By: Laura Miller
Have you ever considered growing sweet potatoes vertically? These ground-covering vines can reach 20 feet (6 m.) in length. For gardeners with limited space, growing sweet potatoes on a trellis may be the only way to include this tasty tuber among their homegrown vegetables.
As an added bonus, these vines make attractive patio plants when planted as a vertical sweet potato garden.
A trellis can also be used for growing sweet potatoesvertically. This space-saving design can be utilized in the garden or with container-grownsweet potatoes. Since sweet potatoes tend to be creepers rather thanclimbers, choosing the correct trellis is essential for success.
Choose a design which is strong enough to support thetrellised sweet potato. Ideally, it will also have ample room to gently weavethe vines through the openings of the trellis or to tie the vines to thesupports. Here are some suggestions for trellis materials to use when growingsweet potatoes vertically:
Once the trellis is in place, plant the slips 8 to 12 inches(20 to 30 cm.) from the base of the support structure. As the sweet potatoplants grow, gently weave the stems back and forth through the horizontalsupports. If the vine has reached the top of the trellis, allow it to cascadeback to the ground.
Excess length or vines growing away from the trellis can betrimmed. When the vines begin to die back in the fall, it’s timeto harvest your vertical sweet potato garden!
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Read more about Sweet Potatoes
Given the right variety, good growing conditions and enough space, the sweet potato can produce prodigious amounts of food. A major food crop in many parts of the world, sweet potatoes are the kind of veggie for which many gardeners think you need a big garden. However, almost any gardener can grow them with careful planning.
Although sweet potatoes can make a crop in relatively poor soil, you’ll get more and bigger tubers by meeting their basic needs. These tropical perennial vines need a long growing season (USDA Zones 8 though 11 are just right) and are sensitive to frost. The soil should be at least moderately fertile, loose and friable, with good drainage. Grow them in full sun and water well about once a week.
You have plenty of choices. Tubers can be red, orange, white or purple and range in size from six inches to 18 inches. These are readily available:
If you grow sweet potatoes in containers, spacing isn’t really an issue – it’s generally one plant per container. Bush and semi-bush varieties are the best choice for container growing unless you just want something ornamental. Your container should be about three feet square and the same deep to provide adequate room for roots and tubers, and it should drain well. Tip it over to harvest.
Vining sweet potatoes take up a lot of room. However, most of the growth is in the vines themselves. Commercial growers typically space the plants about 18 inches apart and grow them in rows three feet apart. Consider planting another quick-growing crop in the area where the vines will eventually spread to give you maximum production from your garden. Bush beans would be a good choice.
In commercial plantings, growers use the same spacing for both vining and semi-bush sweet potatoes. You can do the same, as the roots will take up about the same amount of space in both cases. You might want to give them a little more room if you have it to ensure they won’t be competing for water and nutrients.
Although sweet potatoes are vines, they don’t climb as readily as something like a pole bean. You can guide them onto a chain link fence or trellis by weaving the tips through the support. You may also want to tie them at strategic spots. If space is really at a premium, grow the true bush varieties. They’ll still give you a reasonable crop.
Choose a fresh, firm sweet potato that has budded. You can use any color sweet potato. If you are going to grow more than one plant, try planting different colors.
Hold the potato so it is vertical and place four to six toothpicks in a circle around the potato, about halfway down.
Put the potato in the vase with the narrower end pointing down into the jar. The toothpicks should hold the potato suspended with a bit of the potato sticking out of the vase.
Fill the vase with water and place it in a warm, sunny location in your house. The plant should begin to grow in about three days.
Change the water every week to keep the plant healthy and discourage pests.
Be sure to plant your sweet potatoes in full sun to part shade. They generally prefer full sun but appreciate some afternoon shade in hot, dry regions.
Sweet potatoes prefer soil that is well-drained but high in organic matter. Sandier soil is preferable to dense, clay soil.
Once established, sweet potatoes will tolerate growing in dry soil. It's best to keep it evenly moist with 1 inch of water given once a week. Don't water your sweet potatoes during the final three to four weeks prior to harvest to prevent the mature tubers from splitting.
Sweet potatoes should not be planted outdoors until the temperature of the soil has warmed to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They need soil growing temperatures between 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and an air growing temperature of 65 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sweet potatoes are not heavy feeders, but it's important to give them balanced nutrition, typically with proper soil preparation. Overfeeding tends to promote growth of foliage rather than tubers. The best approach is to add compost to the beds before planting the sweet potatoes. Alternatively, you can apply an organic liquid fertilizer to the soil prior to planting.
The first thing you should know about growing sweet potatoes is that they love hot weather! A long hot growing season is ideal for growing these tuber-like roots. If your summer is short, pick an early variety like Beauregard or Georgia Jet to ensure you’ll have enough time to harvest and cure your potatoes before frost arrives. The sweet potato is suitable for growing in zones 3-11 as an annual, and zones 8-11 as a perennial.
Whether you decide to plant in beds or in grow bags, choose a spot that provides full-sunlight for most of the day.
