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Potato bin update #1. May 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben is delighted to report that our potato bin experiment is going well (so far). If you missed the initial description and setup, check our earlier post, “Tower of (potato) power.” After a month of pretty much nothing happening, our ‘Yukon Gold’ seed potatoes have not only sent up shoots but have been growing so strongly that it was obviously time to add a layer of soil to cover the stems.

Cover the stems? You read that right. Just as the related tomato will grow roots all along a buried stem—which is why old-timers always suggest burying new tomato transplants up to practically the top leaves to make for stronger, better-supported plants—potato plants will set potatoes all along their buried stems. Our plan is to alternate layers of straw and soil as the stems grow until we reach the very top of the bin, then let the stems grow in the fresh air, bloom, and eventually die back. At which point we’ll lift off the bin and paw through the soil and straw in search of potatoes.

I’ve been using organic potting soil for the soil layers, since we don’t have any soil to spare from our garden beds. But now my supply of potting soil was almost exhausted (and besides, Silence Dogood always needs some to pot up the houseplants, greenhouse plants, and deck container plants as they grow). So Silence and our friend Ben piled our puppy Shiloh in the car and headed off to Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm out in scenic Bowers, PA on Memorial Day to stock up. (See our earlier post, “Scotch Bonnets and Dutchy Gunpowder,” for more on Jim and his amazing hot peppers.)

Jim had a selection of potting soils and soil amendments for sale, including organic mushroom compost (the best!), their own compost, and bags of an intriguing mix of compost, vermiculite and perlite they called “Square Foot Gardening Mix.” Not seeing any reason to quibble, our friend Ben bought some of each and loaded it into the car along with a happy Shiloh and an even happier Silence. (She had found one pot of thyme that was a sport in the middle of a flat of silver-variegated thyme. This one pot did show some silver variegation, but the new leaves were pure gold, making for a breathtaking combination. Silence looked unusually smug, even for her—ouch, Silence! just kidding! owww!!!—as she clutched her newfound treasure.)

Back at Hawk’s Haven, I poured the Square Foot mix carefully around the potato stems until they were buried up to about the top two inches. Next time it will be a layer of straw. The plants looked healthy and vigorous. So far, so good. Of course, assuming they continue to thrive, the ultimate test will come when we pull off the bin and look for the harvest sometime late this summer or fall, whenever the plant tops have completely died back. Stay tuned. As noted, numerous potatoes overwintered for us this year—a first!—and are growing strongly in one of our in-ground raised beds, so we’ll have an interesting comparison when we harvest those, sort of the classic experiment setup with the new technique versus the control. 

And if any of you are familiar with Square Foot soil mix, let us know what you think! With the Weavers’ good compost as the main ingredient, it looked pretty good to our friend Ben.

Potato update: curious. May 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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In my previous post, “Tower of (potato) power,” our friend Ben described how I was growing ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes in a cylindrical bin to save precious bed space for other crops. I’d alternated layers of straw and soil in the bin, and planned to continue piling up alternating layers as the potato shoots grew to make sure I got the biggest possible potato harvest once the tops die down in fall. (Potato plants will form tubers all along their buried stems, so it pays bigtime to keep burying the stems as they grow. My plan is to keep adding layers of straw and soil until the shoots reach the top of the bin, then allow them to sprawl at will until they die back.)

This is, of course, something of an experiment. I figured we had nothing to lose, since our CSA will provide us with plenty of potatoes if ours don’t produce a crop. Still, our friend Ben was as nervous as a new father, checking the bin every day to see if there were any signs of the much-anticipated shoots. Had I put too much straw on top of the seed potatoes? Could the shoots push through? I began fluffing up the straw at the top of the pile, surreptitiously checking for any signs of life. Finally, this past week, I saw shoots stretching up through the straw. And then, yesterday, green leaves poking up through the top layer. Hallelujah!!! They’re alive. Now I just need to keep adding layers of straw and soil to keep up with the leafy shoots as they continue to grow.

Our friend Ben is greatly relieved that our ‘Yukon Gold’ crop is doing its stuff and I didn’t screw everything up. But this isn’t the curious part. What’s curious is this: Last year, our friend Ben planted some wonderful seed potato collections from Wood Prairie Farm (www.woodprairie.com), a family-run organic seed and potato company in Maine, in one of our veggie beds. I’d chosen the Wood Prairie Farm Experimenter’s Special and The Organic Potato Blossom Festival, which includes six varieties noted for their blossom beauty and fragrance as well as for producing wonderful potatoes. How could I resist?

Now, here’s the curious part. It’s not easy to harvest every last potato in your bed unless you’re really thorough or you’re growing them in a bin (as we are this year). Doubtless, I left a few in the ground last year. This is not a good thing, since winter turns in-ground potatoes to soggy mush. So you can imagine our friend Ben’s astonishment as our puppy Shiloh and I were inspecting the bed to check on the progress of the lettuces and mesclun mixes, strawberries, sugar snap peas, radishes, onions, bell pepper, pickling cuke, and summer squash plants, and I saw that some very vigorous potato plants were coming up!

The thought that seed potatoes could survive a Pennsylvania winter was news to me. (It’s never happened before through many years of potato-growing.) Now I can’t wait to see which potatoes they are! Guess I’ll have to be patient ’til harvest time, though. And then I’ll have another experiment on my hands: Comparing the yields of the in-ground potatoes to the ones in the bin. Stay tuned!

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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