I love potatoes. LOVE them. Baked, fried, mashed, in soups and in curries – you name it, I love it. With such a deep fondness I had no choice but to try my hand at growing these starchy little jewels in my small backyard garden. But what is a fervent gardener with a love for potatoes and a tiny space to grow them in to do? My solution for most space related garden issues is to go vertical, so naturally that is what I did with my potatoes. Not only were the planting and hilling processes super easy with these towers, but harvest was an absolute snap. Potato towers are now a permanent addition to my Spring garden.
The first thing you are going to need are seed potatoes. You can buy them online from garden sites, get them from your local nursery, or take your chances with that store bought potato that started sprouting on the counter. Online you will have to buy in large quantity – way more quantity than my little garden needed – but at your local nursery, you may be able to buy by the potato instead. As for the store bought one that you didn’t get around to eating before it started sending out shoots, the only real issue with those is that they are often treated with a chemical to slow the sprouting process, which is not awesome when what you are after is a thriving potato plant. But if what you purchased is an organic potato, or if it is sprouting with great enthusiasm, then I say plant it. The red potatoes in this post were all purchased as seed potatoes from my favorite local nursery, but the Yukon Gold potatoes were ones that managed to sprout before I had cooked them up and stuffed them in my face. I got a pretty good yield from both.
If you purchased seed potatoes, you are going to need to get them to sprout before you can move on to planting. You will want to place them in a warm dry place for a few days to a week to get those little buds going. Be sure to buy your seed potatoes early enough to allow time for this. In Dallas, you will want to plant your potatoes sometime in February, so it is a good idea to get your seed potatoes by mid to late January to give them time to sprout, as well as cure (I’ll talk about that in a minute).
Alrighty, so you have a nice little pile of potatoes with sprouts on them…now what?
First, be careful not to break off any of those cute little sprouts. Those babies are the potato plants of tomorrow – the parents of your potato harvest to come.
Second, you need to decide whether or not to cut the potatoes into smaller pieces. You want at least 2 or 3 sprouted eyes per planted potato, so if you potatoes are small, you may want to leave them in one piece. But if you have larger potatoes, you may want to cut them…which is what I decided to do.
After I finished with the Yukon Golds, it was time to do the same with the red potatoes. Next step is let your potatoes dry, or cure, for 3 or 4 days so the cut sides can scab over. I laid mine out on a baking sheet with parchment paper and wrote the variety names on that parchment paper so I wouldn’t loose track of which ones where which. You don’t want to put them in an airtight container since you want them to dry out at this point, not rot.
While your potatoes are busy sprouting and curing, you can get their new home in the garden all ready for them.
I decided to grow the two varieties of red potatoes in towers and plant the Yukon Gold in the ground – giving me a good comparison of the two methods. For the towers, I used part of a roll of this green welded wire.
Here is a view of the label so you can see exactly what I used, but anything similar that is easy enough to form into a cylinder, but sturdy enough to hold it’s shape will do the trick.
Figure out how large a cylinder you want to make, measure out that much of your wire mesh, and snip snip snip.
Form your mesh into a cylinder and secure it. In the case of the mesh I used, I was able to secure the structure by bending in the ends of the wire on one side and wrapping it around the wire from the connecting side. I apologize for bad focus on the following picture…it’s kinda hard to take pictures and bend wire at the same time…and the dog is no good with a camera.
If the previous steps have gone well, you should now have something that looks a little like this:
Now you are probably saying, “Laura, you are nuts! If you put dirt in that thing it will just fall right out through those big holes!”
You are so right! Those big holes allow plenty of light in during the growing process, unlike a closed cylinder like a bucket, but will let the dirt OUT if we don’t do something about it. My initial answer to this problem? Burlap. (I will explain why it was my “initial” plan in just a moment.)
You get yourself a nice big strip of burlap and measure it into a length slightly more than the circumference of your tower and about two feet tall.
And roll it into a nice little tube of burlap.
Put your potato tower in place, secure it will some sort of stakes, and put the burlap roll into the base of the tower, with the loose end facing down. You want it arranged so that as you unroll the burlap up the sides over time, you unroll from the inside out.
Part of growing potatoes, is hilling up dirt around the plants as they grow. This burlap roll lets you do that without having to add new strips of burlap each time you hill. The plan is to tuck the end under the dirt at the bottom of the tower, and then as you need to hill up the dirt over time, you can just unroll the burlap up the inside of the tower and then add your dirt – allowing for maximum sun for your plants, and minimal effort for you as the dirt level needs to rise.
Next, you add a layer of dirt to the bottom of the tower, securing the loose end of the burlap underneath it.
Isn’t it adorable? Of course it is. Let’s talk dirt for a moment. Potatoes need loose soil that is free of rocks, sticks, and other debris. One of the many reasons these towers are perfect is the fact that you can give your potatoes the perfect soil in which to grow. I used a mixture of Miracle Grow’s garden soil and a nice organic compost. Mmmm, delicious.
