Planting Potatoes in Spaces Big and Small

Around here, St. Patrick’s Day means more than just a good ‘ol fashioned Irish celebration (even though Karin is part Irish).  That day is synonymous with potato planting.  Historically, the first day of spring usually falls around St. Paddy’s Day; it’s just a good mark to hit for one of our first rounds of planting for the season.  Any time in the spring, though, is good for planting potatoes. We got ours in on March 31st year.

History

Potatoes were introduced to Ireland by the British back in the 1600’s as the ideal food source.  Basically, it was a cheap and easy-to-grow food for the poor people of Britain’s first colony.  The plan backfired, though.  By the 1840’s, the potato had helped the Irish become stronger than their British rulers!

Unfortunately, the Great Potato Famine destroyed potato crops across the country soon after.  That famine, though, is credited with boosting plant breeding programs to find disease-resistant varieties and showing us the benefits of crop rotation.  And the potato is still among the easiest vegetables to grow.

Whether you’ve got a large space to work with or your garden consists of a few pots on your balcony, anyone can grow potatoes.

Yield

No matter how you plant potatoes, the rewards are pretty great.  One pound of seed potatoes can yield around 10 lbs of new ones!  Find seed potatoes online, from your local farm, farmers markets or garden centers.

Seed potatoTo increase your yield, cut larger seed potatoes into halves or thirds; just be sure each piece has 2 or 3 “eyes” in it.  Those eyes will turn into sprouts for forming new tubers.  Let them sit out for a day or two to harden the cut edge before planting to prevent them rotting in the ground.

 

In the Ground

The usual way to plant potatoes is to till the ground until it’s nice and loose, place the seed potatoes into the ground and cover with a good amount of soil.  Later, as the plants get larger, continue mounding the soil up around the vine to encourage new growth, which will result in more tubers.  This can be a small space or several acres; the procedure is the same.  Once the plants die back and it’s time to harvest, the soil is loosened (usually with a potato fork or mechanical implement) and the potatoes are dug up.

Potato plants

 

We choose an alternative to this method.  Rather than tilling the ground, we choose an area that’s already had its soil loosened by a thick layer of straw mulch the previous season.  Then, we simply lay the seed potatoes out on the ground in nice rows and cover them with a deep layer of composted manure and straw from our chicken coops and pig pens.  We’ve got great nutrients built into the straw and a good start for the potatoes.  Once the plants poke their heads through the straw, we mound more up on top.  If the straw seems to be letting in too much light (green potatoes are bad), we can add some compost or sawdust to block it out.  This method, for us, is much easier and leaves the soil below pretty much undisturbed.  Harvesting simply involves pulling back the layers of straw to reveal the potatoes … no digging required!

In Containers

An easy, space-saving (and back saving!) way to grow potatoes is in containers.  This method is also effective for preventing pests that may plague your crop, like voles or grubs.  You can use buckets or barrels or even burlap sacks.

Potato buckets

The size of your containers will determine the size of your harvest. Nancy at http://homefront.prudentliving.com/ gets about a pound per bucket.

Whatever container you use, make sure there’s good drainage at the bottom.  Drill or cut a few holes in the bottom, then add some rocks or broken clay pots so the holes don’t get clogged with soil.  Add about 2” of good soil or compost.  Place a few seed potatoes about 4” to 6” apart; 3 should fit in a 5-gallon bucket.  Layer on about 2” of soil, then water well.

Once you see sprouts push through the soil, keep an eye on them.  When they are about 4” tall, put in more soil, compost, straw or sawdust, leaving the top 1” of the sprout above the soil.  The growing medium doesn’t matter much at this point, so long as it’s thick enough to block sunlight from getting through to the bottom and the new tubers have something to sprout into.  The plants will send out tubers along the buried stem portion.   Repeat this process until the bucket is full of your growing medium, and then let the sprouts grow up and out of the container.

Water your potatoes whenever the soil is dry 1” below the surface.  If you use something other than compost as your growing medium, fertilize with compost or manure tea every few weeks to keep the nutrients coming.