Sweet potatoes need a loamy soil with a pH between 5.0-6.5. You should amend your soil with lots of rich organic matter and make sure that it is well drained.
Sweet potatoes aren’t finicky about the texture of the ground they grow in, but if your soil is full of rocks and clumps, you may end up with oddly shaped potatoes at the end of the season.
Typically, sweet potatoes are grown from purchased slips, but it’s possible to root a store-bought sweet potato, as well.
Begin the rooting process about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. Rooting your own sweet potatoes will take up to a month, so be patient! If you purchase slips from a seed company, they’ll usually ship them out around the time it’s suitable to plant them outdoors.
Put your sweet potatoes into some loose potting soil in a warm, humid area until sprouts start to form. Then, transfer to an area with some filtered sunlight until the sprouts are ready to plant. Some people will tell you to root in water without the soil, but plants tend not to form as strong of root systems this way.
Once you’ve got your hands on some sweet potato slips and the chance of frost has passed, plant them in foot-wide hills of amended earth. I’d recommend dedicating a single bed to growing sweet potatoes since the vines will require some room to spread.
When planting, cover the slips in dirt but leave the leaves exposed. Water your slips once they’ve been transplanted. Remember, it’s super important that you plant them a few weeks after the chance of frost has passed, and warm temperatures have arrived for the season. Sweet potatoes are quite sensitive to frost.
If you’re lacking space or good soil, you can try growing sweet potatoes in potato grow bags. This is also an excellent option if you are worried the temperatures might dip because you can bring them indoors temporarily.
Give plants 12-18 inches between each other, and 3-4 feet between plant rows. Plant them so that there’s about 1/2 of stem above the ground and the roots are covered.
To ensure that your baby plants stay toasty, use some kind of mulch to help warm the soil. Many gardeners like to use black plastic mulch when growing sweet potatoes for this reason.
A.m.done help me!! I have potato vines all along by back fence,all 6 years old,they are all starting to die. Underneath the green collage is brown and dead branches,I live in not Calif.,don’t know what’s gone wrong.
Hi Dave, there could be several things at play.
Freezing – If it got cold, as in, near freezing or colder, there’s a risk the vine froze and the air-borne parts are dying off. It’s normal, at least for certain varieties, but it also means that most of the vine will have to grow back from the stump of from whichever portion hasn’t died yet. It’s a fast grower, so nothing to worry about. Not much you can do except cover the roots with leaf mulch to make sure the portion that’s in the soil stays healthy.
Disease – If the season was particularly rainy maybe the soil stayed soggy for too long. There’s always the risk of a root rot fungus when soil is wet and temperatures drop. Treat with fermented weed tea.
Age – A bit surprising to have a whole row of these die so young, since they can also reach 15 or nearly 20 years of age… but sometimes in harsher climates than their native tropics, lifespans are shorter.
Poison – extremely unlikely, but here’s a way to treat a poisoned plant, although not always successful… There was a case of a poisoned shrub, where birds caused it to nearly die due to excessive pooping!
Gaspard, thank you for your reply, the vines have never had a problem with the cold, and our last rainy season was fine, could their be an insect problem? Just a year ago they were beautiful, I’m stumped.
It very well may be insects, but you’d need to send a picture over to make sure of this.
Hi! Does anyone know a way to vine these yourself so it promotes a hard wood at the bottom. Also ive read around thats these have a life span of about 6 years. Idk if to believe this.
Hi! Took a few days to answer, but well, late is better than never! I’m not sure where you got that information about the life span, I’ve seen potato vines that were over a decade old and doing fine. They turn woody at the base when they’re allowed to grow quite large, kind of like bonsai making: you need to let it grow dense and lush for the trunk to thicken accordingly. Afterwards, when it’s grown thick, you can cut it back and keep the trunk nice and wide. But if you always prune it so there aren’t many branches or vines running around, the trunk won’t need to grow thick and will stay rather thin (but it’ll turn woody eventually). So it’s more a technique of “let it grow and prune only when the trunk is thick enough”… which might not be compatible with every garden!
The potato vine seems to be just what I need, my only concern is the fragrance. I am allergic to jasmine, will this be the same?
Hi Larry! Yes, potato vine is a great choice because although it smells like jasmine, it doesn’t trigger airborne allergies. However, the plant itself contains toxic compounds (especially the berries). This just means you should be careful not to ingest it. Particularly vulnerable persons should also wear gloves when manipulating it.
Other options for wonderful, scented, allergy-free vines are clematis (like Clematis montana) and sweet pea. These fragrant flowers are known to not trigger allergies.
