Growing Sweet Potato Vines For Beauty and Dinner

A newly planted sweet potato vine grows with a scented geranium in this full-sun hanging basket.

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Do you ever buy ornamental sweet potato vines for your hanging baskets or pots?  These have become more popular in recent years, and several beautiful varieties with variegated or purple leaves have come on the market.   I  planted a few in our large planters on the front patio a few years ago.  They looked gorgeous… until the deer snuck into the garden and had one for a midnight snack!

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A variegated sweet potato vine grows in a mixed container with summer annuals (2015).

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But no worries, these are prolific growers.  The vine grew back in just a few weeks.  That’s not to say that it didn’t get grazed again from time to time!  As it turns out, sweet potato vines are both delicious and highly nutritious!  We know that sweet potato tubers are packed with vitamins and minerals.  Turns out, their leaves are, as well!  The deer were onto something!

But the real surprise came in the fall, when I lifted the summer annuals out of their pots to re-plant hardy ornamentals for winter.  My ‘ornamental’ sweet potato vines had quietly gone about their business of making huge, lovely tubers!  Their tuberous roots are edible, no matter how fancy the leaves might be.

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July 2015

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I never bought any sweet potato vines at the garden center this spring.  But I noticed a sweet potato in our pantry sprouting vines a few weeks ago.  I moved it into a shallow tray of potting soil, in the light, and let those vines continue to grow.

Like you, I’ve wrestled a sweet potato suspended in a Mason jar of water a time or two.  They are very entertaining for the little ones, who love to watch how fast they grow.  This works great for a while, until the potato inevitably begins to rot.  But placing a potato in a pot of moist sand or soil is a more reliable way to encourage it to sprout.   The long, sinuous vines quickly fill a window sill with beautiful heart shaped leaves.

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If you’ve contemplated their leaves, you probably noticed how much the leaves and vines remind you of morning glory vines.  Turns out, the plants are related!  A sweet potato’s botanical name is Ipomoea batatas.  Most of the morning glory, moonflower, or bindweed species belong to the genus Ipomoea.  If your ornamental sweet potato vines have bloomed, you probably noticed that their flower is very like a morning glory.  There are over 500 species in the Ipomoea genus!

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Moonflower, Ipomoea alba

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I decided to let my sprouting potato grow in order to transplant those beautiful vines into hanging baskets on our deck.  It is probably a little late in the season to plant with potatoes in mind, but I knew we could enjoy the vines.

I waited for a wet and cloudy day, and then simply twisted and pulled each stem away from the potato, and planted it into a little drill made into the wet soil in the basket.   What could be easier than poking one’s finger into the dirt, planting the vine, and firming it up?  That is all there is to it!

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Sweet potato vines serve as a host plants and nectar plants for some species of butterflies and moths.

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If you don’t have a wet and cloudy day in the forecast, some gardeners twist the vines from the potato and then leave the vines in a glass of water for a week while roots begin to grow, before transplanting the vine into a pot, bed or basket.

This is the way all vegetable gardeners start off their sweet potato patch each spring!  Some may mail-order their slips, or starter vines, to procure a particular variety of sweet potato.  If you’re not choosy, then buy your starter potato at the grocery store and start your own slips.

Sweet potatoes, also known as ‘yams,’ want a light, sandy, quick draining soil in the garden; if you’re growing them for a fall harvest of sweet potatoes.   If your main interest is their beautiful vines, you’ll plant into any good potting soil already in your containers.

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To make a long story longer, I bought a few fresh sweet potatoes at the farmer’s market a couple of weeks ago.  I’d left them in their plastic bag on the kitchen counter.  I hadn’t gotten around to cooking them, when I noticed their little purple leafy stems pushing against the bag.  It doesn’t take long this time of year for things to get growing, does it?

Since I have plenty of vines myself now, I’m sending these newbies to my daughter.  It was humid enough in the plastic bag that these vines have even started sprouting roots along the base of their shoots!

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I’ve wrapped the bits of potato I trimmed away, still supporting their shoots, in a moist towel and sealed them into a zip-lock to prepare them for their journey through the US Mail.  She can twist each stem loose and plant it in a pot.   And, I finally cooked those potatoes today!

If you live in an area where you don’t have the 4-6 months of warm weather required to raise sweet potatoes in your garden, you might consider growing them in pots for their leaves.

The leaves can be steamed or sauteed.  I bet they would be good dipped in a tempura batter and fried, too!

This is a prolific ‘cut and come again’ veggie treat.  It is an edible that can be grown in a very small space, even on a windowsill or balcony, by someone who wants a steady supply of fresh greens.

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For the cost of a single potato, you can fill several pots or baskets with beauty and a delicious crop that will produce indefinitely.  The sweet potato is a tender perennial, and so will continue to grow so long as you protect it from frost.

