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Ornamental sweet potatoes are low-maintenance choice

GARY BACHMAN/MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY EXTENSIONThe deep purple of a Sweet Caroline Bewitched sweet potato vine grows alongside the Bright Ideas Rusty Red and Bright Ideas Lime varieties, with Diamond Frost Euphorbia providing a pop of tiny white flowers.
GARY BACHMAN/MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY EXTENSIONThe deep purple of a Sweet Caroline Bewitched sweet potato vine grows alongside the Bright Ideas Rusty Red and Bright Ideas Lime varieties, with Diamond Frost Euphorbia providing a pop of tiny white flowers. MSU Extension Service

The Old Farmer's Almanac says the official start of summer is June 20 at 6:34 p.m., but after this past weekend, I'm convinced we're already into summer.

I was ready for the warm weather, but heat coupled with high humidity means I'm now in the three-changes-of-clothes-a-day season. It also means working in the garden is no longer something to look forward to, and it officially can be called a chore.

But we still want nice looking plants, right? What we need to find are plants that require a minimum of care and can carry at least some of the summer color load. So let's take a look at another of my go-to plants for the hot and humid summer in Mississippi.

Ornamental sweet potatoes are great for massing together, and they are available in a wide variety of colors and textures. They also tolerate heat and drought and have few disease issues. Although flea beetles might chew a few holes in them, they're nothing to worry about.

In my landscape, I decided to mix things up a bit and interplant three really different sweet potatoes in the bed by my mailbox. I'm trying a couple of newer -- at least newer to me -- varieties from the Bright Ideas series.

Bright Ideas Lime has brilliant yellow-green leaves, and it grows to only about 10 inches by 24 inches. Bright Ideas Rusty Red has a similar growth habit with foliage displaying antique and chartreuse colors with red veins.

The third and most dramatic choice is Sweet Caroline Bewitched. This selection has attractive, heart-shaped leaves with spiny margins. The leaves are a deep purple and black that have the darkest hues when grown in full sun. I really like their color contrast with the Bright Ideas selections.

I've got one other sweet potato variety in a more whimsical location. Jade Masquerade has heart-shaped leaves that are randomly splashed with dark red and lime green. This plant is in the mouth of a ceramic fish planter that seems to be in the process of being swallowed up by a neighboring Vista Bubblegum Supertunia.

As with most foliage color plants, ornamental sweet potatoes need to be planted in full sun for the best color development. The plants also benefit from a good, well-drained soil. They need a good bit of nutrition, and I always drop a couple of tablespoons of controlled-release fertilizer in the planting hole. This seems to carry the plants through the summer and well into fall.

Despite being drought tolerant, ornamental sweet potatoes benefit greatly from consistent moisture. Be sure to provide supplemental irrigation, especially in dry periods, to help maintain good plant health.

Ornamental sweet potatoes are annuals in Mississippi, except in the coastal counties where the vines come back unless the winter had a spell of extreme cold. In fact, I have a cut-leaf, dark purple to black older selection called Blackie that has come back for five years now.

Even though it's mid-June and hot, it's not too late so go out and pick up some ornamental sweet potatoes and let them work for you this summer.

Gary Bachman, is a professor of horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.

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