These are some of my potato planters. There’s about 2 inches of soil in each. I set seed potatoes ON the soil, and then cover them over with straw or hay. That’s enough for the plants to thrive and produce a new harvest.
With the Internet, you can learn all about growing potatoes: garbage can potatoes, potatoes in towers, potatoes in buckets, potatoes in straw bales… Of course, the old fashioned way, used by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of agriculture, was to bury a potato and harvest more, fresher potatoes from the same spot once potato plants had grown and withered. That STILL works! Feel free to give it a whirl.
Agriculture evolves, and there’s a boatload of stuff you can bring to potato-growing that could improve your results—or at least simplify the job. Here are nine things I’ve learned that you might find useful… or at least amusing:
I lost interest in the purple potatoes I harvested last season (the skins are unpleasantly thick for a relatively small potato) and left about two dozen small potatoes in a shopping bag in the corner of my basement. With no added water and no soil from which to draw nutrients, the potatoes sprouted and sent stems a full two feet up so the tops emerged from the bag.
1. Plant certified seed potatoes. Grocery store and farmers’ market potatoes will most likely grow for you, as will potatoes you harvested last year but haven’t yet eaten. The chance that any of these potatoes harbors disease is greater than the chance that certified seed potatoes harbor disease. The world would rather you grow disease-free potatoes (potato diseases can grow with the plants and spread on the wind), so try to oblige it. But, in truth, you don’t need certified seed potatoes to grow potatoes.
2. Acidify your soil. Potatoes prefer acidic soil, so you can help them by knowing your soil’s PH, and pushing it toward the low side—5 is good, and definitely keep the PH below 6. Fertilizers made specifically for hydrangeas are good also for potatoes.
3. Potatoes are OK with raw horse manure. You can till manure into the soil before planting potatoes, and the potatoes will do fine. Horse manure is acidic, so you most likely won’t need other additives to lower your soil’s PH. Potatoes also like cow manure, but it’s not likely to change the soil’s PH.
Purple potato sprouts that grew in a shopping bag for seven months in my basement actually started growing potatoes! Despite having decided I was done with this variety, their tenacity led me to bury the long sprouts in my garden. Healthy plants have emerged and I look forward to harvesting more overly-thick-skinned small purple potatoes.
4. Potatoes don’t need soil to grow. You already know this. Who hasn’t left a few spuds in the bag so long that the spuds’ eyes popped? Amazingly, if you find a way to provide moisture, sunlight, and a bit of nutrition, those freelancing potato plants will make more potatoes. You can drop a potato on soil, cover it with six inches of loose straw or hay, water it to get things started, and it will grow into a potato-producing plant.
5. Potatoes really, really want to grow. Leave a bag of potatoes at room temperature long enough, and they’ll try to climb out of the bag! I’ve had potatoes try so hard under the most unlikely conditions that it was a bit creepy.
This is, perhaps, one third of a seed potato. The day before I shot the photo, I had cut up my seed potatoes into chunks having two or more eyes each. The potatoes had sat out overnight to develop a protective coating over the cut faces.
6. Some potato plant diseases can survive the winter in buried potatoes. Because of this, it’s important to remove every bit of potato from your garden in the fall—and not throw any into your compost heap. It also helps to wait three years before growing potatoes or any of their kin—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—in the same area.
7. Long season potatoes produce more if you bury the stems. With late season potatoes, when the plants reach about 4 inches, work soil in around them, heaping it until only the top inch of each stem is above ground. Later, when the above ground stems are about 4 inches long, work soil in around them again until just the top inch of each shows. Repeat this four or five times (it’s easier to keep the soil on top of the growing potato plants if you grow the potatoes in containers), and then let the plants mature and die back before harvesting.
Harvesting potatoes is a bit like an Easter egg hunt. Here I’ve moved aside the straw and spotted a small, early potato partially embedded in the thin soil. An advantage of growing in containers is that you can easily scrape through the soil and find every spec of potato.