The vining stems will sprout roots at every leaf node, and so stem cuttings will root easily in water or moist soil.  Plant vines into window boxes, tubs, or large pots to grow a crop of sweet potatoes on your porch or in your sunroom.

We get so accustomed by buying our veggies at the market that we sometimes forget how easily and affordably we can grow our own food.   It’s always comforting to have a trick or two tucked up our sleeves, and a ready source of food we grow for ourselves at home.

What could be easier than starting a sweet potato vine?

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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A Re-do and a Potential Success

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After constructing several terrariums this winter, I wanted to experiment with an “aqua-terrarium.”  I wanted to try a terrarium of plants growing in a watery environment.

Petco offered a selection of plants sold specifically for use in aquariums, from which I chose two small ferns.  Both ferns were new to me, and so I did a little internet research between buying them and planting them.  Which proved very helpful.

I learned that the Crested Java Fern, Microsorium pteropus, ‘Windelov,’ should be anchored to something and not planted directly into soil, sand or gravel.  And I learned that the (so called) Aqua Fern, Trichomanes javanicum, does not grow well completely submerged.  The success rate of growing this fern in an aquarium long term is slim to none…

I pressed on, allowing the upper leaves of the Aqua Fern to remain above water, and nestled its roots into a pocket of potting mix covered in small stones.

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January 16, 2015 terrarium 004

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Less than a week into the experiment it was clear that this was not a healthy planting.  The water quickly grew murky.  The Aqua Fern never perked up.

I decided to cut my losses and save the Crested Java Fern by moving it into a new, soil-less  “aqua-terrarium.’  I used pure spring water in the construction, and placed the newly built container where it would get bright but indirect light for most of the day.

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And the fern has responded with new growth.  There is not only evidence of new shoots from the base, but what appear to be roots have begun to grow from the tips of some of the fronds!

Native to Southeast Asia, this fern may be found growing along areas that flood and in shallow bodies of fresh or brackish water.  It will grow in anything from moist soil to a completely underwater environment.  And it spreads itself, with those growths on its leaves which take hold to most any surface, to cover wide areas.  I enjoy the beautiful shape of its fronds floating in the water.

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I clean the surface of the water every week or so with a paper towel before topping off the water level.  I don’t know what the “sheen” which forms on the water’s surface may be, but I remove it and wipe residue from the neck of the vase to keep it looking fresh.

Thus far, I rate this experiment as a potential success, and would recommend it to others who want to try growing an ornamental plant underwater indoors.  Now, I’m considering whether to add a small aquatic snail to help feed the fern and balance the planting….

After cleaning the murky water from the original ‘aqua terrarium’ planting, adding a bit more gravel, and allowing the Aqua fern several weeks to show new growth; I decided a “re-do” was in order.

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Who knows; this poor fern may have been on the decline when I purchased it.  An unfamiliar species, I don’t know how it should have looked to begin with, but it didn’t look particularly appealing from the beginning.

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Back to Petco to find a replacement plant, I was amazed to find several containers of my favorite Peacock Spikemoss on the aquarium plant display!  Really?  I know they appreciate moist soil, but have never heard of growing them completely submerged!

But I decided that while I wouldn’t try to grow it underwater, spikemoss would certainly look better in my vase than the dead fern!  And I just happened to have some clumps already growing well at home…  Remember the Amaryllis planting?  Well, the strawberry begonia plants and spikemoss are still growing strong.

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The re-do was a simple bit of “chuck and pluck.”  I very unceremoniously chucked the dead fern where all such things land, and plucked a healthy bit of spikemoss and strawberry begonia out of the Amaryllis garden where they were growing.

A bit of re-arranging of stones and cleaning up of the original vase made it ready to accept the new plants.  I added some clumps of moss, an Apophyllite cluster for sparkle, and watered it all in with a bit of pure spring water.

Although not an ‘aqua-terrarium,’ it is still  a pleasing ‘terrarium.’  We will enjoy it until the plants grow too large for the vase.

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Although the original ‘aqua terrarium’ experiment didn’t work out as I had planned, it has finally worked out OK.  All I lost was a single plant, while gaining some useful experience.

Lessons learned:  Regular potting compost doesn’t work out well in an aqua-terrarium.  Maybe I needed a thicker layer of sand and gravel to contain it, but I still think it was the factor in making the water murky and unpleasant.

Don’t depend on the pet store to recommend appropriate plants for growing underwater.  I should have browsed and noted the names of the plants first;  then done the internet research before making a purchase.  Just because a plant is sold for use in an aquarium doesn’t mean it will grow successfully underwater.

Given the right plant, like the Crested Java Fern,  this approach to an aqua-terrarium works and makes an interesting and unusual display.  I would definitely construct ‘aqua-terrariums’ in future, using the Java fern, with an eye to an interesting container and beautiful stones.

