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.