8. You can turn one seed potato into several. The day before planting, a farmer cuts seed potatoes into pieces—each having at least two eyes. You might divide a large potato into three or four pieces which should sit for a day before planting so a “skin” forms over the cut surfaces. In my experience, you buy seed potatoes by the pound. So, when buying seed potatoes, I examine each one, and select either very small potatoes with two or more eyes, or large potatoes that it’s clear I can cut into even-sized pieces each with several eyes. Of course, if you can’t hand-select your seed potatoes, examine them before planting and cut up what you can.
9. Potato plants prefer cool weather. Plant them in early spring—perhaps a few weeks before your average last frost date. If plants emerge and get hit by frost, they may freeze off to the soil line, but they’ll quickly put up new shoots. Early potatoes do best in spring, but you can plant them in early summer—mid-to-late July—so they’re ready to harvest as autumn cold shuts down your garden. Be careful not to let the soil dry out around them; they’ll likely struggle in summer heat.
From, perhaps, two planters each starting with four seed potato parts, I harvested enough purple potatoes to fill a large colander. This variety is delicious, but it has unpleasantly thick skin. I’m done with it. Well… I’m done with it after this summer.
Food grade barrels probably held vinegar, syrup, ketchup, or some other components that went into canned foods at a nearby packaging plant. The plastic should be inert and durable and the barrels will find many uses in my small kitchen garden. At least two 60 gallon containers will become rain barrels, and many of the others will become planters. I may simply cut the tops out of three or four and use them to carry manure in the minivan.
My mom’s vegetable garden would have made my small kitchen garden look pretty lame. Her garden was so large that the neighbor stopped by each spring to plow and disc it before my mom started raking and planting. That same neighbor, a well-seasoned farmer who lived off his homegrown vegetables, made a weird claim about potatoes: He said you can throw seed potatoes on the ground, cover them with straw, and they’ll do just as well as when you bury them in soil.
Forty Years of Kitchen Gardening Lore
In the 40 years since my neighbor made his crazy claim, I’ve never tried planting potatoes that way. But I’ve heard a lot of lore from kitchen gardeners that lead me to think my neighbor might have been right.
I’ve heard of potato towers, garbage can potatoes, and straw bale gardening. I’ve heard people enthusiastically endorse hanging tomato plants by their roots and expecting them to produce as well as tomato plants standing upright. I’ve learned that picking tomatoes pink and letting them ripen indoors results in fruit that most people can’t distinguish from vine-ripened tomatoes. I’ve even seen video of a garden writer planting her potatoes by throwing them on the ground and tossing yard waste on them.
Sure, there’s more. But I love to experiment, and I finally have good reason to test my former neighbor’s claim.
When I was a kid, the neighbor farmer suggested throwing potatoes on the ground and covering them with straw. I’m giving the potatoes a better chance: I’ve set them on loose soil and provided a wind barrier to keep the straw in place. I’ll “mound up” the plants until the containers are full of straw. The wooden crossbars in my planters are artifacts from the play; they helped hold the barrels in place as part of the stage sets. There’s no need for them in the planters, but I’m too lazy to remove them.
Food Barrel Potato Planters
For this year’s high school musical, I tracked down a local food packaging company that had used food barrels they were willing to sell for 50 cents apiece. Many of the barrels went to set-build and became parts of the scenery for the stage production. The rest (and some of the ones that appeared on stage) came home with me to go into various gardening projects.
I’ll use some to make rain barrels and others to make root barriers for plants that propagate via rhizomes or stolons. After that, I’ll make planters—cut across the center, a barrel will make two 30 gallon planters apiece. Cut at the obvious ridges that divide a barrel in thirds, each will provide two 20 gallon planters and a pretty decent root barrier to contain such rapid spreaders as mint and oregano.
How I Planted Potatoes
For the scenery in the musical, set-builders cut off the bottom thirds of several barrels. These, I decided to use as potato planters. It was a simple project: I drilled about ten one-quarter-inch drainage holes in the bottom of each section. Then I spread two inches of soil in the bottoms, and laid three prepared seed potato chunks in each. (I had cut up seed potatoes several days earlier and let them dry out as explained in my post, Plant Potato Towers in Your Small Kitchen Garden.)
Finally, I distributed about two inches of straw on top of the potatoes and watered thoroughly. When potato sprouts grow about six inches tall, I’ll add more straw, leaving the ends of the plants protruding. I’ll continue to add straw until it fills the containers, and then wait for the plants to mature and die back. Then I’ll let you know how things came out.
