Posts Tagged ‘potatoes’
This one’s not at the community garden. My wife did some prep in the home garden, and I planted three double rows of peas. She erected trellises, and we’ve had at least two rabbit incursions, but still there are pea plants—and they’re just covered in blossoms.
My blog has told very little of the story of my first season growing food at a community garden. To summarize: I wrote an article for the local paper about area community gardens in early spring of 2015. I rented a plot in one of those gardens—a 30’ by 30’ plot among about 100 plots.
The plot was barely more developed than a patch of meadow with a rabbit fence around it. I hauled an enormous amount of mediocre compost to the plot, laid down sheet mulch (newspapers) and held it in place with the compost. I dug as little as I could, and put in an onion patch, a 25’ double row of peas, two hills of zucchini, two hills of neck pumpkins, 60 or more tomato plants, a dozen or so sweet pepper plants, and the largest potato patch I’ve ever planted.
The community garden was 30 minutes away and I tried to manage it with weekly visits. I worked hard and got a decent harvest, and I’d planned to work it again this year. My pancreas said “No.”
The Whipple—the operation intended to remove a pancreatic tumor—is major surgery, and common problems in the first year include ripping apart your re-routed intestinal tract by over-exerting. Moving a single wheelbarrow of compost to my plot at the community garden could land me back in an operating room.
I had to give up the community garden.
Gardening close to home
Also at home, my garden sage is flowering. There’s a song Burl Ives used to sing that includes the lines, “I long to be in Texas, When the bloom is on the sage.” This isn’t the sage about which he sang, but it comes to mind.
I had learned last spring that the Union County Community Garden is only five minutes from my home. A few things distinguish it:
1. There is no charge to have a plot at this garden
2. The county uses the community garden in its work-release program. Meaning: people who have been convicted of minor crimes and sentenced to community service can help out at the garden to work down their debt to society.
3. If you’re physically challenged to work your plot, the county may assign someone on work-release to help you.
4. The county prepares your plot for you. They apply composted manure, plow the manure into the soil, wait a few days, and plow again. They leave a plot raked relatively smooth.
5. A plot at this garden is 10’ by 20’ and you can have two of them.
If I was going to work in a community garden post-Whipple, this was the one!
Photos show my progress… with a few shots from my yard as well. I hope your gardens are in good shape this year.
I posted this photo earlier on Facebook. It shows ripening black raspberries in the patch I planted last spring. Sadly, about 1/3 of the plants got seriously chewed by a wild animal—probably a rabbit or three—but there may still be enough berries this year for a batch of black raspberry jelly which is by far my favorite jelly variety.
Poppies are back in my small kitchen garden! I sowed poppy seeds in our yard year-after-year without success until, finally, a few plants emerged and matured. These came back for several years and formed an ever-enlarging clump that I blogged about once or twice. Then, one fateful day, an unfortunate lawn mowing incident ended those poppies. I’ve tried for years since to get more poppies established, and this most recent effort involves seedlings I bought in Ithaca and planted near the “rain garden” two years ago. I thought the plants died in that first year, but they sprouted last year, looked miserable for a month, and then died back without flowering. This year, they sprouted again, looked slightly less miserable, and between the two of them produced a single flower stalk. It was a gorgeous bloom with purplish reproductive parts—not the classic poppies of my earlier success. It lasted two days. I got two plants to start from seeds under lights this spring, and I’ll soon set them out in the same area.
The first items I planted at the community garden were onion sets, potatoes, and zucchinis. Later, I set pepper seedlings which you can see in the top-right corner of the photo. Things have come through transplant shock in fine shape and the garden is looking good.
I set 70 tomato plants in one 10’ x 20’ plot—well, six are actually tomatillos. 7 of the plants are Romas and I put cages around them. The rest are indeterminate varieties—all heirlooms. These I’m managing on hanging string trellises with aggressive pruning; I’m plucking all suckers. I’ve set plants a foot apart in double rows that are also about a foot apart. In just three weeks many plants are already tall enough to need support. I’ve written a few posts about how I manage tomatoes. Here’s an overview that includes links to further articles: Tomato Plant Maintenance in my Small Kitchen Garden
Here’s one of my crazy projects for the year: I’m growing sorghum. It looks a bit like corn or even more like weed grasses I usually pull from around my actual vegetable plants. I bought a small envelope of seed hoping to get a modest stand from which to harvest sap. Getting the sap is a challenge: you’re supposed to run sorghum stalks through a mill that crushes them paper thin. You then cook the sap into syrup—a lot like making maple syrup. For want of a press, I may take a hammer to the stalks and then boil them in a small amount of water, eventually straining out the solids and cooking down the liquid. I’ve read that sorghum produces copious seeds, so I may collect some for the kitchen and more to plant next year.
