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Plant Potato Towers in Your Small Kitchen Garden

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.)

Food Potatoes will Grow

The more you read about planting potatoes, the more you’ll read that you should never plant potatoes packaged for eating; always buy certified seed potatoes. This is good advice, but it’s a dogmatic overstatement. Of course food potatoes can grow into productive adult plants.

Here’s the deal: To produce certified seed potatoes, growers must raise plants under the watchful eyes of government certification agencies. The intent is to ensure you don’t plant bacteria, viruses, and fungus in your small kitchen garden. Potatoes grown for food have no such oversight; even the best-looking food potatoes can introduce pathogens into your planting beds.

So, you can grow potatoes from your food stores, but there is greater risk than if you hold out for certified seed potatoes. If you’re a hobbyist, and you won’t be sad about losing a handful of plants, experiment. However, if you’re counting on a decent potato harvest—and especially if you’re planting a large patch, follow the dogmatists and stick with certified seed potato.


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13 Responses to “Plant Potato Towers in Your Small Kitchen Garden”

  • If you’re using garbage containers, isn’t it a good idea to cut drainage holes, so you don’t end up growing potato soup? Your tubes would have built-in drainage.

  • admin:

    Helen: Yes! A big oversight in the article: If you try this with potatoes in garbage cans, put a few holes in the bottom of the cans before you start your seed potatoes. Without drainage holes, your garbage cans could become swamps after one significant rainstorm. My carpet tubes have no bottoms, so providing drainage wasn’t an issue when I planted in them.

    THANKS for pointing out the oversight!

  • gail:

    I read about planting potatoes in a big cardboard box, which allows you to plant really early since you can use the flaps to cover when nights are cold, and then later tape them to make the box even taller as you add soil. I might try that next year; this year I used a wicker laundry basket, and my plants are looking good so far. I love the idea of having a laundry basket filled with potatoes!

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  • Hello there! Sometime in the future, I’ll come back to this article and try out potatoes. I’m not sure where to get seed potatoes though. I’ve never seen those in any shop. For now, I’ll stick to my garlic experiment. I’m trying lettuce too but I can’t seem to make the seeds germinate.

  • arlene:

    Is it too late to try and grow potatoes in the garbage can? I live about an hour south of Ottawa, Ontario.

  • admin:

    Arlene: I think you could succeed with garbage can potatoes planted in late June or early July. People plant potatoes a few weeks after the soil thaws–around here, that can be mid-March, and harvest when the peas come in… which might be late May and early June. These “new potatoes” are generally quite small… but that’s with only two months’ growth.

    Were you to plant now, you’d have 2.5 to 3 months for potatoes to develop. I’d encourage that you add soil only until one month before first frost in the fall… though if your potatoes grow as quickly as mine have, your garbage cans will be full in about a month. If I understand correctly, the potato plants must have time to flower and wilt for you to get the biggest possible crop. (I’ve stopped adding soil to mine, and flower buds are now emerging.)

    Good luck!


  • [...] 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 accumulate 3 feet or more of [...]

  • [...] 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 [...]

  • Before you start putting them potatoes in the cans, please clean them thoroughly with a mild bleach solution and let them air dry. Repeat this process if necessary if you are using the can for the first time, as you want to make sure it is clean and free of contamination, and any residues of the previous contents are thoroughly removed.

  • I learnt from somewhere that potatoes grow best in slightly acidic soil conditions, so what I think might help is to make the soil slightly more acidic. I would poor used coffee in it, because that is slightly acidic.

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