Hi! I’m in Zone 5. I just bought my first potato vine in August, off the clearance shelf at my local greenhouse, looking so pitiful I had to try to rescue it. I potted it because I knew it wouldn’t survive outside in my zone. It was improving outdoors, provided some new blooms and foliage. It never has shown much foliage. I wouldn’t call the growth “significant,” but it looked strong and relatively healthy, compared with when I bought it. It’s about 2 feet tall from the top of the soil to the top of the tallest branches. I have never really *pruned* it, just kept it tidy, snipping off the dead stuff it came with. About three weeks ago, just before the first hard freeze, I brought the plant indoors (in the same container it was in outside, with some Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control added to the soil). I have large, south-ish-facing windows, and it gets some direct sun, but mostly indirect sunlight. It finished blooming in the past day or two, and is now looking pretty ragged again. The thickest stems feel a bit rubbery to the touch, if that makes sense …? A lot of the tiny new-growth branches browned up and died, and now I’m noticing brownish, even more sparse foliage. My pot does have a drainage hole, and the plant seemed happy in it outside. I’m wondering if indoor potato vines go dormant during the winter months? Would now be a good time for a significant pruning? Should I repot with indoor potting soil and take extra measures to further improve drainage? Any other ideas? I am determined to save this beautiful plant! Thanks!
Dear Jodi, thanks for providing such detailed context! First off, it’s quite normal that change from out- to indoors would give the plant some form of a shock, it would have actually been strange for it to keep on going as if nothing had happened.
Blooming is expected to stop in November, so that’s pretty much on. As for the rubbery stems, this vine stays flexible for the first few years of growth, it would only turn woody on older growth. However, if it’s outright mushy then you might be losing the plant to rot due to overwatering. If this happens, best salvage healthy parts and make cuttings, because recovering from root rot is virtually impossible.
Yes, potato vine does go dormant in winter, to answer your question. Perhaps having it indoors near windows is actually too warm and dry for it. It would be best to move it to a cool place that still gets plenty of light, because now that the blooming is over, the plant will want to focus more on roots.
Potato vine likes rather large pots, around 1 ½ feet (40-45 cm) and you can plant in such a large pot directly, no need to upsize incrementally. Great that you’ve provided proper drainage. Have you checked that water doesn’t accumulate at the bottom of the pot because of the saucer under it? 10 to 15 minutes after watering, if you still see water in the saucer, dump all the excess water out.
Pruning dead plant material off is possible in any season as long as you’re only cutting in the dead wood. If you want to snip some live bits off, best wait until spring: again, the dormant winter phase is when Solanum jasminoides focuses on underground growth, and having wounds to heal isn’t the best at this time.
So to sum it up, it feels to me like your potato vine might be shaken up due to moving to a place that is consistently hotter and drier than what it expected given the season, and trying to find a cooler place with light (as long as it doesn’t freeze) should let it have a restful dormant period.
I’m sure it’ll do great under your diligent care, Jodi!
My potato vine is showing more yellow leaves at the bottom. It is in a pot against a wall and has grown aggressively. It seems to absorb watering quickly. I water daily but it goes dry overnight. Should I water 2x daily? Is this the cause of the yellowing of leaves?
Hi Pat! First of all, one possibility for the yellowing of leaves might simply be fall: in colder areas, your potato vine would lose its leaves. But I’d probably associate the yellowing of your solanum potato vine leaves in this case to water stress because:
* It’s growing in a pot. Pot-grown plants notoriously need a lot more water. This is even more true of terra cotta pots where water evaporates along the side of the pot. If you’ve got a terra cotta pot, you’ll help the pot retail a little water by rolling any type of plastic material around it, to cut wind off around the pot and lock moisture in. Or, you could lower the pot below ground level with the pot-in-pot technique, that would also cover that problem.
* It’s in full sun. That’s good because the plant needs that.
* It’s against a wall. That doubles the amount of heat and reflected light it gets, and shields off disturbing winds. It’s not a bad thing.
* You seem to practice watering in the morning. Much of the water given in the morning will evaporate before the plant even gets it.
So it’s quite normal that a), your plant grows stunningly lush and b) having reached these limitations, it starts feeling water stress.
* Mulch the pot with shredded dried leaves, wood chips or cocoa hulls, anything to add a top layer of water-retaining organic material.
* Try watering in the evening. Your plant should soak up all the water overnight and should be able to cope with the entire next day.
* If you’re so inclined, try using hydrogel water crystals in your plant soil.
* If after a few days it doesn’t seem to help, you’ll have to either choose to trim it back to lessen water demand, transplant it to the ground in another spot, pot it in a larger container for a larger water reserve, find a way to water more continuously with a bottle drip…
* or simply, as you wondered, water twice daily!
Just ensure the water drains well, because stopping up the hole under the pot to just “keep the water in” would only work the first few days: as soon as water starts accumulating, root rot might occur.
Thank you Gaspard for all your help & information
As Summer is approaching & the leaves have stayed green, I have decided to keep it in full sun, where it is & hope by winter it is much more established. If not, I will purchase a new plant…
My potatoe plant climber leaves go yellow then fall off, it has only one stem which has wound its way around the trellis
Please help, it has been in for over a year.
Dear Sue, I’d love to help out, but I would need a bit more information, if you can share it:
* Where is your plant growing – in a house, a lean-in or outside, is it potted or growing in the ground? Do you live near the sea, in what country?
* Are the leaves falling off from bottom to top, or from top to bottom?
Possibilities range from simple lack of nutrients (fertilize with mostly anything, the plant isn’t picky) to fungal infections, which might require more care (repotting to ensure clean soil and better drainage, especially).