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Posts Tagged ‘containers’

Nine Tips for Growing Potatoes

20 gallon potato planters

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:

eager potato sprouts

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.

tiny purple potato

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.

Seed potato chunk

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 red potatoes

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.

Purple potato harvest

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.


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Small Kitchen Garden Carrots in Containers

The pineboard sides and seats of the kids’ sandbox have rotted and weeds have grown in the sand. I’ll soon remove the weeds, add horse manure, and plant tomatoes – exactly what my dad did to my childhood sandbox sometime after it lost my interest.

My small kitchen garden isn’t big enough to feed my family for an entire year. So, this year I’m trying to squeeze more food out of the garden space we have while adding alternative planting beds to squeeze even more out of our yard. One upcoming project will be to convert the kids’ abandoned sandbox into a planting bed for tomatoes. The sandbox already resembles a wild field evolving into a climax community forest. My other strategy for adding space is to plant vegetables in containers.

Here’s a project I did quickly this afternoon. I’ve never tried it, but I can think of no reason it should fail: I planted carrots in a two-liter soft drink bottle. The carrots are supposed to grow no bigger than six inches. Assuming a diameter of 1.25 inches per carrot, it seems that six full-grown carrots should fit easily in the bottle… but these carrots will never become full-grown; I’ll harvest them while they’re young and sweet.

A utility knife easily slits the bottoms of the soda bottle’s “feet.” These slits will let excess water drain out of the container, but won’t let potting soil wash away with the water.

A Carrot Planter

I rinsed the empty soda bottle and cut off the top where the sides of the bottle become cylindrical (just over four inches below the lip of the bottle). I used a utility knife to make slits in the very bottom of the bottle: one ¾ inch slit in each “foot.” Then I filled the bottle with seven inches of light potting soil.

Though carrot seeds are small, I was able to pick up one seed at a time and drop each on the soil where I wanted it. I made a circle of six seeds about an inch from the sides of the bottle. Then I placed four seeds an inch inside of those, and a single seed in the center of the planter. If all the seeds sprout, it’ll be crowded in the soda bottle. What’s more, as they grow, the carrots will displace soil, eventually overwhelming the bottle.

To finish, I sprinkled a quarter inch of potting soil over the seeds and spread it smoothly, and then watered very gingerly so as not to disturb the seeds. I completely soaked the soil until water leaked out through the slits in the bottom of the soda bottle planter.

If things eventually look uncomfortable in there, I’ll pull a carrot and we’ll eat it. After that, I have four concerns:

  • A small container is going to need daily watering or more, depending on the weather.

My budget-priced carrot planter sits on a windowsill in my basement. I’ll move it onto my deck in a few days.

  • A small container can act as a solar-cooker. If I set my carrot planter in direct sunlight, the heat may destroy my carrots. It’ll be important to keep the planter itself shaded, though I want the carrot tops to get as much sun as possible.
  • In such a small container, the carrots will deplete soil nutrients very quickly. I’ll need to provide some type of food periodically to ensure the carrots’ health.
  • Its small size makes a soda bottle planter very portable. However, the container is flexible and somewhat flimsy. If I do move it once carrots have sprouted, I want to be gentle so as not to damage the plants.

As I said: I’ve never tried this; it’s an experiment. I’ll let you know how it works.

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