Sweet potato makes stunning landscapes

Published 5:39 pm Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ornamental sweet potatoes rule! I just returned from speaking to a group, called Pascagoula Pride, that takes city beautification seriously. As I drove through town, I could not help but admire their effective use of the lime green ornamental sweet potatoes.

Much of the country has already experienced killing frost, but along the Gulf Coast, winter is still held at bay. Regardless of where you live, everyone should consider using the ornamental sweet potato in next spring’s plantings.

We have grown accustomed to seeing the ornamental sweet potatoes Marguerite and the dark purple selection called Blackie. Countless other selections are available, some with heart-shaped leaves. Then the Sweet Caroline series made its debut and was an instant hit. These became known as the “behaved” sweet potatoes. They are vigorous, but they are a little less aggressive, and their spread can be kept in check.

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Next year will bring a new selection sure to become an instant hit. It is called Illusion Emerald Lace, and like the name suggests, it has a lacy look by sweet potato standards. It is deeply toothed and much more compact in habit, but it still packs plenty of vigor.

Illusion Emerald Lace is lime green to chartreuse, and it will be the perfect spiller plant in mixed containers. It responds very well to cutting back or pinching and will make a basket as pretty as a Boston fern. It also can be grown in typical fashion as a showy groundcover.

The different colors intermingle for an effective display. In addition to their beauty in baskets, they are unbeatable for cascading over walls, easily capable of hanging down eight to 10 feet. For a tropical look, try combining them with coleus or cannas.

Like the ones grown for tasty Thanksgiving dishes, these, too, like fertile, well-drained soil. This usually means you must amend your bed with 3 to 4 inches of organic matter. Incorporate 2 pounds of a slow-release, 12-6-6-fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed space while preparing the bed. Plant nursery-grown transplants at the same depth they are growing in the container, spacing 24 to 48 inches apart, depending on the variety.

Give supplemental water during the long growing season. Flea beetles are known to occasionally make them unsightly, so treat with a recommended insecticide at the first sign of damage. Prune as needed to keep your sweet potato vines contained in their allotted space.

The ornamental sweet potato is the best annual groundcover available today. If you think about the cost for a four or six inch container and then consider the amount of growth or spread it gives, you quickly realize no other plant can give you as much bang for your gardening buck.

Cool season is a fun time to plan for next year’s garden and landscape. I promise you, the new Illusion Emerald Lace ornamental sweet potato will renew your interest in creating dazzling color.

Norman Winter is a horticulturist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service.