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This fern is known to grow rapidly and divide easily.  It is a good gift for someone who claims they have no green thumb, but would like to have a plant in their home or office.  There is no worry about over-watering!

Gardening experiments give us ample opportunities to fix our mistakes and try again.  It is better to try something new and learn something, even if we have a ‘re-do’ or three along the way.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

 

Begonias, Begonias

A cane Begonia.

An angel wing cane Begonia.

I love begonias.  That may sound like a strange obsession for a “forest gardener”, but it is my strange obsession.

I remember buying a hanging basket of blooming angel wing Begonias with tiny dark burgundy and green  leaves at the  farmer’s market when I was living in a third floor walk up.  It made my small screened in porch more beautiful, and made me happy.  Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for adding beautiful begonia plants to my collection.

The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia.  The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright.  When the branch gets too heavy with flowers, it breaks off.

The first bloom of the season on a tuberous Begonia. The catalog advertised this as a cascading variety, but the growth is vigorous and upright.

Cane begonias growing together in a hanging basket in July.

Cane angel wing begonias growing together in a hanging basket in July.

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Begonia Bolivienses in partial sun.  When the soil is too wet the stems will rot off at soil level.  Weeks of rain will do that….

There are thousands of cultivars in the genus Begonia.  Whether grown for their outrageous leaves or their abundant bright flowers, Begonias can be found from tiny to tremendous.

Dragon's Blood Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

Dragon’s Wing Begonia is a tender perennial in Zone 7B

Begonias work in a forest garden because they appreciate shade.  Although some, like the new Dragon Wing cultivars and Begonia “Bolivienses” can take hours of sun each day, most are quite happy growing in permanent shade.  They also require very little care.  Most like to dry out a little between waterings.  They stand up to the heat and humidity of my Virginia forest garden partly because they originate in the mountainous tropical forests of Central and South America and Southern Asia.

Begonia

Rex Begonias grown with Fuschia Marinka and ferns in partial sun.

Although some cultivars of hardy Begonia are available, which survive the winter here in zone 7B and return each spring; most Begonias are tender perennials and must spend the winter inside where the temperatures don’t drop below the mid 40s.  They are happy growing in the house, where they get some daylight from windows, and bloom happily throughout the winter.   Many of my Begonias overwinter in a sunny garage.  They may lose a few leaves when moved out into the garden in the spring, but bounce back quickly with new leaves once they adjust to the brighter light.

 A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

A tiny wasp visits the flower of this Rex Begonia.

Gryphon Begonia

Begonia Gryphon, grown in a protected shady corner, began the season in a 4″pot, and and grew this large by September. 

Garden centers are full of bedding Begonias (Begonia Semperflorens) and Dragon Wing Begonias in the spring.   Begonia Semperflorens, also known as wax Begonias, or popular because these small, neat plants produce an abundance of small red, pink, or white flowers during the entire growing season.  Many commercial landscapers fill huge beds with these plants, but often plant them in too much sun.  When they get too much sun and dry out the foliage browns and looks ratty.  Growth is stunted, and the plants lose their beauty.  These plants are easy to start from stem cuttings.  There are some varieties with variegated foliage which trail more than they grow upright.  I love these in hanging baskets growing in partial sun.

Begonia Semper growing with Plectranthus.

A rare, variegated Begonia Semperflorens  growing with Plectranthus.

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Begonia “Gryphon” is new to the market. Widely available for only the past three years, it is grown for its huge foliage. My first Gryphon grew to 4 feet tall from a 4″ pot in a single season. Putting all of its energy into leaves, I’ve never seen it flower. This is from a cutting taken from my original plant.

Dragon Wing Begonias have also become common spring plants in big box stores and are easy to grow.  They can take sun or shade and are covered in red or pink flowers all season.  They also root easily from a stem cutting in moist soil or in water.  This means you can break off a stem, push it into moist potting soil, keep it shaded and moist for several weeks, and expect it to grow into a new plant.  Dipping the stem cutting in powdered rooting hormone before planting speeds the process.

Begonias and Euphorbia grow well in the shade of a Dogwood tree.  The top dressing of pea gravel discourages digging squirrels, and keeps the plants clean when it rains.

Begonia Bolivienses and Tuberous Begonia  with Euphorbia grow well in the shade of a Dogwood tree. The top dressing of pea gravel discourages digging squirrels and keeps the plants clean when it rains.

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This cane Begonia is still adjusting to life outside after its sixth winter in the garage. Soon it will cover itself in huge clusters of peachy flowers.

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Cane type Begonias bloom generously throughout the season with many tiny flowers in each cluster.

