Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Potato Project

How about another garden post? This year we're growing potatoes for the first time, but I'm trying something a little different. One of the problems of growing potatoes in a bed is that potatoes are subject to a wide and interesting variety of diseases and over time your bed will probably develop blight. So you'll need to rotate beds at least every three years. On top of that, potatoes need to be mounded, so they also take up a lot of space.

Or do they? One solution is to grow them in containers. As the plant grows, you 'mound' by raising the dirt level in the container. Every time it is about 4" above the soil you add 3" of new dirt. The plant responds by growing taller, and will start to shoot off future potatoes from the newly buried stalk. When the season is over you can just dump the whole container out on a tarp and sift through it to find the taters. If it looks like there's a disease afflicting one container, it is isolated to that container's soil, which can be disposed of.

I've seen people grow them in a variety of things. Garbage cans, old oil drums, packed earth columns. A stack of old tires is interesting: as the plant grows you just stack on tires and fill with more dirt. So I decided to try a few different things, with the goal of finding something cheap or recycled that works well. At the end of the season I'll weigh the potatoes harvested from each container and compare.

First up are two big storage lugs that I got at Home Depot for about $4 each. They're 18 gallon capacity. I took a 3/8" spade bit and drilled drainage holes all around the bottom. Then put in about 3" of moisture control potting soil. (Potatoes do not like wet toes.) Then put four little Certified Seed Potatoes in and covered them with about an inch of soil. Pros: cheap, easy, big, reusable. Cons: cost $ (though not much), not recycled, possible chemical transfer from cheap-ass plastic?

Second, a cardboard box. I know this seems crazy, and it might be, but hear me out. It only has to last for one season, and if you've ever left cardboard outside for a while it holds up better than you'd think. And at the end of the season I can just toss the whole thing in the compost bin. This one was a leftover box from a 6-gallon carboy, and my only concern is that it may be too small. Poked some holes in the bottom and planted as above, but only three seed potatoes. Pros: free, recycled, compostable. Cons: chance it will completely fall apart on me. But I can always use duct-tape to reinforce it.

Third, a malt bag. A leftover Maris Otter bag to be precise. Took the plastic inside-liner out and rolled the bag down the sides. The plastic mesh should drain well. Filled and planted as above, again only three potatoes. My favorite part: as the plants grow I can just unroll the bag up as it fills, meaning the plants will probably get more light in the early stages (not being shaded by the walls of the container). Pros: free, possibly reusable(?), recyclable, quite large, and the whole-roll-up-thing is neat. Cons: a bit floppy, I'll have to lean it against something as it gets more full.

So now we let them grow. I'm planting "All Blue" purple potatoes and Yukon Golds. All the purples are in, and soon as I get another malt bag and reasonably same size cardboard box I'll get the last of the Yukons in. I'm hoping to end up with 30-40 lbs of each by the end of the season. We'll see.

UPDATE 9/17/10

The Final Results


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