Every year about this time gardeners start inflicting all manner of experiments upon the humble spud. We drop them into burlap sacks, grow pots, wood towers, mesh towers, tire towers, garbage cans, straw bales and more. We attempt the Square Foot method, the Ruth Stout method, the Hilled Row Method, the Plastic Mulch Method.
The goal with these various growing methods is always the same: maximum possible yield of clean, unblemished potatoes in a minimum of space. To achieve this ideal, potatoes need moist, rich, acidic soil under the seed spud and loose, dryish, lightweight soil or other matter above, where the vine will grow and new tubers will form. These conditions are easily created in container culture, and bins and cages give the added advantage of dead-simple harvest. Once the vines die back, you tip-and-pick.
So it seems that potatoes should be the perfect candidate for all these grow-bin experiments. And yet, for all the internet promises – “Grow 100 Pounds of Potatoes in 4 Square Feet!” – I have never, ever, ever heard from an actual person who has achieved results like these. In fact, often I think that the potato usually manages some yield no matter how you grow it more from the insuppressibility of the tuber than the creativity or skill of gardeners.
My own experiments two years ago in burlap sack potato growing were a dismal failure. Last year I grew potatoes both in ground and in large Rubbermaid plastic tubs. The potatoes grown in the ground were fine: the quality and quantity were neither spectacular nor terrible. The tub-grown taters did better. I filled the tubs with purchased compost and was rewarded with a good yield of very clean, nicely shaped if slightly small potatoes for most varieties grown. (French Fingerling was the clear winner.)
But by the end of the season, ants had found the bins and had made a happy colony inside the warm, protected, loose soil. Harvesting required overcoming the fear-factor of dozens of ants swarming my forearms and hands as I plucked the potatoes from the soil. And all that purchased compost cost a pretty penny.
So this year, I am trying yet another way. I hope (don’t all we potato growers?) that maybe I’ve found the perfect very low cost, portable, good-drainage, large-scale container for growing. In a few months, the results will, one way or another, speak for themselves.
Assembling the Cages
My Heavy Duty Potato Cage starts, like so many projects around my yard, with a roll of concrete reinforcing mesh. This is the same roll of mesh I’ve used to make rebar arch trellises, pea climbing supports, tomato cages, cloche supports and more. This one 5′-wide, 150′-foot long roll of concrete mesh is like the garden gift that just keeps giving.
I cut a 9 foot section of the mesh and then cut that in half lengthwise. This gave me two sections, each 9 feet long and 2-1/2 feet tall. Each section was wrapped into a circle (the mesh naturally wanted to curl up so this was easy) and I twisted and folded the loose ends of the mesh back around the opposite edge to hold the circle securely. Result: easy heavy duty potato cages.
I decided on locations for my potato cages and roughly leveled the ground where the cages would sit. I set the potato cages into place and used a few landscape staples to hold them in place.
Then, I cut a section of landscape fabric to fit inside the mesh potato cage. I fitted the landscape fabric down to the ground but left the bottom of the potato cage open. I smoothed the landscape fabric against the edge of the cage as best I could.
I folded the extra landscape fabric at the top of the cage over, and held the fabric in place with a binder clip (binder clips are essential garden tools!).
Filling the Potato Cages!
One of the things I like about these cages is their substantial size. But big containers needs lots of soil, and trucking in loads of compost just isn’t in my budget this year.
One of my goals for this project was to reduce the cost by coming up with a good growing material that was on site (not something I had to buy in a bag). Straw, although less expensive than bagged compost, is still $12 a bale in my urban area, and I had terrible results using straw in my burlap sacks so I ruled that out.
I have had pretty good luck growing potatoes in various forms of compost. My chickens make excellent compost for me. However, though I am not particularly squeamish, I hesitate to use fresh chicken bedding (i.e., uncomposted chicken poop) for root vegetables like this.
In the end, the answer was under my feet. We mulch our network of garden paths with free woodchips from a tree trimmer friend of mine. Scratching aside the top layer of last year’s chips revealed wonderful, rich, fine-textured soil just underneath.
I dug up as much wood chip path compost as I needed to fill the potato cages about a foot or 14 inches deep. This was actually really easy, and barely made a dent in my network of paths. If chucks of wood chips or less composted material made it into the bin, I didn’t sweat it.
I dumped some of last years finer (bagged) compost on top, and mixed it into the top layer of soil. This brought the soil level up to about 16 or 18 inches. Then I laid out my seed potatoes atop the soil in each bin.
I scooped out a hole about 5 inches deep for each seed potato and dropped it in.
The light, fluffy soil was smoothed back over everything.
Can’t Build Just One
I made four of these cages, and they were fast and easy to put together. The concrete mesh, lined with landscape fabric, didn’t deflect or bend under the weight of the soil, and so far there’s been no leaking of soil.
I’m pretty optimistic about this design. The landscape fabric should act in much the same way as expensive grow pots, allowing a lot of air and moisture flow and encouraging beneficial air pruning or roots as compared to plastic or masonry containers. Unlike burlap, the landscape fabric should stay in one piece and not start to rot out within a few weeks of soil contact.
And of course it was cheap. Because I had concrete mesh and a roll of landscape fabric lying around from other projects, and was able to utilize the wood chip compost from on-site, this project was free to me. If you had to buy the mesh and landscape fabric new, you still shouldn’t be out more than $10 or so for each bin.
I’ll update you on how this is working as the potatoes grow.
How are you growing potatoes this year and what method has given you the best success?12