I’m writing this post kinda under duress. If I don’t write it, several readers are going to show up at my house with pitchforks, demanding answers.
People want a follow-up on the Heavy Duty Potato Cages I built last spring, and they want it now, so they can plan for their own potato growing. Totally get it. Typically, I’d like to run something like this more than a season before giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but my audience has spoken. Answers Now.
So, I give growing in these Heavy Duty Potato Cages a thumbs up, with qualifications. Here’s why.
First, here’s what my Heavy Duty Potato Cages look like.
The heavy duty bins themselves worked spectacularly as oversize containers. The landscape fabric held up, the bins maintained their integrity, nothing leaked out or tipped over.
The semi-composted woodchip path mulch I used to fill the bins on the cheap has continued to break down over the past year and the soil in those bins is now some of the loveliest in my yard, though if I were a betting girl I’d guess that it’s a touch on the acidic side – I didn’t lime the bins since I was growing acid-preferring potatoes.
The bins are now essentially stationary. My vision when I built them was that I could just lift the bins straight up and sort through the mound of soil for potatoes. This does work – I did it with one bin, and dirt and taters did just kinda plop out towards the sides – but you need to make sure you don’t bury the bottom lip of the landscape fabric with a half-cubic yard of soil when you are first setting them up. If you do, the bins become much harder to lift.
If you want to keep your cages together, lifting is also a two-person job. You really need someone on each side of the bin to lift straight up or else the weight of the soil makes getting the mesh and landscape fabric. If you are willing and able to unhook the concrete mesh frame, you could probably pop these cages open like springform pans.
All but one of the bins got left exactly where they were for now, not taken apart, and harvested from the top. This is not exactly easy, since you have to fork through soil that is below the top lip of the bin, but it worked. It was simpler to reach in with my hands and snag a potato as needed because the soil was so loose and airy, so that’s how I harvested most of the potatoes from these bins.
Yield was acceptable but by no means spectacular. The I planted about ten uncut small/medium seed potatoes per bin – this was about a pound of potatoes ber bin depending on the variety. From that I harvested around 8-12 pounds of potatoes per bin. French Fingering, German Butterball and All Blue did the best for me.
The potatoes did grow well in the tubs. Here’s a photo of the bins on June 4th of last year.
And here they are on June 24th.
Here’s the biggest issue I had with these bins, which I think limited total yield. My chickens decided these bins were their personal dust baths. This tattered up the potato vines towards the end of their growth period when all that vegetative energy should have been pouring into the tuber development.
I have hopes that, with the chickens now more securely contained in a dedicated run, future plantings of potatoes will not suffer so much, and yield will do better.
That said, I’m pretty sure I’ve attempted every potato growing scheme out there. Burlap sacks, heavy duty cages, plastic tubs, raised beds, hugelkultur, in ground – you name it, I’ve probably tried it in an attempt to grow those promised 100 pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet.
My conclusion is that potatoes are basically masochists. The less you coddle them the more satisfied they seem to be. Potatoes I grew in these Heavy Duty Cages yielded about the same or poorer than in-ground plantings I’ve tried, but far better than other container-planting schemes.
The best crop of potatoes I’ve ever grown was planted in the dregs of the prior year’s compost pile. The spot was in good, strong sun, and was soon to be a permanent raised bed for my perennial crops. The soil was damp, bordering on mucky, but very rich – the kind of dirt that wriggles with worms if you scoop up a handful.
I was late to planting potatoes that year – it was June and, to be frank, potatoes were an afterthought. This was many years before I started my blog, so I wasn’t instinctively snapping photos of everything. I had stretched black plastic down over the patch of old compost leavings to discourage weeds, and it occurred to me that I could snip holes in the plastic and tuck a few organic supermarket Yukon Gold’s down into the muck.
That’s exactly what I did. With my daughter watching, I cut X-shaped holes into the black plastic, about every 12 or 16 inches, pushed a bit of soil aside and dropped a small organic “seed” potato from the Yuppie Hippie Market into the dirt. Then, I did nothing: no watering, no hilling, no side-dressing. In a few months you couldn’t see the plastic for the tangle of potato vines sprawling everywhere. I remember pale purple flowers appeared, and I was shocked at how gorgeous they were.