Growing potatoes in towers—garbage cans—is supposed to increase yield. My garbage can potato plants grew strong, but I wasn’t impressed by the harvest.
In May of 2010 I reported about potato towers I installed in my small kitchen garden. You might have heard of these as garbage can potatoes. I had a very large carpet tube that I cut into sections, and I planted potatoes in them.
Potato Tower Scheme
The point of growing potatoes in a garbage can is to trick the plants into producing more potatoes than they would if grown under “normal” circumstances. The original post, Garbage Can Potatoes in Your Small Kitchen Garden explains how this is supposed to work.
I was impressed at how quickly potato plants grow. After sprouts appeared, I added topsoil and compost every two or three days! I learned a few things about growing potatoes in towers:
- Shoveling enough soil to fill three garbage cans—or their equivalent—is a lot of work.
- You need a lot of soil on hand to be able to keep up with one can much less with three
- I need to learn more about growing potatoes in towers.
It took less than a month for plants to grow from the seed potatoes at the bottoms of the carpet tubes to the tops of the tubes—more than three feet. I added compost-enriched topsoil every two or three days until each container was about 7/8 filled.
When I stopped adding soil, the potato plants continued to grow, eventually flowering (left) and then dying back. Experts recommend that you harvest potatoes within 30 days of the tops collapsing. I waited closer to two months to harvest. The potatoes didn’t care.
Potato Tower Disappointment
After I filled the carpet tubes to within a foot of their tops, the potato plants did, in fact, continue to grow. They produced healthy tops that eventually flowered and died back. I was excited to harvest them and I invited my neighbor to watch as he had expressed interest in the project.
I laid a tarp out on the lawn and pushed one of the carpet tubes over onto the tarp. There was a modest clutch of small potatoes at the bottom of the tube and I eagerly peeled back the cardboard and dug through the column of soil.
Nothing! I had already found the only potatoes in the tube.
When I tipped over the first cylinder, I was happy to see a bunch of potatoes at the bottom. I expected to find a lot more, but there was only a handful. The potatoes on the tarp (right) are the entire harvest from two carpet cylinders.
What Went Wrong?
Did something go wrong with my potato towers? The towers didn’t work out as I’d hoped, but I’m not discouraged. I’ve two hypotheses as to why they didn’t produce a glut of potatoes:
- Carpet tubes may not be conducive to growing potatoes. Perhaps chemicals in the glue or the cardboard inhibited the production of potatoes.
- Maybe I used the wrong type of potatoes. Since planting, I heard that it’s best to use a late harvest variety of potato when you plant them in towers. I’d used a mid-season potato.
Honestly, I’m very suspicious of the whole garbage can potato thing… but I’ve heard from enough people who claim it works that I’ll probably give it another try.
Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with a series of posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.
Perhaps one of the coolest places I’ve ever toured, this commercial potato storage facility holds a temperature of 40 degrees from autumn through late spring—without modern refrigeration. A heap of potatoes actually generates heat, so large ventilation pipes run through the potato bin to carry in cold air at night (in the fall and spring), or whenever needed during the winter.
While I manage a small kitchen garden, I convince it to grow way more food than we can possibly eat during the growing season. To handle the extra, I can some, freeze some more, and leave even more to look after itself on my dining room floor. What I don’t do well is put up root vegetables in a cold store.
Cold Store Technology
Many home cold storage facilities are brilliant applications of super-low tech. These are basement rooms or separately-dug pits that homeowners can load with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbages to keep for many months after harvest. The trick for such cold storage is that a window or vent of some sort is available to let in cold air; from mid fall to early spring, occasional venting on cold nights can maintain the temperature below 40F degrees.
Why put a cold store underground? So surrounding soil provides insulation. This simple strategy requires no artificial refrigeration, no circulating fans, no special plumbing… no additional load of any type on the environment. And, it’s amazingly effective.
Cold Store Central
While planning my book about preserving food, I expected to have no problem finding local root cellars and other cold storage facilities to photograph. The high population of Amish and Mennonite families in central PA suggests there must be hundreds of active root cellars within a few miles of my house.
