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.)