Soon after that, things that looked like huskless tomatillos showed up, bobbing amongst the potato greenery. Terrified of the toxicity issue, I preemptively chastised my daughter never to eat the fruit of the potato plant.
That year, my potato harvest was insane. I filled up a 55-gallon bin with potatoes. Some of them were ugly – with internal black spot or scab, but many were perfect and boy, I had a lot of them to pick through. None of my fancy attempts to container grow potatoes with certified disease free potatoes in virgin soil has given me that kind of yield. So honestly, maybe the answer with potatoes is, just keep it simple.
I’m still deciding if I’ll be growing potatoes in my bins again this year. I think may grow vining squash in the bins this year. Still figuring that out, but I’m happy to have the extra planting space and the great soil, and I’ll be using it.
What’s you favorite way to grow potatoes?1
Wendy Shillam says
I’ve given up growing potatoes in bags and pots because I agree with you. They don’t grow as well as in the ground. And lifting the soil level does not in my view increase the crop. It just increases the amount of leaves. I have found volunteers doing rather well in my 150mm deep raised beds, so this year I might plant one or two tubers intentionally into those beds.
I haven’t tried a late crop in a pot for Christmas or a really early crop in the greenhouse for spring so that might be my next experiment.
This is my first year gardening (a little, I’m mostly doing yard cleanup) in Portland. I ordered some Ozette potatoes from Oikos Tree Crops. These are supposedly a variety of potato direct from South America, never “improved” in Europe. I recall the story was that they naturalized outside a spanish outpost in the PNW and the local people adopted it and started growing it. It’s supposed to be delicious but also delicious to bugs (the leaves). We’ll see how it goes!
Le Femme Farmer says
I tried the stacking wood frames and found the yields to be unimpressive. The earwigs and slugs took up residence between the frames to boot. I planted them in the ground last year, but with clay soil it was a lot of work prepping the ground and hilling them up. We did get a decent yield, but since we just built a couple of huge hugels, I’m going to try planting them at the base on the south side and see what happens. I’ll have to search your blog to see how yours did in the hugels. I’m hoping the hugels will be my favorite!
I, too, tried growing potatoes in bags and was not very successful. I put it down to my tendency to underwater anything in a pot because I have to stand there and water it! I do much better with automatic watering systems. My plan this year is to just plant them in a raised bed amended with peat moss (to raise the acidity and improve the water-holding capacity of my sandy soil) with one hilling so that the ghost of my father (a notable potato gardener) won’t haunt me!
Ha…my father’s ghost is never far from me in the garden! 🙂
10 potatoes in each container sounds like the problem to me 🙂
Erica / Northwest Edible Life says
Yes, you may very well be right about that. Although that just takes me back to my original conclusion: if you can’t increase yield (via intensive planting or whatever) in a container, then there is no advantage vs. in-ground plantings.
Rosemary Edgar says
I agree with Seth. My first thought when I saw how many plants you had in a container was “Whoa, that’s way to crowded.” I think you’d probably have better yield if you had just one plant per container. Might be worth trying giving it a try just for good measure.
I agree – I’ve always found my yields are most directly tied to how crowded the plants are. Best I’ve found so far is 1 potato plant per square foot, or even a little wider.
I Wilkerson says
I grow potatoes in cages every year (see: http://artofnaturalliving.com/2011/05/01/the-lazy-persons-potato-garden/ ) though I have a bit of a different goal that you do. I get a lot of spuds from my CSAs (more than we eat up before they sprout) so my emphasis is getting a reasonably sized early (before the CSA harvest) crop and doing it with little to no effort in planting or harvesting. I have also on occasion grown spontaneous compost bin potatoes–alas my compost pile has never been as hot as it should 😉
Betsy True says
Have you tried straw bales yet? I was hoping to convert my potato patch to straw bales as a “rotation in place”. I’ve never done this type of gardening, so any advice?
A few years ago I bought 10 bales of straw and went to it ! NOPE. Here in Colorado its just TOO dry. The water ran right out of the bales. Nothing was retained for the plants ! I tried digging a hole in the bale, adding a bucket of soil then the plants. That was not successful either. I’ll be using the last leftover bale of straw this year to mulch once I’ve planted. That’s the best use I got from them!
Little Mountain Haven says
Is that a geodome greenhouse frame in the background?!