You don’t have to wander far in central Pennsylvania to find springhouses. A springhouse is a small structure built over a stream, a well, or a spring. Before mechanized refrigeration, people extended the life of meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables by storing them in springhouses where the enclosed water and natural evaporation helped to maintain low temperatures. This particular springhouse had vinyl siding, so either someone has a twisted preservationist bent, or they still use the structure to keep foods cool.
I wasn’t disappointed. At the local farmers’ market, I explained my book project to a vendor, and received an invitation to visit his farm. There, I toured a commercial cold-storage facility that held tons of food potatoes even as farm hands prepared to plant this year’s seed potatoes.
This farm’s only business is to sell produce at local farmers’ markets. Three days every week, the hands load produce onto a truck, drive it to a market, and set it out for patrons to pick through. They’ve been at it for years and they do it very well.
My Own Cold Store
I enjoyed my tour of this cold storage facility, and I poked around several others. What impressed me the most is that this commercial food-growing operation uses old-fashioned cold-storage: they mound potatoes in a well-insulated building and let cold air in to keep the temperature low; they use no artificial refrigeration! The strategy keeps potatoes “fresh” until new potatoes come ready in late spring of the next year.
Unfortunately, there’s no appropriate place in my house for a cold store. When days are cold enough, the mudroom off my garage will hold root vegetables for weeks or even months. But I’ve no way to keep things cold enough from harvest until days are cold, so I can’t manage a root cellar any time soon.
Yes, some of the broccoli has gotten away from me. I’ve planted the same variety for two years, and in both years it has produced tiny heads. I kind of loose interest in it, though we do eat most of the side shoots. This winter I’ll be shopping around for a breed of broccoli that makes giant heads… the tiny yields I’ve had lately aren’t worth the garden space.
It’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, an event that happens on the 15th of each month. Founded by Carol over at May Dreams Gardens, Bloom Day beckons garden bloggers the world over to post photographs of what’s abloom in their gardens. Most of these posts have pictures of beautiful flowers in gorgeous ornamental gardens. Alas, my small kitchen garden isn’t about pretty.
Still, I love the blossoms nearly as much as I love the vegetables… and seeing them heightens my anticipation for the harvest that’s likely to follow. Things are doing extremely well this season. Early heat followed by drought has finally relented to several days of rain and more typical summer temperatures.
Here are the flowers I photographed this afternoon in my small kitchen garden:
I haven’t planted dill this year, but there are many dill weed blossoms in my small kitchen garden. The flowers attract all kinds of insects. If I let the dill go to seed as it did last year, I imagine the planting bed will be a veritable lawn of dill sprouts in the spring.
The oregano jungle has rebounded from some autumn and spring culling. The flowers are delicate and they provide beautiful contrast for nearly half the growing season. Still, I need to be more aggressive culling this fall; the oregano patch increases about a third in size in a season.
Onion blossoms make me happy. The globe of tiny flowers emerges in late spring and lingers for weeks. I cut a bouquet of onion flowers for the dining room table, and they’ve filled the room with a delicious onion aroma for nearly a month. I don’t encourage you to harvest your onion flowers; I had missed a few bulbs last fall, and what sprouted this spring needed to go to make way for the 2010 crops.
We’ve eaten bell and poblano peppers from the small kitchen garden this year, and there are dozens of banana peppers ready to harvest. Happily, there are many pepper blossoms which portend a massive harvest. I expect I’ll pickle a lot of peppers… and probably give away a whole bunch of them.
This sad specimen is an early cucumber blossom on a plant growing in a container. This is the first time I’ve grown cucumbers, so I’ll probably do some research to learn about what bugs eat cucumber blossoms… I haven’t seen this kind of abuse on my winter squash blossoms in past seasons.
The potato blossoms here stand above the background of the cardboard tube in which the plants are growing. I wrote about this project in a post titled Plant Potato Towers in your Small Kitchen Garden. In two of three planters, the potato plants have grown up through an accumulated 3 feet or more of soil. I’ve stopped adding soil, and the plants have gone on to grow well above the containers and produce flowers. One of my neighbors has asked me to invite him when I tip the containers over and dig out the potatoes. He’s as curious as I am to see how things come out.
