Sweet potatoes are a lot of fun to grow, and despite what you might think, you don’t need a ton of space to grow them. In fact, my favorite way to grow sweet potatoes is right in an old chicken feed bag on my deck.
When we first moved to Maine I wasn’t sure I could grow sweet potatoes like I had done in Virginia because they are more fragile and not cold- tolerant, but the beauty of growing them in bags is that I can start them indoors, move them inside on cold days or at night, keep them in the sun as needed. In short, give them exactly what they need in order to thrive.
Gather and assemble the parts
So don’t throw out your empty chicken feed bags. Here’s what else you’ll need to grow sweet potatoes:
Empty feed bag
Small piece of window screen
Sweet potato slips (you can buy them commercially, or see how to start your own)
Flatten the bottom of the feed bag so it sits level on the ground, then roll down the top of the bag until it is about a foot tall. Next, cut several holes in the bottom for drainage, about 1” in diameter, and then cut a piece of window screen to fit in the bottom of the bag. (This will keep the soil inside the bag.)
Fill the bag with about 4” of potting soil mixed with some straw. This will keep the soil nicely aerated and a good composition for the potatoes to grow in. Now you’re ready to plant!
Growing is easy!
Once the danger of frost has passed and the soil temperature has reached 60° F. (or several weeks earlier if you’ll be keeping the bag indoors for awhile), tuck three or four slips into the soil and then cover with four more inches of the soil/straw mix and water well. Set the bag in the sun and keep the soil moist.
Note: You don’t want to fertilize your potatoes. That will encourage foliage growth, instead of root growth and lead to a smaller harvest.
As your plants start to grow, roll the top of the bag up little by little and mound more straw/soil around them, keeping all but the leaves buried in the soil. Keep the soil moist, but be sure not to overwater.
Since sweet potatoes are so cold-sensitive, you might need to cover the bag at night or even bring it inside until the weather gets warmer. They prefer temperatures around 75° F., but can survive down to about 60° F. And remember that the soil in your grow bag will likely be warmer than the ground soil, which is another benefit to growing in bags.
Harvesting and storing your potatoes
It should take between 4 and 5 months until your potatoes are ready for harvest, depending on the variety you grow and where you live (be sure to choose a short season variety if you live in zone 4-5 like I do).
When the leaves turn yellow and start to die, your potatoes should be ready to harvest.
Cut down the side of the feed bag with scissors or a sharp knife and carefully pull out the potatoes. Brush the dirt off and lay them to air dry indoors where the air circulates for one to two weeks at room temperature. Give the stems, leaves and roots to your chickens to enjoy! And don’t forget to share some of your harvest with your flock. They’ll enjoy the potatoes either raw or cooked.
Whole sweet potatoes can be stored in a cool, dark, dry location around 55-60° F. for long-term storage. You can also cut the potatoes into chunks and freeze them raw.
And be sure to save some potatoes to start next year’s crop (see below for instructions on starting your own sweet potato slips).
Starting Potato Slips
Sweet potatoes don’t grow from an “eye” like a white potato. Instead you need to start a plant from the potato itself. To start slips, 6-8 weeks before you’re ready to plant outside, submerge one-third to one-half of a sweet potato in a jar of water on your kitchen windowsill. Change the water every few days. Your potatoes should start to sprout. After a few weeks, the sprouted vines should be about six inches long.
At this point, you can plant the whole potato in your grow bag, or break off the vines of the potato (give the potato to your chickens of course!). Place them in a jar of water on the windowsill until they grow nice strong roots, changing the water every few days. When the vines have sprouted roots in the water, you can proceed as described above and plant them.
Know your Ipomoea batatas
Did you know that sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family and the entire plant is completely edible for your chickens? They are also more nutritious for your family than other types of potatoes.
And in fact, white potatoes are in the nightshade family and contain a toxin that isn’t good for your chickens, so why not switch to eating sweet potatoes in your home?
Partially excerpted from 101 Chicken Keeping Hacks from Fresh Eggs Daily by Lisa Steele (Voyageur Press, 2018).