We grew potatoes in pallet containers last year, I think it would of worked great if they weren’t so far from the garden for watering as I think we un-derwatered them. I think I smothered them too. with the mulch..I have a terrible habit of being like ‘potatoes are easy to grow I can just leave them be’ when really thats not the case. Hard lessons learned are the ones we remember the most right! 🙂
Such a relief to read your blog and the comments. I’ve also tried everything, including neglect. Our root cellar is still bulging with last year’s crop, even after sharing with family and friends. Wish I knew why. Longer growing season in ’13 than our usual is most likely what “I” did right!
We have tried four years to grow potatoes in a wooden box. You start low and add sides and dirt as they grow.
What a huge PITA for nothing. Never again. We have gone to ground now. Still not super great but better and way less work.
Bill W. says
In the PNW, there is really no upside to growing potatoes in containers. We have an ideal potato climate. They will do best in the ground on wide spacing so that they can get lots of sun, which is the primary limiting factor in our climate. Crowding potatoes is a very bad idea with our low level of sunlight and also an invitation to blight.
Ien in the Kootenays says
I have tried containers and was very disappointed with the results. The best yield is always volunteers from the edges of the compost heap. I do plant at least 2 3×21 raised beds, one row down the middle. I get potatoes but never as many as I’d like. We always run out somewhere in January. With the times getting crazier I’d really like to have enough for a year. What with drought in California and unrest in Ukraine (third in the world for grains) our backyard hobby may well become very important.
How would you store a year’s worth of potatoes? Even my best keeper potatoes start sprouting this time of year.
You pressure can anything you don’t think you can use before it sprouts. They last longer that way, assuming you don’t eat them up before year’s end.
Keep the potatoes as cool and dry as possible, and when they do sprout, just eat ’em anyway. I live in a warm area, and right now my stored potatoes (from my MIL, I can’t make them work) are sprouting like crazy in their basket. But once you rip off the roots, the taste is (almost) the same. And once they’re cooked, the texture doesn’t suffer much. We eat a lot of mashed potatoes this time of year…
I grew potatoes in wire bins two years in a row, and my yield was LESS than the weight of my seed potatoes! I discovered that here in Ohio, where June-August temperatures are regularly in the 80s and dry, that the bin allows too much air circulation and dries out the potatoes. I bet you have more success in the PNW with the bins precisely because it does offer a bit more air circulation amidst a rainier climate.
When I grew potatoes in a raised bed, however, my yield was fantastic (not 55 gallons worth though!). My guess is that although a raised bed is said to dry out more quickly than the ground, in my case the quality soil mix in my raised beds retained moisture better than the clay soil in the ground.
I need to do more experiments and collect data!
I grow potatoes in bins similar to these and have potatoes leaping out of the soil every year. It is easy and leaves room in the actual garden for other crops. I wrote the following email to a friend that I just recently mentored on this very subject because I know she also reads this blog. The following copy of that email may explain why so many people have a hard time making this garden technique work for them.
I may try this but only if the landscape fabric is breathable (I think very important) and I will only try a couple. It would probably be easier to line the cages with but I can see two things that are not so great. It is not as breathable as straw and the fabric would be shading light to the emerging plants. Her idea is basically the same as mine, however, I wouldn’t do a couple things.
First, although the concrete wire frames sound great and sturdy, they will be hard to store. (Guess you could do the spring form thing) along with storing the dirty fabric. I haven’t had any trouble with the chicken wire and I can flatten it for storage and it’s cheaper. It’s a pain to unflatten in the spring but better than having these things stacked all over the yard. Especially in a small yard. The straw used to line the wire mixes into the soil at the end of the season, makes it easy to slide the wire off and makes yummy compost.
I would not use decomposing anything (especially wood chips) to grow them in. I have tried growing potatoes in straw and I am here to tell you it doesn’t work. Although potatoes don’t need a lot of nitrogen, they do need some along with other nutrients and decomposing stuff ties up nitrogen and seems to me rotting stuff would propagate rotting potatoes. She also didn’t mention the use of bone meal, an ingredient I deem essential. She said she didn’t lime the potatoes because she was growing acid preferring spuds. In my experience potatoes don’t like lime. It has a tendency to propagate scab. Use regular garden soil, not too rich and make sure it contains essential trace minerals. Especially bone meal. SHEESH! The pictures of her potato plants look a little yellow to me (indicating not enough nitrogen) but that could just be the difference in computer screens.
