We haven't even had a frost yet, but I'm already thinking about how I will miss gardening over the winter. So, I'm going to grow a sweet potato vine or two indoors to make me feel like I'm still gardening all winter.
Perhaps your grandmother used to grow them. Or if you are a plant nut like me, maybe you grew one to climb up over the window in your dorm room in college.
The only equipment you'll need, besides the sweet potato, is a wide-mouth jar and a few toothpicks. The sweet potato can be either the red or yellow variety. Red ones are often called yams, but they really aren't. Yams are an entirely different species that grows only in the tropics. For the purpose of growing them as a vine, be sure to get an organic sweet potato — the others in the supermarket have been treated to prevent sprouting.
Insert four or five toothpicks (I prefer the round ones because they are stronger) around the center of the potato, about half way up. These are to support the potato while it's in water.
Fill the jar with water, and put the potato in the water, with the more tapered end down. Set the jar on a windowsill or table near bright light, but not in direct sun. You should see shoots within days, particularly if the sweet potato you selected was already showing signs of sprouting. In about a week, you will see roots on the part of the potato that's in the water.
You can grow your vine entirely in water, remembering to change the water every week or so. Otherwise, it may attract gnats or other insects, and if you let it go for two weeks, it may begin to smell bad.
When the potato has been growing a few weeks, you can transplant it into a pot filled with potting soil, if you like. Bury the entire potato when you do this. Keep the soil barely damp, but not wet, and you will be amazed to see how fast it grows its lovely purplish-green leaves.
If you enjoy this experience, you might consider it as training to grow your own sweet potatoes next summer. In late winter or early spring, start the sweet potato growth as described above. This time, however, you will cut out the sprouted eyes, taking a small piece of the potato with it.
Plant these slips in damp sand or very loose soil, cover your "project" with plastic, and when the soil temperature in your garden reaches about 70 degrees, transplant your slips when they are 6 to 8 inches tall, directly in loose, light soil. They need lots of room to grow, so plant them 3 to 4 feet apart, and harvest your sweet potatoes in the fall.
Coming up: Master Gardener Myrl Bishop will teach a class on Chinese Classical Gardens, looking more closely at the hidden depths of this type of garden. The class will be from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. The cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at email@example.com.