Tower of (potato) power. April 30, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
Tags: growing potatoes, growing potatoes in bins, potato growing bin
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.
* 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.