I try to keep my main planting bed covered in leaves through the winter. In spring, it’s fairly easy to rake the leaves aside and scrape furrows in the moist soil to hold pea seeds. This year, my wife made the furrows. I set and buried the peas. If the leaf cover has done its job, there are almost no weeds to remove, and I dig only where I’m planting.
This blog has traditionally been about how to grow and prepare food and it means to stay that way. I’ve taken detours of late because of family issues (my dad moved out of his house and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after him) and because of health issues (I’m recovering from a Whipple—surgery that removed a pancreatic tumor and re-routed my digestive tract).
Here’s a brief “how-to” to keep the blog on course:
It’s spring, plant!
With help from my wife, I’ve started three rows of peas in the garden. I plant a lot so we have peas to eat until July with plenty left over for the freezer. I once posted a video that shows the method I still use – Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook. I also wrote a post explaining how-to – Enough Peas to Preserve.
Peas handle frost well, and will even survive a freeze into the 20s. They aren’t as hardy in hot weather. In my experience, a variety called Wando handles early spring heat better than most. So, given we’re in a streak of hottest months on record, hedge your bets and try to plant Wando peas this year. They grow at least five feet tall, so make sure you rig trellises for them.
I just started seeds for my summer vegetables. My setup this year is on our seldom-used ping-pong table: I used the kids’ cardboard bricks to support a four-foot shop light across the five-foot-wide table. The planters are the bottoms of plastic one-gallon milk jugs filled with a commercial seed-starting mix. I set 16 seeds in each planter, for a total of 112 seeds. Soon, I’ll add a second shop light and start a few other seeds; once the first planting emerges I’ll note what failed to germinate and try again with the same varieties.
Along with peas, this is a good time to plant lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, and potatoes. All prefer to grow in cool weather and can handle frost—though young potato plants may die back in the cold, they’ll quickly make up for it on warmer days.
Start seeds indoors
We’re at the threshold for indoor seed-starting. That is, if you don’t start yours soon, you’ll lose the advantage you get from indoor starts. Ideally, start tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors six-to-eight weeks before the average last frost in your area. Turns out, if you start eight weeks early—especially with tomatoes—your seedlings will probably need to be transplanted into larger pots before it’s time to set them in the garden. That’s fine if you have the space to manage it.
Around here, the average last frost is mid-April, so I just planted 72 tomato seeds, 8 tomatillo seeds (a new gardening experience for me), and 32 pepper seeds. It’s very easy to do; I’ve written several posts about it over the years:
Start Your Own Seedlings (this is how I start my seeds)
Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf
Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden
Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats
Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?
Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden
When I assembled photos for my landscapes photo challenge, my set of favorites from 2015 included way more than the requisite seven shots. Rather than choose seven from among 40, I added a Waterscapes photo challenge to my list—and was pleased to learn that “waterscapes” is a real word meaning what I wanted it to mean.
I’ve posted seven waterscapes here. Like the landscapes of my previous post, I captured these photos in central Pennsylvania and in central upstate New York—near Ithaca or on the way to Ithaca from Lewisburg.
This photo isn’t about art so much as it is about Mom. Mom kept a “life list” of birds she spotted through the kitchen window. Years after I left home, she and my dad bought a shack on a cliff above Cayuga lake and spent summers cleaning, painting, and making it into their vacation lake cottage. I enjoyed visiting the cottage, but I didn’t fall in love with it until 2015. I finished emptying and repairing my dad’s house, and tenants moved in. That left me with two options when I visited: sleep on my dad’s sofa in his tiny independent living unit, or stay at the lake cottage. Stoking a fire in the wood stove to hold off cold autumn nights called back years of semi-rustic living. Waking up at the cottage to sounds of rustling leaves and nautical activity was meditative.