Oh, the tomato blossoms abound! This has been the season of the great seed-starting debacle: I planted a whole bunch of seeds indoors, and they didn’t sprout. So, I planted again as many. This second batch sprouted about when the first batch sprouted; I ended up with double the seedlings I’d intended. After giving away many tomato seedlings, I crammed 84 plants into my small kitchen garden where I have traditionally planted 24.
While photographing flowers today, I found the very first barely pink tomato of the season! This may be the largest chili-pepper-shaped paste tomato I’ve harvested, and many more on the plants are just as big. Why did I pick it when it’s so under ripe? I explained last season in a post titled The Vine-Ripened Tomato Lie. This baby will finish ripening on my dining room table.
Growing potatoes the old fashioned way is a silly undertaking in a small kitchen garden. However, planting in a garbage can (or something like a garbage can) could produce far more potatoes in a smaller footprint.
Growing potatoes isn’t a great use of space in a small kitchen garden. A single potato plant can sprawl over a four-foot-diameter circle and it might produce only a pound or two of potatoes. What’s more, if you can buy from a potato grower, you might get ungraded potatoes at amazingly low prices; I usually buy a 20 pound bag of ungraded potatoes for three dollars.
The other side of that coin is: growing your own potatoes is fun. Over the years, I’ve squeezed in a few potato plants, and I’ve always enjoyed the little Easter egg hunt of digging for potatoes when the plants’ stems die back. This year, I’m trying something different.
Garbage Can Potatoes (almost)
Potatoes aren’t particular about their growing conditions. When I was very young, I heard often of the “rocky soil of Maine” as ideal for growing potatoes. The neighbor farmer who plowed my family’s kitchen garden each spring told us we could put potatoes on the ground and cover them with straw, and they’d produce spuds. So, unless you get late blight in your garden, you’ll probably get a few keepers however you plant potatoes.
I bought the smallest seed potatoes I could find, but each had enough eyes that I could cut it into at least two pieces. Some, I cut into three pieces, trying to leave ample material behind each eye.
But some years ago, neighbors told my parents about garbage can potatoes and I’m trying this growing method in 2010.
The idea is: you put a few inches of soil into a garbage can, set seed potatoes on the soil, then cover the potatoes with a few more inches of soil. When the potato sprouts reach about eight inches above the soil, you add more soil, leaving just the top few leaves sticking out. As the plants grow, you add soil periodically until you’ve filled the garbage can. At that point, you let the plants go and they finish up naturally: setting flowers and then seeds, and then they dry up.
At that point, you dump the garbage can and, supposedly, you find it filled from bottom-to-top with potatoes… maybe five pounds or more from a single seed potato.
Stretch Your Seed Potatoes
After a day, the cut faces of the seed potatoes skin over. This protects them from infection when you plant them. They’ll keep for several more weeks, though you need to plant them before they dry out completely. I crowded the seed potatoes in my makeshift garbage can planter. It wasn’t really a garbage can; I used 3.6 foot sections of a large cardboard carpet tube. With 4 seed potatoes in each 20-inch diameter tube, the plants will be tight. I’ll use a lot of compost as I fill the tubes because I expect the plants to argue with each other over resources in such crowded quarters.
Seed potatoes usually sell by the pound. This may be frustrating when you want to set ten plants and the garden store’s potatoes are large: ten seed potatoes might weigh three or four pounds.
The good news is: you don’t need ten potatoes to start ten potato plants. You can cut each seed potato into pieces… ideally leaving three or more eyes in each piece, though a potato piece with only one eye can grow into a productive plant.
In any case, to start ten potato plants, buy three or four seed potatoes at the store and cut them up at least a day before you intend to plant. Let them sit in the open air so the cut surfaces skin over before you put them in the ground. (Some growers suggest that you dip the cut faces of seed potatoes in sulfur—it kills microbes and adds a bit of acid; potatoes prefer acidic soil.)
A cluster of tomatoes illustrates the ugly progression of late blight through my small kitchen garden. I’m losing about a bushel of tomatoes to the horrible disease.
It’s not news to anyone who owns a small kitchen garden: This has been a challenging year for gardeners in North America. I’m sorry if this was your first year planting a kitchen garden; I hope the aggravation wasn’t enough to discourage you in coming years.