The potato plants will flower when tubers are growing.  Once the plants begin to dry up and die, your potatoes are ready to harvest.  Simply turn the container over and sift through for your lovely potatoes!

Wire Cylinders

Planting in wire cylinders uses the same concept as the containers above; however, it removes the need to pile on the planting medium as the plants grow.

Potato Tower

Use the straw to form a “bowl” and keep layering your potatoes.

Using chicken wire or any wire mesh with spaces around 2”, form a cylinder shape similar to a 55-gallon drum.  Fasten the wire together and use a stake along the open edge for support.  Place a thick layer of straw in a bowl shape in the bottom, add 2” of soil or compost, layer your seed potatoes around the outer edge, then add another 2” of soil.  Repeat this all the way to the top.  Now, your potato plants will sprout out the sides of your cylinder, and across the top.  This method requires a few more seed potatoes than in containers, but reduces the need to check back with the plants to see if they need more soil.  It’s a good option if you don’t want to have to pay attention to the potatoes that often!

Follow the same watering and fertilizing instructions as for containers.  Again, the plants will die back when the potatoes are ready to harvest.  Tip over your cylinder and reap the rewards!

Growing your own potatoes is easy and there are plenty of varieties to choose from.  Pick a couple different ones to try and harvest some as young “new” potatoes and others once they’re fully mature to store for the winter.

Sustainable Solutions for the Garden

We talk a lot about recycling, reusing and repurposing things in our daily lives to keep items from going to the landfills.  How can items be reused in the garden, too?  Aside from the obvious composting tips, here are a few ways to use household “waste” in the garden:

  1. Use a scrap of fabric or an old t-shirt to make a small bag.  When bars of soap get too small to use effectively by themselves, drop them in the bag.  Keep the bag tied next to your outside water spigot and use it to quickly scrub the dirt from your hands.
  2. No need to buy fancy row covers to protect your plants from frost in spring and fall.  Use scrap wood, old tomato cages or anything else you can place upright as supports around your plants.  Then lay old sheets or blankets across the supports when the weather looks like it’ll be too chilly overnight.
  3. For a quick cold-frame even earlier or later in the season, place square bales of
    Easy cold frame

    Easy cold frame from straw bales and windows. Photo by Josh McCullough

    straw around your garden bed and place discarded windows over top.  This not only traps the heat in but amplifies the sun’s rays.  Amplification works even better if you stack the bales higher on the north side of the plot, so the windows are angled toward the south side.  If it’s going to be very cold, use the sheets or blankets from above for even more protection from a freeze.

  4. Have an old sink left from a remodel? Use that sink outside near your hose as a place to wash your goodies from the garden.  Place a bucket underneath to catch the water; use it to water your plants and you’ll return the nutrients in the dirt washed from the veggies back to the garden while saving water.
  5. Use old rags, shirts, sheets, etc. as plant ties.  Just tear or cut them into strips and use them to tie your tomatoes to stakes or as support for melons growing up a trellis.

EcoPotscedarplanterIf you find you do need to buy new items, like pots or planters, try to buy the most eco-friendly items you can.  Products made from natural woods or pots made from bamboo and grain husks will not only last you a long time, but can be recycled or composted at the end of their lifetime, completing the cycle.

It only takes a little ingenuity to keep items out of landfills and put them to good use.  What discarded items do you re-use in your gardens?

Free Online Food Growing Summit

If you need a little inspiration to get started growing your own food, this is it!  The Food Growing Summit will happen five evenings next week and feature such inspiring speakers as Joel Salatin, Vandana Shiva, Dan Susman and more.  You may not have heard of some of the long list of speakers, but their efforts are inspiration to everyone to grow your own food and learn why your local food economy is so important.

Each evening March 3rd through 7th, these farmers, home food growers and community activists will share their experiences of how to grow food simply at home and how that makes our families and communities stronger.  And it’s totally free!

carrot in soil

2014 Food Growing Summit

Learn how to begin growing some of your own food in whatever space you have.  Register for the Food Growing Summit and check the schedule of speakers.  Pick one or all; each talk will be available for 24 hours after it’s scheduled broadcast, so you can listen to ones you may miss.  A great opportunity to listen to some great local food proponents!