It’s possible my mother never saw the birdhouse in this photo. However, seeing it hanging along the stairway down to the lake made it easy to imagine my mom pausing on those stairs to watch birds come and go. I hope to spend time at the cottage this year absorbing the same sensations that lured my parents there.
There are few places that make my dog Nutmeg happier than she is at the local dog park. Far from the park’s parking area, there’s a stream in which Nutmeg tests her Labrador breeding… and fails. She’ll chase sticks into the water and bring them back as long as she never gets in deep enough to swim. Last August, grass seed heads caught sun against the dark waters of Nutmeg’s favorite stream.
Mansfield, Pennsylvania is halfway to Ithaca from the Cityslipper ranch. Mansfield boasts a nature preserve with hiking trails, a picnic area, and a boat launch, and I love to stop there to capture photos. Water at the boat launch is a weird shade of blue that makes me wonder about agricultural runoff, but were that not the case the waterway would still be surreal. In this photo, the white flowers lining the river are knotweed—an invasive that looks awesome in bloom. Depending on cloud cover and the time of day, different features pop, so I always discover something new when I stop in Mansfield.
South and west of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania there are many waterways that flow to the Susquehanna River. I’ve photographed these streams, creeks, and rivers at so many places, I’m not always sure which is which. It’s compelling to me that I could drop a canoe in one of the streams and float in it 140 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic ocean.
On trips to Ithaca, I sometimes drive north to Corning, NY, and then up route 414 to Watkins Glen. The road follows a valley with farmland guarded by wooded hills that put on quite a display in autumn. Last October, I stopped to capture photos where wetlands cover much of the valley floor.
Perhaps stretching the definition of “waterscape,” this is one of dozens of waterfalls at a Pennsylvania nature preserve called Ricketts Glen. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks in August, and shared a hike with them along the Glen’s most popular trail.
I lingered below a waterfall at Ricketts Glen where the roots of a tree felt their way over rocks to find soil in the creek bed. If you want a photo session in Ricketts Glen, clear the day, go alone, and stay all day… though it’s fun to share the trip with a group.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Just inside the gate of Ithaca’s community garden is a planting bed along the base of the fence. Many types of plants were sprouting there; my favorites were potatoes.
Sunshine and 76 degrees! What gardener wouldn’t take advantage of such a day? Except my garden was 130 miles away. I did what I could: visited Ithaca’s community garden.
I’ve visited the community garden several times this spring and had been underwhelmed at how slowly it has gotten started. Few plots had cool weather crops planted back when weather was reliably cool. Now, as temperatures occasionally spike to summer highs, cool weather crops are in and they have a race to win! If June brings hot days, Ithacans may come up short on spinach, lettuce, and peas.
Well… we do what we can. The photos provide an idea of what’s up in Ithaca.
There are patches of lettuce throughout the community garden. The colors in this patch set it apart from the others.
This allotment uses shiny CDs as scarecrows. The CDs hang above a small lettuce patch which I suspect won’t interest birds at all. However, perhaps rabbits and other large rodents have access to the community garden and have some fear of shiny baubles.
Once you’re gotten an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden, you get first dibs on it year-after-year. Some growers plant perennials and this combination is a classic: strawberries and rhubarb. While I encourage gardeners not to let rhubarb flower (flowering stresses the plant), the plants can put on a dramatic show if you let them.
Many years ago I grew a few sage plants from seed. I eventually moved the mature plants from a wooden half barrel container into an herb garden I established at the corner of my house. Those plants died over the 2013-2014 winter… they’d look about like the sage plant in this photo—clearly the product of many years’ growth. The spiky leaves in front are garlic plants started last autumn.
These are two of the prettiest rhubarb plants I’ve seen. They’re growing at the back of an allotment and garlic grows behind them in the adjacent plot.
I watched a small Burmese community work on this allotment about two weeks ago and was surprised now to see all the sprouts so far look like radishes! I learned several Burmese families rent space in the community garden and they often converge on one allotment much as an Amish community assembles to build a barn.
Here’s a pea patch managed by someone who understand peas! Often, people plant just a short row of peas with fairly loose spacing. Here, the gardener planted peas close together—from plant-to-plant within a row, and from row-to-row. As the vines climb the trellises, they’ll create a pea jungle that produces enough peas or pea pods for several meals.
