn’t storing them cold either.
Heat is even more important to a sweet potato at harvest time. We’ll get into that more closer to the end of this article.
Growing From “Slips”
The first order of business with growing sweet potatoes is getting a nice crop of sweet potato slips. Place your single seed potato in a 5 gallon bucket of moist soil, tops exposed. This is your “slip nursery” – an intermediate step between your grocery store shelves and your garden plot.
As with anything planted in buckets, make sure to drill adequate drainage holes in the bottom.
Before long, your “slips” will start rocketing out of your sweet potato. Once the slips are ready to plant, this is what they should look like.
You want to pull these shoots out and transplant them in larger 20 gallon containers. In each 20 gallon bucket, plant 6 sweet potato slips.
For sweet potato slips planting best practices, watch this video from the great Rob Bob.
When to Plant Sweet Potatoes
If you’re growing outside, you’ll want at least a 100 day long growing season to grow sweet potatoes. If you’re growing in buckets, of course, you can “extend” your growing season by starting them indoors.
You never want the soil your sweet potatoes grow in to go below 50 degrees. They will morph into inedible brown mush quickly below this level. So plant them after last frost, once the soil has warmed up. Check with your local agricultural extension to find the best planting dates for sweet potatoes in your area.
Sweet potatoes start off growing slowly, but shoot up like teenagers once the dog days of summer roll around.
When to Harvest Sweet Potatoes
Just like any plant, make sure they stay well watered. Once your sweet potatoes have seen 4 months of growth they should be ready for harvest.
In temperate climates, harvest immediately after your first frost – which is when your vines start to turn black.
Here’s Rob Bob again harvesting the potatoes that you just saw go in the ground in the previous video. Many of his potatoes have started to split, likely because he left them in the ground for a full 8 months.
Keep sweet potatoes in a warm, humid environment for 2 weeks after harvest. Warm in this case means a toasty 80°F (27°C). This cures the sweet potatoes, encouraging them to create a protective layer of something called suberin, which protects sweet potatoes so they can be stored at room temperature for up to a year.
Bucket-Grown Sweet Potatoes Yield
If grown correctly, you can hope for a yield of about 25 pounds for each 20 gallon bucket sweet potato garden. That’s a very rough estimate; you may get more or less depending on variety and growing conditions.
See also: our article on growing regular potatoes.