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Potato Tower Update from Your Small Kitchen Garden

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:

  1. Carpet tubes may not be conducive to growing potatoes. Perhaps chemicals in the glue or the cardboard inhibited the production of potatoes.
  2. 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.

 

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5 Responses to “Potato Tower Update from Your Small Kitchen Garden”

  • Michelle B:

    Thanks for sharing your experiment with us. Yes, how very disappointing that the harvest was so small since others have had success with it. Bon courage with your not giving up yet and trying to increase future harvests. Keep us posted, please.

    I will grow potatoes for the first time this coming spring.

  • TZ:

    A lot of people are disappointed with the results from potato towers for several reasons.

    Most modern potatoes are somewhat determinant and set tubers over a short period of time so production does not increase with deep hilling. Potatoes just need enough soil or mulch over top to keep light away from the developing tubers (about 12″). The quality of soil below the plant is more important. People put in a lot of work piling dirt on top of the plants only to get a sore back and a wad of tubers down at the bottom at the end of the season.

    Potatoe production is density dependent. You many have too many stems (seed peices) for your area both above ground (light competition) and below ground (nutrient/water competition).

    Production is also temperature dependent (potato plants like to be cool) and water dependent. Towers may heat up more than inground areas from the sun hitting the sides of the tower, and the reduced soil volume may not hold consistent moisture for good tuber growth, especially with high stem density.

    You can also use heavy duty trash bags or construction cleanup bags for “towers”, with soil/potting mix in the bottom and leaf mulch/straw etc on top. You do need some drainage holes poked in the bag, which also let roots escape down into the ground if they like.

    Good luck with it.

  • I also had a disappointing potato experience. I followed Ruth Stout’s method of piling lots of mulch on top. She said there would be many potatoes from this method. Just like you,(I can really relate) I was so excited to harvest them. I thought I was going to get so many potatoes and I only got 2-3!! It was so disappointing. I can really understand your experience. I think I am going to try the trash bags mentioned in the last post.

  • Jack Coates:

    I was wondering if you added new seed potatoes when adding new soil/mulch. Would this work to increase the crop production? Maybe this would work better. Not sure if there would be any effect or not. I will have to try it.

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Jack: I imagine that adding seed potatoes at different levels of the potato tower would result in more produce, but if this were the approach, I’d do the bottom plants a favor and provide holes for the plants to grow out the sides of the tower. I’m convinced that I had such poor production because the plants spent all their energy growing long stems through the soil and had little left to invest in the potatoes. So, a potato tower designed like a strawberry pot seems the way to go if you want to add seed potatoes on your way up.

    I’m still curious to experiment with potato varieties. Somewhere, people are having decent results from this technique or I wouldn’t keep seeing articles about it. Only after posting this article did I hear anyone suggest that you need to use a late-maturing variety of potato. That would be one that you harvest in autumn as nights get cold. I’ll try again some year with a different type of potato.

    -Daniel

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