Were I managing a community garden, I would enforce the following rule without mercy: PLANT NO MINT IN THE GROUND. If you grow mint on your allotment, do your neighbors a favor and plant the mint in a container tall enough that the plants never touch the ground. This one would pass inspection. I wrote about mint’s aggressive “conquer all” nature here: Protect Your Garden from Mint.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden had a striking row of tulips alongside a stand of mint. I loved to tulips. I wanted to fine the allotment’s owner for planting mint.
This allotment’s owner has a terrific idea: grow more in limited space by going vertical. The containers on this tower contain squash plants—way too many for the space unless they’re compact varieties. I can see a problem if this catches on. Plant skyscrapers may prevent sunlight from reaching plants on the ground… I’d hate to have an allotment neighboring a wall of these structures.
One allotment at Ithaca’s community garden is clearly as much about design as it is about growing food. The owner has fenced the space and created raised beds that spiral in from the gate. All is tidy and well-kept…
This is not a meadow. It’s an allotment at Ithaca’s community garden. Can’t say whether it’s rented and the owner is getting a slow start, or the chives are up for grabs. If you live in Ithaca and you want to grow vegetables, perhaps you’ll find an opening at the community 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:
- 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.
Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with a series of posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.
Perhaps one of the coolest places I’ve ever toured, this commercial potato storage facility holds a temperature of 40 degrees from autumn through late spring—without modern refrigeration. A heap of potatoes actually generates heat, so large ventilation pipes run through the potato bin to carry in cold air at night (in the fall and spring), or whenever needed during the winter.
While I manage a small kitchen garden, I convince it to grow way more food than we can possibly eat during the growing season. To handle the extra, I can some, freeze some more, and leave even more to look after itself on my dining room floor. What I don’t do well is put up root vegetables in a cold store.
Cold Store Technology
Many home cold storage facilities are brilliant applications of super-low tech. These are basement rooms or separately-dug pits that homeowners can load with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbages to keep for many months after harvest. The trick for such cold storage is that a window or vent of some sort is available to let in cold air; from mid fall to early spring, occasional venting on cold nights can maintain the temperature below 40F degrees.
Why put a cold store underground? So surrounding soil provides insulation. This simple strategy requires no artificial refrigeration, no circulating fans, no special plumbing… no additional load of any type on the environment. And, it’s amazingly effective.
Cold Store Central
While planning my book about preserving food, I expected to have no problem finding local root cellars and other cold storage facilities to photograph. The high population of Amish and Mennonite families in central PA suggests there must be hundreds of active root cellars within a few miles of my house.
You don’t have to wander far in central Pennsylvania to find springhouses. A springhouse is a small structure built over a stream, a well, or a spring. Before mechanized refrigeration, people extended the life of meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables by storing them in springhouses where the enclosed water and natural evaporation helped to maintain low temperatures. This particular springhouse had vinyl siding, so either someone has a twisted preservationist bent, or they still use the structure to keep foods cool.
I wasn’t disappointed. At the local farmers’ market, I explained my book project to a vendor, and received an invitation to visit his farm. There, I toured a commercial cold-storage facility that held tons of food potatoes even as farm hands prepared to plant this year’s seed potatoes.
This farm’s only business is to sell produce at local farmers’ markets. Three days every week, the hands load produce onto a truck, drive it to a market, and set it out for patrons to pick through. They’ve been at it for years and they do it very well.
My Own Cold Store
I enjoyed my tour of this cold storage facility, and I poked around several others. What impressed me the most is that this commercial food-growing operation uses old-fashioned cold-storage: they mound potatoes in a well-insulated building and let cold air in to keep the temperature low; they use no artificial refrigeration! The strategy keeps potatoes “fresh” until new potatoes come ready in late spring of the next year.
Unfortunately, there’s no appropriate place in my house for a cold store. When days are cold enough, the mudroom off my garage will hold root vegetables for weeks or even months. But I’ve no way to keep things cold enough from harvest until days are cold, so I can’t manage a root cellar any time soon.
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.)
A cluster of tomatoes illustrates the ugly progression of late blight through my small kitchen garden. I’m losing about a bushel of tomatoes to the horrible disease.