The south western United States experienced sustained heat and dryness; I heard complaints from gardeners that they couldn’t keep plants watered and cool enough to get decent harvests.
The Atlantic coast and clear out to the Midwest had crazy, sustained rains and cool temperatures. Especially in the north—from New York up into Canada, rain drowned the roots of vegetable plants, and the cool temperatures slowed growth.
Late Blight and Tomatoes
Perhaps worst of all this growing season: Late blight, the fungus that created the Irish potato famine in 1845, shipped along with tomato seedlings to big-box garden centers all over the eastern United States. Late blight thrives in the cool-wet, and for the most part, tomatoes didn’t have a chance.
I completely fell in love with these tomatoes in 2009. Shaped like peppers, they grow quite large. They are so devoid of moisture that they float in water where beefsteaks and other slicing tomatoes sink. They taste terrific. Sadly, the last twenty or so still in my garden are infected with late blight.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, late blight is an American export; someone accidentally introduced it to Ireland. I long ago learned that the late blight fungus is pretty much always on-hand, waiting for the right conditions to kick it into action. A gardener’s best defense against late blight is culture:
- Provide good drainage— If drainage is good, air movement around your plants’ roots is also good; and good for the plants..
- Minimize moisture— Water only as much as the plants need; I haven’t met a vegetable plant that wants its roots wet constantly.
- Control moisture— That is, focus watering on the soil near plants’ roots; don’t use sprinklers and spray nozzles that soak foliage with every watering.
- Don’t crowd plants— You can plant things closer than seed packages recommend and you’ll get great production… as long as everything else goes right. I understand the risks of crowding and I take the lumps when they come… but please choose a level of pain that’s acceptable to you. Crowding traps moisture, blocks air flow, and provides easy pathways for insects and diseases.
- Make sure air can circulate freely— If there’s a lot of air movement within your garden plot, plants will tolerate crowding better than they will in a well-sheltered area.
- Rotate crops— Don’t plant the same crop in the same area two years in a row. Ideally, figure a three- or four-year rotation; don’t repeat tomatoes in the same space for three or four years if you can avoid it.
- Follow a crop only with crops that aren’t closely-related— Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all related closely enough that if you plant one in a specific area this season, none should go in that area next season. Please check my small kitchen garden store for books that will guide you to responsible choices for next year’s crops.
- Prevent the spread of disease— Remove sick plants quickly. Bag them and toss them in the garbage, but don’t compost them.
- Plant seedlings grown locally— Best of all: learn to start your own plants from seeds about four-to-six weeks before you put them in your garden. If you prefer to leave that hassle to someone else, at least find a local nursery or garden store that starts its own seedlings. The farther you go for your live plants, the more opportunities the plants have to acquire unwanted pathogens.
I feel pretty confident in guessing that this bell pepper is inflicted with late blight. I had been anticipating a second wave of peppers to harvest in early autumn, but the very difficult growing season had other ideas.
I got very lucky this season:
- I started all my plants from seeds for the first time ever.
- The micro climate of central PA was cool but “wet enough” meaning we got rain when we needed it, but not to excess. I’m quite sure it was low temperatures that caused the most trouble.
- Despite heavy crowding, my plants showed no sign of stress until late August.
- By late August, I’d already harvested about 3 bushels of tomatoes
- Late blight spread very slowly in my garden; it seems to have missed the potatoes, though it seems to be damaging some of my peppers.
Despite the good luck, in just two weeks, my tomato plants have gone from late-season production of gorgeous fruits to overwhelming melt-down with nearly every fruit showing ugly brown lesions. I’m used to harvesting tomatoes up to the first frost, but this weekend I’ll be pulling all the plants and stuffing them into a plastic bag for garbage pickup.
Keep On Gardening
This was an unusual year! It is my first in fourteen seasons at this address where disease has taken hold… and some of those years were far wetter. My guess is that the temperature was the biggest villain in my garden’s problems; summer seemed to last about two weeks. Those weeks fell between three months of early spring and the sudden onset of autumn.
So, don’t be discouraged. Chances are, next season will be “normal…” and if not, perhaps the season after that will be.