— By Suzanne Beckman
In the temperate Carolinas, it’s almost November, and we still have green leaves and no frost on our pumpkins. It is, however, sweet potato time. Growing sweet potatoes in my school’s garden is one of my favorite group of lessons.
I had never grown sweet potatoes before. I didn’t realize that growing sweet potatoes is almost a year long process that begins in February by starting sweet potato “slips,” or little plants that sprout from a mature sweet potato. Inspired by a session at a REAL School Garden Evergreen training, I enlisted the help of the big kids, in particular, a boy named Corey who loved to garden, but struggled with the rest of his school experience. In this endeavor, Corey became the leader of the pack. He carefully watched the young sprouts growing in his classroom window. He conscientiously checked to be sure they didn’t run out of water, researched how to care for “his babies” and took pride at explaining the process of growing sweet potato slips to anyone who would listen.
The great thing about sweet potatoes is that once planted, they require little care. I recommend them as a garden cover crop during the summer at schools that don’t have a summer garden. Not only do they keep the weeds down by sprawling across their designated bed, they also cover the surrounding area by a yard or two and thrive by producing beautiful morning glory like purple flowers. The kids can’t believe their eyes when they return in August to see what their planting efforts have done while they were on break.
At the end of October or the beginning of November, it’s sweet potato harvesting time. The kids dig the sweet potatoes by hand so that they don’t damage the tender skin. Damaged skin leads to mold and rot. I remember that once I explained the process, the students took to their task like bees to honey. One student exclaimed, “I feel like I’m digging for buried treasure. This is better than finding GOLD because we get to these!” They were hooked. Long after I was ready to quit digging, my students were certain that there were more sweet potatoes to be found. You know what? They were right! The sweet potato vines had grown through the landscape fabric that lined the bed, under the wooden sides of the bed and in the mulch surrounding the bed. The kiddos weren’t satisfied that their job was done until they had ferreted out every possible location that a sweet potato could grow.
What was the result, you may ask? From two 4’ x 8’ beds, hundreds of sweet potatoes of all sizes, from 10-pound whoppers to tiny fingerlings and colors, orange, purple and white. Sparky, the garden cart, strained under the weight of the over-filled loads of sweet potatoes that we took them inside to cure. After about 2 weeks of curing, they are ready for culinary use. We enjoyed sweet potato smoothies, sweet potato wedges, sweet potato pancakes and sweet potato muffins. The students experienced the entire progression of sweet potato development: planting, tending, harvesting, preparing and eating. What a memorable learning experience!
Here are a few academic connections:
- Writing: Another school heard about our sweet potato success! Using your science journal, describe how to grow sweet potato slips, plant sweet potatoes, or harvest sweet potatoes. Be sure to use enough details that the students could grow their own sweet potatoes from your work.
- Reading: Read informational texts and/or view videos to determine how to grow sweet potato slips, plant sweet potatoes, or harvest sweet potatoes. Follow the directions to plant and grow sweet potatoes.
- Math: Weigh sweet potatoes that are harvested, based on price per pound at the grocery store calculate the value of the sweet potato crop.