It’s not news to anyone who owns a small kitchen garden: This has been a challenging year for gardeners in North America. I’m sorry if this was your first year planting a kitchen garden; I hope the aggravation wasn’t enough to discourage you in coming years.
The south western United States experienced sustained heat and dryness; I heard complaints from gardeners that they couldn’t keep plants watered and cool enough to get decent harvests.
The Atlantic coast and clear out to the Midwest had crazy, sustained rains and cool temperatures. Especially in the north—from New York up into Canada, rain drowned the roots of vegetable plants, and the cool temperatures slowed growth.
Late Blight and Tomatoes
Perhaps worst of all this growing season: Late blight, the fungus that created the Irish potato famine in 1845, shipped along with tomato seedlings to big-box garden centers all over the eastern United States. Late blight thrives in the cool-wet, and for the most part, tomatoes didn’t have a chance.
I completely fell in love with these tomatoes in 2009. Shaped like peppers, they grow quite large. They are so devoid of moisture that they float in water where beefsteaks and other slicing tomatoes sink. They taste terrific. Sadly, the last twenty or so still in my garden are infected with late blight.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, late blight is an American export; someone accidentally introduced it to Ireland. I long ago learned that the late blight fungus is pretty much always on-hand, waiting for the right conditions to kick it into action. A gardener’s best defense against late blight is culture:
- Provide good drainage— If drainage is good, air movement around your plants’ roots is also good; and good for the plants..
- Minimize moisture— Water only as much as the plants need; I haven’t met a vegetable plant that wants its roots wet constantly.
- Control moisture— That is, focus watering on the soil near plants’ roots; don’t use sprinklers and spray nozzles that soak foliage with every watering.
- Don’t crowd plants— You can plant things closer than seed packages recommend and you’ll get great production… as long as everything else goes right. I understand the risks of crowding and I take the lumps when they come… but please choose a level of pain that’s acceptable to you. Crowding traps moisture, blocks air flow, and provides easy pathways for insects and diseases.
- Make sure air can circulate freely— If there’s a lot of air movement within your garden plot, plants will tolerate crowding better than they will in a well-sheltered area.
- Rotate crops— Don’t plant the same crop in the same area two years in a row. Ideally, figure a three- or four-year rotation; don’t repeat tomatoes in the same space for three or four years if you can avoid it.
- Follow a crop only with crops that aren’t closely-related— Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all related closely enough that if you plant one in a specific area this season, none should go in that area next season. Please check my small kitchen garden store for books that will guide you to responsible choices for next year’s crops.
- Prevent the spread of disease— Remove sick plants quickly. Bag them and toss them in the garbage, but don’t compost them.
- Plant seedlings grown locally— Best of all: learn to start your own plants from seeds about four-to-six weeks before you put them in your garden. If you prefer to leave that hassle to someone else, at least find a local nursery or garden store that starts its own seedlings. The farther you go for your live plants, the more opportunities the plants have to acquire unwanted pathogens.
I feel pretty confident in guessing that this bell pepper is inflicted with late blight. I had been anticipating a second wave of peppers to harvest in early autumn, but the very difficult growing season had other ideas.
I got very lucky this season:
- I started all my plants from seeds for the first time ever.
- The micro climate of central PA was cool but “wet enough” meaning we got rain when we needed it, but not to excess. I’m quite sure it was low temperatures that caused the most trouble.
- Despite heavy crowding, my plants showed no sign of stress until late August.
- By late August, I’d already harvested about 3 bushels of tomatoes
- Late blight spread very slowly in my garden; it seems to have missed the potatoes, though it seems to be damaging some of my peppers.
Despite the good luck, in just two weeks, my tomato plants have gone from late-season production of gorgeous fruits to overwhelming melt-down with nearly every fruit showing ugly brown lesions. I’m used to harvesting tomatoes up to the first frost, but this weekend I’ll be pulling all the plants and stuffing them into a plastic bag for garbage pickup.
Keep On Gardening
This was an unusual year! It is my first in fourteen seasons at this address where disease has taken hold… and some of those years were far wetter. My guess is that the temperature was the biggest villain in my garden’s problems; summer seemed to last about two weeks. Those weeks fell between three months of early spring and the sudden onset of autumn.
So, don’t be discouraged. Chances are, next season will be “normal…” and if not, perhaps the season after that will be.