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Tower of (potato) power. April 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben is not referring to that weird home-science project where you stick electrodes into a potato and generate charge, but rather to a potato-growing experiment we’ve launched in the backyard here at Hawk’s Haven this year: growing potatoes in a bin rather than a bed. Since so much of our property is shaded, we only have three raised beds for veggie growing here (if you don’t count the in-ground bed in the greenhouse). One of those three beds is reserved for perennial vegetables—asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, and comfrey—so as you can imagine, space in the other two is at a premium. Still, our friend Ben cannot resist the pleasure of growing potatoes.

Mind you, we get plenty of potatoes every year from our CSA (organic subscription farm), and we have access to three wonderful farmers’ markets to supply any shortfalls. It’s not like we have to grow potatoes. But they’re one of the easiest, most fun crops you can grow. I love growing them. How to have my potatoes and my bed space, too?

This year, our friend Ben decided to see if the answer is a potato growing bin.* As it happens, we have one of these contraptions folded up in our toolshed. We bought it years ago from Gardener’s Supply Company (www.gardeners.com), and it’s been languishing in the shed ever since. I checked the website to see if Gardener’s Supply still offers these, and the answer is yes and no. They do offer a potato growing “bin,” but it’s basically a big landscape-cloth pot, as opposed to ours, which is a huge black open-ended cylinder punched with so many 1-inch holes it resembles blackened Swiss cheese. Our cylinder is made of extremely durable black plastic and is screwed together down one side. When set up, it’s at least 3 feet wide and perhaps 4 feet tall.

Our friend Ben carted this contraption out to the back of the property and set it up midway between one of our growing beds and our three-bin pallet compost system. (To get the full picture of this farthest property line, you’ll have to also picture two pear trees, a peach tree, two grape arbors, one with a bench beneath, two apple trees, and an enormous shagbark hickory with a bat house on one side, as well as the compost bins and veggie bed. That’s some lineup! Behind it all are farm fields and, ultimately, cows: borrowed scenery.)

I used a very tall stake to stabilize the cylinder, pounding it into the ground just inside the back wall, then added a thick layer of straw. On top of the straw I placed a thin layer of soil, then laid out my ‘Yukon Gold’ seed potatoes, sprout-side up (planting late meant that the eyes had already produced short, fat sprouts), and covered them with more soil, then finally a thin layer of straw, watering the whole thing well.

The top half of the bin is currently empty. My plan is to continue to to alternate layers of soil and/or compost and straw as the potatoes send shoots up through the existing layers, leaving only an inch or two of top growth visible at any time. That’s because, just as tomatoes will continue to root all along buried stems to create stronger plants, potatoes will produce tubers from the buried portions of stem.

Once the potato shoots have reached the top of the bin, our friend Ben plans to let them grow and flower as much as they like in the open air. Then, once frost strikes and kills the tops, I’ll lift off the bin and paw through the soil and straw to reveal, I hope, a bunch of comparatively clean, injury-free potatoes. Then the soil and straw from the potato bin can go onto one of the veggie beds or into the compost bins.

Will this actually work? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve read so much conflicting advice that at this point my head is spinning: straw is good, straw is bad, ‘Yukon Gold’ is a great potato to use in this sort of setup, ‘Yukon Gold’ is a disaster in a bin setup. Shriek! The one consistent piece of advice is that potatoes need steady, uniform watering to do well in a bin setup. The thought of staggering back there with my gallon milk jugs of water numerous times a week is already making our friend Ben feel exhausted, but it’s all for a worthy cause. And if worse comes to worst, we’ll still have our potatoes from the CSA and farmers’ markets.

Stay tuned.

* As an aside, our friend Ben is very glad that I’m not called on to read this post aloud. In my native Southern dialect, “Ben” and “bin” are pronounced the same way—“bin”—which could be very confusing. And in an attempt to refrain from doing this, I’m all too likely to end up pronouncing them both “ben.” This has always driven me crazy when reciting Yeats’s wonderful poem “Easter 1916,” in which the words “minute,” “moor-hen,” “within,” and “hen” follow each other repeatedly and swiftly in a dance almost certain to trip up the Southern tongue.

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Comments»

1. Lzyjo - April 30, 2009

Sounds like a good idea! I’ve always liked the thought of harvesting perfectly clean potatoes grown in straw. There’s a principle though that prevents me from trying it. I’ve already grown potatoes in soil and I’m not lazy to build them something to grown in.

Before I moved to the South I was so enthralled with Southern accents that I complimented anyone I heard who had a good one. I even read up on the Southern dictionary, learning such variations as arnin’ and Sandy Claws. I hope no one heard me speaking in a terrible fake-Southern accent! Now that I’ve lived in the South for awhile, I get it. I’m a damn Yankee and I’ll always be one.

It funny how godawful Northern accents sound! HAHAHA! So glad I don’t sound like that anymore!

