ornamental sweet potato

Illusion Emerald Lace ornamental sweet potato offers a controlled manageable habit in the landscape. (Norman Winter/TNS)

As you may have gathered, in my garden world lime green rules! Last year when I bought my house, I fantasized about what I would do artistically with the long rock wall that stretched almost the whole width of the backyard. Someone referred to it as a retaining wall and I was incensed; this is The Wall, the focal point of my soon-to-be masterpiece. My plans included several plants of Illusion Emerald Lace Sweet Potato to gently drape over the rocks.

Alas I could not get them and went generic. The lime green roared in, in waves of kudzu-like chartreuse. I cut about 3 to 5 feet off the wall every couple of weeks. But this generic jewel was determined. In a “Jumanji”-like performance, it traveled to the back fence 20 feet away wrapping itself around azaleas and flowering quince. It was on a mission to devour, only stopping because of the fence.

This is precisely why Illusion Emerald Lace has won 92 awards over the years since its debut. Proven Winners has 17 selections but this one I put on a pedestal and in the category of the behaved sweet potatoes. There are several more on the list that are very controllable and in fact would make excellent hanging basket plants.

This year, I have my Illusion Emerald Lace and have created vista points with Hot Coral SunPatiens, others with Luscious Royale Cosmo Lantana and one of my favorite partnerships with the fiery orange of ColorBlaze Wicked Hot Coleus. I am also growing the Illusion Midnight Lace, which has deep dark purple black leaves. You may also want to search out Illusion Garnet Lace with soft rust colored foliage.


Illusion Midnight Lace ornamental sweet potato also has a compact growth habit with deeply toothed leaves. Here it is combined with ColorBlaze Wicked Hot coleus. (Norman Winter/TNS)

The Illusion group is deeply toothed, creating as wonderful of a contrast in texture as it does color. Though they are much more compact in habit, I promise they have just the right amount of landscape vigor suitable for draping over walls, spilling out of baskets and containers, and even to use as a groundcover.

The ornamental sweet potato is the best annual ground cover today. Think about the cost for a 4- or 6-inch container and then consider the amount of growth or spread and you quickly realize no other plant can give you as much bang for your gardening purchase. Like the tasty sweet potato grown for Sunday dishes, this one too likes fertile, well-drained soil, and that’s especially true in the landscape. This usually means amending with 3 to 4 inches of organic matter. Containers with potting soil are like a dream come true.

In the landscape while preparing the soil incorporate 2 pounds of fertilizer per 100 square feet. I love a slow release 12-6-6-fertilizer but it is no biggie. Use your favorite blend with a slow release form of nitrogen while preparing the bed. Plant your favorite color of Illusion transplants at the same depth they are growing in the container, spacing 12-18 inches apart, expecting 10-12 inches in height with a spread of 30 to 36 inches. 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. As a pollinator lover, I usually will cut out anything that bothers me as the sweet potato grows back quickly. Prune anytime as needed to keep your sweet potato vines contained in their allotted space.


Illusion Emerald Lace ornamental sweet potato and Hot Coral SunPatiens dazzle in the foreground, as tall Rockin salvias and Vermillionaire cuphea welcome pollinators in the back. (Norman Winter/TNS)

Celebrate the fact that you no longer have to put up with varieties that mimic kudzu. No matter where you live, you have plenty of time to enjoy a long season of artistic creation using Illusion ornamental sweet potatoes throughout the garden.

Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.”

Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.