Posts Tagged ‘garbage can potatoes’
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:
- Carpet tubes may not be conducive to growing potatoes. Perhaps chemicals in the glue or the cardboard inhibited the production of potatoes.
- 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.
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.)