Angel wing, or cane  Begonias are a little harder to find.  Specialty and mail order nurseries are the most reliable sources.  MacDonald’s Garden Center stocks a nice variety in spring and early summer, but their satellite stores don’t stock them.  These Begonias are grown more for their huge, bright leaves than for their flowers.  Marked with silver, burgundy, and various greens, these wing shaped leaves often grow on red stems and have dark red undersides.  Angel wing Begonias produce clusters of flowers in white, pink, red, or orange.  Sometimes there are 50 or more tiny flowers in a single cluster.  Angel wing cane Begonias can grow into small shrubs and can top out over 6’ tall after several years of growth.July 30 2013  Foliage 004

Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

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Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

Begonia Rex

Rex Begonias are also grown for their leaves, but stay much smaller than cane Begonias.  Many of the leaves are textured, intricately marked with color, and some even grow into spirals with a snail shell appearance.  Rex Begonias flower, but are insignificant on most cultivars.  Tiny Rex Begonia plants can often be found in the houseplant section of big box hardware stores.  Sold in 2.5”- 6” pots, often with just a few leaves, these tiny starts will grow into impressive plants indoors or out.  Pot them up so the soil will drain, feed them, give them bright but filtered light, and they take off and become beautiful plants.

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Tuberous begonia planted with Japanese Painted Fern and an Angel Wing Begonia with dark red foliage.

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A tuberous begonia shares a pot with a lace cap Hydrangea

Tuberous, or double, Begonias are grown for their large, bright flowers.  These are extremely popular in Europe.  Tubers are offered through catalogs all winter and show up in big box stores in late winter alongside other summer bulbs and tubers.  By early May the plants begin to appear, blooming, in better garden centers.  The Homestead Garden Center in James City Co. always offers a beautiful assortment of Dragon Wing and Tuberous begonias at very affordable prices.  http://www.homesteadgardencenter.com

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Tuberous Begonia

Begonia, "Flamingo" grows very tall canes and blooms in pink.  This one is in its third summer hanging in this peach tree.

Begonia, “Flamingo” grows very tall canes and blooms in pink. This one is in its third summer hanging in this peach tree.

The tubers are started in shallow trays of soil, like caladium tubers, and then repotted into baskets or pots once they sprout.  Upright or cascading, these hybrids are bred for outrageously beautiful flowers in every shade of red, pink, white, yellow, and orange.  Double, triple, picotee, and fringed, these flowers can mimic roses, water lilies, and anemones.  When kept watered and fed, they bloom for months.  Sadly, this is the hardest begonia for me to grow, because they absolutely must have the proper moisture.  If they get too dry, they droop.  Too wet, they rot.  I’ve killed more than my share of these beautiful plants, and am cautious in buying them.

Hardy begonia, blooming in early September with ferns, ivy, and Creeping Jenny.

Hardy begonia, blooming in early September with ferns, ivy, and Creeping Jenny.

Hardy Begonias are beautiful in a shady border.  These are technically “tuberous” Begonias, as they have an enlarged area at the bottom of each stem underground which survives the winter, but these plants are very easy to grow.  These make their re-appearance each year in the late spring and can grow to 18”-24” by late summer.  They bloom, like an Angel wing Begonia, with clusters of white or pink flowers and increase each year.  Interestingly, they self sow and new plants often crop up in other parts of the garden. These are beautiful grown in beds with fern and Hosta and are a good plant to grow on top of spring bulbs.

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Begonia Rex growing with a lady fern.

Begonias grow quickly and make beautiful displays either alone, or in potted arrangements with other shade loving plants.  Although heavily hybridized over the last century, most cultivars retain the tough constitution of the forest plants originally collected from the mountains of South America and Asia by determined collectors who loved Begonias enough to search them out in the wild and bring them home to Europe and North America.

Cane Begonia, "Torch" in a hanging basket.

Cane Begonia, “Torch” in a hanging basket.

Here some sources for ordering Begonia plants:

Garden Harvest Supply is an excellent company I frequently use as a source for plants I can’t buy locally, or to buy plants earlier in the season than local nurseries carry them.  They have excellent plants and give excellent service:

http://www.gardenharvestsupply.com/ProductCart/pc/Potted-Begonia-Plants-for-Sale-c385.htmsept. 25, 2013 lanai 014

sept. 25, 2013 lanai 021I enjoy the Taylor’s Greenhouse site, but so far haven’t placed an order.  They have a much wider selection of otherwise hard to find Begonias.  Their page also has further links of interest to anyone interested in Begonias:

http://taylorgreenhouses.com/

And finally, I’ve just learned about the Queensland Begonia Society, in Queensland Australia.  Please visit their site for excellent articles on Begonia care and propagation, and for their stunning photos of the Begonias in their care.

Here overwintered cuttings of an angel wing begonia and a Dragon wing begonia grow with a Rex Begonia and a calla Lily.

Here overwintered cuttings of an Angel wing begonia and a Dragon wing begonia grow happily with a Rex Begonia and a calla Lily.

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