Oh, lzyjo, those Southern accents! I can’t tell you how much grief I’ve endured for my own both in North and South. My father has that classic distinguished “the bey-ah is ovah they-ah” accent (that’s “the bear is over there” for those needing translation), while my mother had a Kentucky drawl. But growing up, I was declared to have no Southern accent at all and was given untold grief about it from other kids. Then when I moved to Pennsylvania, people kept accusing me of being from England! I’d gotten so used to thinking I had “no” accent that not only was this a shock, but when friends began making fun of me for saying “pin” instead of “pen” (as in, “This miserable pen is out of ink!”) and what they still insist is “ray-uts” instead of “rats” (I hotly deny this), I was stunned. Accents are indeed fascinating things; I once counted 15 different ones in the vicinity of my native Nashville alone.

2. Gail - April 30, 2009

You had me at Yukon Gold! I love those potatoes. There is this silly Three Things circulating the emails. Where you answer a series of questions revealing untold mysteries about yourself…like your three favorite foods (Chocolate, ice cream and most potato dishes). Potatoes must want to grow they pop up in the compost pile all the time. After living here for 30+ years many accents sound harsh to my ears! Even my own St Louis accent; we have a hard time with a’s we want to add an r to words. Wash-> warsh! gail

‘Yukon Gold’ is my favorite, too, Gail, though I love good old baking potatoes, red-skinned new potatoes, fingerlings, and sweet potatoes as well! Potatoes make my list of the Four Major Food Groups, along with pizza, pasta, and popcorn! Butter, salt, and cheese essential of course, though not on all four foods (no butter on pizza, optional on pasta; no cheese on potatoes, optional on popcorn and pasta). Yum, just thinking about this is making me hungry! As for accents, they really are something else. I’ve always been fascinated by linguists who claim they can tell your birthplace from listening to you. I’d love to give them the chance to tell me mine!

3. Victoria - April 30, 2009

Good luck with those potatoes.
Ben and bin. Ha ha. While visiting my cousin and his children in France a few years ago, we were teaching each other English and French. We spent an afternoon on the beach. They kept pronouncing it “bitch” and couldn’t understand why I was laughing.

“Bitch,” oh dear. Language is really something else!

4. Daphne Gould - April 30, 2009

I’m doing a bin this year too. I’ve already got it in. I’m just wondering where I’m getting all the stuff to fill it with.

Yes, that’s certainly the issue, Daphne! Fortunately a farmer down the road will actually deliver straw bales here. But I’m counting on my compost pile and earthworm composter to do the rest! Otherwise I’ll be out there buying bagged soil and compost…

5. Heather - May 1, 2009

Sounds like a winner to me! I bought the fabric ones and have red and yukons planted. Mine have yet to sprout but I am counting on this week to be the magic week. I am with you….. I hope they do well and show everyone else!

Thanks, Heather! What did you plant yours in—soil, compost, or a mix?

6. fairegarden - May 1, 2009

Hi OFB, hooray for the towering potatoes! I am trying to grow my own for the first time this year, my neighbor gave me a bag of red skinned ones from the co-op. I have a bale of straw at the ready and now know what to do with it, thanks! As for bin and Ben, when we first moved to TN and went throught the drivethrough for food for the kids, the voice kept saying strange things, we couldn’t understand a word and had to keep asking for repeats of what she was saying. It did involve the letter *i* being substituted for the letter e. HA
Frances

Good for you, Frances, and good luck!!! As for the i/e thing, you should have seen all the strange looks I’d get when I moved up here and would ask coworkers if I could borrow a pen. I guess they wondered why I thought they’d all be carrying pins around!

7. Kathy LaLiberte - May 4, 2009

Hello from Gardener’s Supply. We’re up here in northern Vermont on the Canadian border and I’ll bet it makes you grin to think about how funny our accent is!
Anyway, we’re glad to hear ya’ll are growing potatoes. We did sell that big black poly bin for several years and lots of people had good success with it. Others found it challenging to keep the soil inside the bin from drying out (some people used straight soil and others used a mix of straw and soil). In hot and relatively dry climates, all those “Swiss cheese” holes on the sides allowed too much moisture escape. As one person above said, potatoes require lots of water for high productivity, so you might need to be lugging quite a few gallons of water out there to your potato bin. Please send us an email and let us know how it goes. I am hoping we will be offering a large potato bin in 2010.
The felt-like “potato bags” that we currently sell work quite well. They each yield 7-10 lbs rather than 25-30, but they’re small and lots of people plant up a couple of them. You’ll find these potato bags on our website: gardeners.com
You might also be interested in a blog post that I wrote last week about planting potatoes in my old compost bins. It was the April 19 post on our blog, which is http://blog.gardeners.com
Happy gardening! Kathy LaLiberte

Hi Kathy! Thanks so much for checking in and for your excellent advice. I love the idea of planting potatoes in compost bins! And you’ll be happy to know that a number of our fellow bloggers are trying your “potato bags” this year and are quite excited about it. We’ll all have to compare notes at harvest time!

8. Mark - May 1, 2010

We used one of the Gardener Supply Round bins in central Wyoming (Wind River Indian Reservation last summer. Dirt stayed in fine, moisture didn’t seem to be an issue (and we are a relatively dry climate). I put my sprinklers on top of the corner posts of the garden fence.

The yield was at least as good as the trench potatoes we planted in the same area of the garden.

That’s great, Mark! We had so much rain last year we never even had to water our bin. We’ll see how it goes this year!


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