Planting late definitely affects your yield so plant on time. That said I am on my way out to the garden for the 3rd day in a row to ready things up. It is suppose to rain for a week with some snow thrown in so I’m using this time to garden. I will be making another 10 towers during the icky weather and setting them up first week or two in March. I am going to be ready this year. I swear.
I know without the “potato lesson” that I shared with my friend it is hard to know what I am talking about so here is a link to my blog post on potatoes if you care to look. Directions on the potato towers are about half way down right after the dumb idea of growing sweet potatoes.
The next post was the results of that potato growing experiment.
Hope this helps those that still want to grow potatoes using this technique. I highly recommend it.
I’ve tried growing potatoes in plastic keg buckets leftover from our wedding a few years in a row. I’ve never been too impressed which is why I was excited to see you trying it. And also why I requested an update! I think based on my experience and your post and the fact that we are now growing food on a quarter acre, I will try them in the ground this year. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience!
I did towers one year where you layer seed potatoes, soil and straw every foot of so of the tower. The potatoes do come out the sides and top and the best part was how clean they were at harvest, but nothing has compared to the yield in a raised bed one year. If I can manage the room in a raised bed I’ll be doing that again this year. Guess I’d better get planning!
I did a bunch of reading about potatoes in scholarly papers. Potatoes are funny plants. The part we eat is actually a rhizome, not a root, and the plant uses it to store energy for the next year. The process is called tuberization. Tubers form within about a foot of the original seed potato and not much above that no matter how long the vine is.
The more nitorgen the plant gets the bigger the vines will be – at the expense of the potatoes. If the ground is cool the plant grows less and forms potatoes instead. On the other hand if the days are long and sunny and the ground is warm the plant puts more energy into vines and may not form tubers at all, or forms fewer ones.
Typical yeilds are in the range of 5 – 8 pounds per pound of seed potatoes planted.
The closer together the potatoes are the smaller the tubers will be but there will be more of them.
So, to encourage the little guys, keep their roots cool and their leaves sunny. In containers, the bigger the container the better. Smaller containers heat up faster than larger ones. Mulch the container. With your cages you could put another larger circle of landscape fabric stitched into a tube and put mulch between the two. It also helps keep the sides from drying out. Consider using a reflective plastic mulch instead of black. Black absorbs heat but the reflective plastic would keep the soil cooler and the leaves would get more light.
Last year my Spring planting of potatoes had a much better yeild than my summer planting did. The soil was cooler. This year I want to plant some in the Fall, just for kicks.
I sew huge 1 cubic yard bins out of DeWitts professional landscape fabric. They are great. The stuff lasts forever and I don’t bother with the wire mesh to support them. I make the bottom out of a 36″ by 36″ square and sew a 36″ wide strip around it for the sides. Imagine a 36″ soft sided cube. I use them for compost, soil, chips, weeds, anything I want to contain. They also make great planters. They cost about $4 a piece. I’ve also made half size and smaller ones. When empty they fold down flat. If you want to empty them you can just pull the sides down like you were taking off a stocking.
Val Rogers says
Wow! That sounds like a super idea! I need to contain all kinds of stuff but don’t like handling wire. These sound lightweight, easy to store, customizable & cheap! Thanks!
I’ve also had the best yields of spuds growing them in the ground on an old compost site & doing absolutely nothing special other than mulching with straw.
I live in Bellingham WA , garden in raised beds, and have grown potatoes for the past three years, with just ok results. The biggest problems I’ve had have been greening and scab, big time! Keeping the spuds from going green is solved by keeping them out of sunlight, so a good mulch cover should handle that. But scab is a big problem , since the source is pretty much native to garden soil. I like your lined reinforcing mesh container idea. I’ve been using the stuff for decades to contain and support tomatoes(works great!) I’m going to try them at about 18″high, with a fill of fresh bagged soil and compost mix, along with scab resistant seed potato starts. I read that a slightly acidic soil helps prevent scab as we’ll so, after reading your great post on coffee grounds in the garden, what’s left over from my wife’s caffeine addiction is going on the spuds! We’ll see what happens.