Hopefully, by now, your potatoes are all sprouted, cut and cured. Just one more step for them before they nestle into their new garden home. They need a little dusting of sulfur. The sulfur will help protect your little seed potatoes from disease an help keep them from rotting. You can buy dusting sulfur at that same nursery where you bought your seed potatoes. I live in Texas, the land of the evil chigger. If you are not familiar with the chigger – lucky you – it is a nasty little insect that drills hole in your flesh that itch like nothing you have ever felt. I love to hike, which can take me to places inhabited by the evil chigger and give them a chance to climb up my legs and make my life miserable for days. To combat the evil chigger, I keep what is called a sulfur sock on hand – you fellow Texans know exactly what I’m taking about – to smack around my shoes and ankles before heading out into chigger country. It is basically a tube sock, filled with dusting sulfur, and tied in a knot at the top. I found my trusty sulfur sock to be the perfect way to dust my little potatoes with sulfur without risking damage to those cute little sprouts.
Be sure to avoid getting the sulfur in your mouth or eyes, and wash your hands thoroughly after you have finished handling the sulfur.
Now that our potatoes have a thin dusting of sulfur, it’s finally time to plant. The big dog says, “It’s about freaking time! Let’s do this!”
For the red potatoes, I just placed them into their towers…
…and covered them with more of that tasty dirt. Last step was running my drip irrigation system into the towers…with enough slack to raise the emitters as the dirt level rises.
The Yukon required a little more work. I needed to dig a trench for them in front of the towers.
Once I had a nice trench, I placed my Yukon Gold potatoes in neat little row.
They were then covered in the same delicious mix I used in the towers and were given water emitters as well. Potatoes like water, but need to stay well drained or they will rot – another benefit of the tower is it’s natural drainage.
Alrighty. The potatoes are all planted…nothing to do now, but wait. The dog approves of our day’s work.
Soon, sweet little baby potato plants will appear.
Once they have grown up a good ten inches or so, you will want to start hilling – this basically just means adding dirt to your towers around the plants. At the same time that I added soil to my towers, l hilled around my in-ground potatoes as well. Your new potatoes will form from shoots sent out by the plants in this hilled dirt, so it is an important process.
As you add soil to the towers, just unroll a bit of the burlap up the sides to hold the new dirt inside. Super easy with the towers.
A little harder with my Yukons. It was a little bit of a challenge to try and make an effective hill in such a small space without the walls of the tower to hold the dirt in place.
It was about this time in the process that I developed a problem with the burlap in the towers. My plan was working perfectly. I was very pleased. Unfortunately, the neighborhood squirrels were also pleased. Pleased that I had kindly provided them with an awesome nesting material. They went to great lengths to pull as much of the burlap out of the holes in mesh as the little buggers could manage. Grrrrr. New plan. I had window screen in my garage…surely squirrels can’t use window screen to build nests. Surely not. I wrapped the screen around the base of my towers…
And sewed it on with wire. Take that, squirrels.
It worked. For the record, the burlap would have worked perfectly if I hadn’t had thieves in my garden. Grrrr…..
More growing, more hilling…
As the plants grew, it became harder and harder to hill dirt around the Yukons in the small space, but hilling the towers was a breeze every time…just pour a little more dirt in and spread it around with your hand and move on to other garden adventures.
You continue to hill your potato plants periodically until they flower. When they start flowering is when they are also busy growing potatoes under the surface. So exciting. You can start sticking your hands down in there to hunt for baby potatoes a few weeks after flowering, or wait until a few weeks after the plants die to harvest larger potatoes. I chose to wait.
I harvested the Yukon Gold potatoes first, mostly because they were in front.
The harvest went fine, but required a lot of careful digging to find all the potatoes without damaging any of them.
With the Yukons out of the way, I just pulled up the stakes holding the towers in place…and tumped the first one over. And joy, oh joy, potatoes just spilled out the bottom.
Beautiful red potatoes.
In short order I had dumped all the dirt out of the towers, collecting all the potatoes as I went. Easy breezy.
Although I got similar yields from the towers versus the in-ground method, I found the towers to be a better solution for my small space. Easier to prepare the dirt, easier to hill, and WAY easier to harvest. And since the towers, themselves, survived the whole process without incident, they will be able to do this all over again next year!
All that remains now is to get washed up and start eating!
Bake them up and top them with roasted poblano peppers…also from your garden.
Roast them with garden onions.
Or my personal favorite…
Shred them, stir in a smidgen of olive oil, and cook them up in your waffle iron to make what I call Waffle Browns. Outstanding.
However you like to eat them, with a potato tower, you can grow delicious potatoes in your garden even if you don’t have a lot of space. Would love to hear your ideas on space saving ways to grow potatoes, or your experiences trying potato towers.
Get out there and get your hands dirty!