Update: Growing Potatoes Above Ground

This year I decided to try an experiment with growing potatoes. I had heard about growing potatoes above ground, and I wanted to give it a try. In the spring I designed a couple of vessels which I used to grow my spuds and I planted one potato in the traditional way as a control. See June 2010 for the original blog post.

Well, I’m writing this post through a film of misty tears; I don’t think I’ve had a bigger disappointment in the garden to date (ok, a little artistic license here).

My potatoes grown above ground were a complete failure.

Last week I dug up my “control” hill of red potatoes to find that I had six small spuds. The control was a standard potato planting that I had hilled in the usual way as the tops grew. It couldn’t be too hard to beat six tubers with my highly advanced above ground system, right?

Today I skipped excitedly, bin in hand, to unzip my above ground plastic repurposed tent slash potato bin and reap the rewards. I slowly unzipped then stood at a respectable distance with my bin at the ready to catch the bounty. Instead I found a bunch of mouldy straw and leaves and, ultimately, two small potatoes just below the soil surface.

This couldn’t be happening…

I decided that if I was to have any potatoes for supper I had to reveal the contents of my above ground experimental chick-wire bin. Again, all I found was a pile of straw and, thankfully, some potatoes in the soil at the back of the bin where I had hilled one of the plants that grew outside the confines of the chicken wire. In other words, a regularly hilled potato plant – a “control” plant.

Sigh.

Too much water? Too little? Too aggressive with the leaves and straw? I guess these questions will be answered next year when I try once again to successfully grow potatoes above ground. This can’t be rocket science, people.

Well, at least I’ll have a few potatoes for supper tonight; tomorrow it’s off to the farmer’s market.

Growing Potatoes Above Ground

It’s not difficult to grow potatoes. In fact, they are one of the least demanding crops in my garden, requiring only a bit of dusting with insecticide when the first potato beetle appears. I grow them next to my driveway in the back lane and I barely think about them all summer. In the fall I dig up the hills (ok, I admit I only hill them once or twice) and collect potatoes as I need them.

In my never ending quest to find a way to improve production, I’m intrigued by the concept of growing potatoes above ground. Traditionally it’s been done with the use of discarded tires and straw (not terribly attractive, even in the back lane), but as far as I can see it could be done with just about any means that keeps the planter together.

The concept is that you plant the potato so that it develops roots in the soil as usual. Then, as the leaves appear you add straw to cover them, forcing them to grow taller. Each time you add straw you add another tire to hold the whole package together. When the season ends, you may have four or five tires piled up and a whole lot of straw to get rid of.

The tubers (or new potatoes) grow from the potato stalk, so they end up not in the dirt but in the straw. When it comes time to harvest, you simply remove the tires and the potatoes roll into your waiting basket. Clean and simple.

I’ve never actually tried it, but I have seen them and spoken to gardeners who’ve had some success.

I decided that this was the year to experiment with my own potato planter, but I had to build something better than a nasty pile of discarded tires.

My “All Time Best (Experimental) Potato Planter” is made from the floor of an old tent. I basically sewed a tube about four feet tall and cinched in the bottom leaving enough of a hole for moisture to escape. I put in a zipper so that I could start with the container being low to the ground and as I added more straw I could zip it up to make it taller.

I decided that I would use both oak leaves and straw to fill the planter; I just happened to have a bunch of oak leaves that I had collected last fall. Oak leaves should work well, as they are notoriously slow to breakdown in the compost pile.

As an experiment, I decided that I would also make another potato frame using chicken wire. Obviously the chicken wire planter is easier to make, but is it as good?

Finally, since I had a couple of extra seed potatoes, I tossed them in the ground and covered them up in the traditional way. These I will hill as frequently as I attend to the other potatoes, and we’ll see which of them is most prolific. Check back for an update in the fall!