Is it a vine or a conqueror?

Story by Schroeder Wilson
Photo by Pat Drackett

There was no doubt about it – this was a treasure to be had for just a little inconvenience. The driver hit the brake quickly, jerking the whole truck to a complete stop. The object of my desire was sitting on the curb in the afternoon sun with not a blemish on her, deserted without even a poorly written sign. She might have been the lower part of a table. But anyone could see she had class and a nice heavy iron body to boot. There was no tabletop to be seen, but that didn’t matter. What was important was that the legs were sturdy and stood straight. Ornate triangles and ovals on all four sides just added to the beauty – how could she be discarded in this barbaric fashion?

These thoughts raced through my brain for about three seconds, and of course the natural conclusion it was their lost and my great find. One person’s junk is another gardener’s great flower container. And this one had so much potential! She had been painted black, and of course black goes with anything. In this gardener’s eye, all she needed was a big black pot to sit snuggly inside the four iron legs. The lower cross bars would support the pot just fine. We were talking about a good 30 square inches of iron support. And the back patio would gain some automatic class in that flat stretch of concrete.

This little vine has the most beautiful dark purple cordate, or heart-shaped, leaves. And those dramatic leaves would provide excellent contrast for my other flowering plants.

So down went the truck’s tailgate, and in went the ornate iron prize. I couldn’t wait to get this baby home. All I had to do was find a pot big enough to fit into that huge cavity; something black would do quite nicely. You gotta have dreams and big designs.

The pot was going to be somewhat of a problem, but as for the plant design that was already decided. This gardener knew exactly what she was going to use. Anyone who knew anything about outdoor containers knows the three essentials of outstanding design.

This common and very successful design recipe – commonly called thrillers, fillers, and spillers – combines a tall central focal plant, broad colorful plants around it, and trailing plants to spill over and soften the edges of the container. 

And those beautiful spillers were waiting in pots, waiting for warmer weather so they could to be planted. The plants were ‘Black Heart’ sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Black Heart’) one of my favorites. 

This little vine has the most beautiful dark purple cordate, or heart-shaped, leaves. And those dramatic leaves would provide excellent contrast for my other flowering plants. No muss and no fuss, this vine takes no work – we call it low maintenance. This carefree tuberous plant loves high humidity and heat. Oh sure, it is a very vigorous grower – it can spread up to 48-60 inches. But I had plans: This gardener was going to let the combination plants duke it out Darwinian style, thinking the sweetpotato plant would grow downward and the fillers and thrillers would grow up. 

Well, that wasn’t what ‘Black Heart’ had in mind. Its plan was to take over the world, first the ornate iron planter, then the whole dang garden, one square foot at a time. In reality, this gardener can only interpret what the plant does and not what it is really thinking, you would have to be a mind reader for that. 

Pruning didn’t seem to slow the thing down a bit, and you couldn’t even see the tops of the other container plants. This wouldn’t do. The only option was to completely remove the ‘Black Heart’ sweetpotato vine from the beautiful iron container. 

It had really done its job softening the container’s edges; so much you couldn’t even see the container. So the whole thing had to go. This monster of a vine was dug up from the pot and the ground below the pot. It had several root systems that had to be pulled up; anywhere the stems had made good contact with the soil, down went the secondary roots. The large vine looked like an overgrown python that had eaten too much, like a large water buffalo or something. 

After some radical pruning, the plant was transferred to another big pot. In the first few days, the vine lost all its leaves and looked half dead in the new container. We figured it was a goner. The transplant shock was a big setback for the vine, but it wasn’t giving up. After six or seven days, new growth appeared on the stems. Not a leaf in sight, but the dead-looking stems were supporting new little sprouts. It was alive!

Not every well-planned design goes well. Not even treasured ornate containers can solve every problem. Some plants just don’t play nicely with others so you have to separate them for the protection of the others. ‘Black Heart’ is still a beautiful, cascading plant. It just doesn’t like to share containers. Call it selfish, but don’t forget to plant one this year, just give it plenty of room.

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