Thursday, October 7, 2010

Potato Bucket Results: Disappointing

This year I tried a variation on the potato buckets that did so well for me last year.  But 2010 was a very different growing season than 2009.  In fact, you could say the two years were opposite extremes.  And the method that worked well in 2009's conditions performed poorly in 2010's.

June of 2009 was a month of rain that was nearly Old Testament in its lack of moderation.  That led to all my potato plants in the ground developing late blight in early August.  But the potatoes in buckets, with their better drainage and higher elevation leading to better air flow around the plants, resisted the blight for an additional month after all the others were finished.  I saw pretty good yields out of those buckets. 

Not so this year.  We had hardly a drop of rain all summer, which is quite unusual for this area, plus heat that was higher than average.  I discovered that potatoes don't particularly love the heat.  The ones in buckets fared especially poorly.  In the beginning of the growing season I had situated them on the driveway.  My thinking was that I would be getting some production out of an otherwise unusable space. Of course, I couldn't know at the time what sort of summer was in store, but this was a bad move.  And I should have corrected the mistake by removing the buckets from the blacktop once the heat set in.  But - and I won't bore you with excuses - I didn't.

The yields I saw from these buckets were too embarrassing to report here.  Really abysmal.  Suffice it to say I'm glad that we had potatoes in the ground as well.  That said, I don't think the new design of my self-watering buckets was at fault.  I suspect the water reservoir was the only reason I got any harvest at all.  Had I avoided the foot infection that kept me from watering for several of the hottest days of the summer, yields might have been a bit better.  My feeling is that my real mistake was keeping them on the blacktop when it was clear that they were struggling with the heat.  Chili peppers or tomatoes might have fared better there.

I will certainly try potatoes in buckets again next year.  The harvest remains as easy as ever: tip the bucket into a wheelbarrow and pick out the spuds.  It's even possible that I might position the buckets on the driveway again if we were to have another atypically cold and wet year.  But in an average or hotter than average year in this region, my observations suggest they'll do better somewhere else.


Amy said...

Thanks so much for updating about this. After reading about how you were growing your potatos I was very close to trying it myself this year. The only thing that stopped me was the fact that I didn't have any extra buckets and I would have had to go out and spend the money on buying them. Then the cost didn't make as much sense. I think I will probably try it next year though and keep my eyes out for cheap or free bucket to use.

EdgeWiseInAnnArbor said...

Thanks for reporting. I've been really interested to find out how you did. Sorry it didn't work out so well this year.

I planted 18 buckets with All Blue, Purple Majesty, and Red Thumb with holes as you did last year. Unfortunately, I ran my soaker hose (that ran to the rest of my 400 sq. ft. garden) over the top of the bucket, so they'd frequently have standing water after a watering even with the drainage holes. A lot of the tubers were cracked or covered with white bumps (like zits) and had a brown surface discoloration. The Red Thumbs were fine. I got the other two varieties mixed up, but one kind were all bad (cracked and or bumpy). The other one was fine but just small. All the plants died early (end of July to middle of August). One randomly grew again but it was in a bucket of otherwise bad ones and very small, so I didn't harvest them. I can't tell the difference between late blight and not, and I was concerned about possibly increased solanine, so the few I ventured to eat, I peeled and baked. It was a pretty crushing disappointment, but I figured I watered all wrong (not enough time to fix it once I realized it).

I have as many free 5 gallon buckets as I'm willing to scrub pickle grease off of (from local Zingerman's Deli). I was thinking of trying no holes on the bottom, but putting more and bigger holes on the side maybe a half inch from the bottom, and putting a little gravel or sand or something on the bottom. Then they'd have a resevoir of water in the bottom that could wick up if I neglected it. I dunno.

teekaroo said...

My potatoes were a disappointment this year as well. I tried several different techniques last year, but the best results were from the traditional method. We started renting this fall, so a garden will be a challenge next year. Your buckets sound like a good idea.

Hazel said...

I'm sorry they didn't do better.

The 'old boys' on our allotment reckon successful gardening is 5% skill and 95% luck/weather. I don't think they're far wrong. I guess part of the 5% is learning this year not to leave the pots on the tarmac if it's particularly hot next year...

Fingers crossed for next year.

Bellen said...

Our most successful potato growing, not this year, used 24" diameter, 4' high columns of welded wire with 4"square holes set on ground with grass removed from a 3'square. Filled the bottom of the column with about 2" of rocks from the main garden then about a foot of hay, planted the potatoes, covered with 2" of hay and continued that to the top. Around the columns we planted sugar snaps, pole beans, or flowers just to make them look better. To harvest just tip the column over, unhinge and pick the spuds.

Wendy said...

I'm thinking what Hazel said is pretty accurate. There's also that saying about the best laid plans *grin*.

I think the best thing to do is to be very diversified so that when on crop fails, it's not so devastating. Like, last year, my tomatoes didn't do well, but the raspberries were awesome. This year I had great tomatoes (although not enough plants planted), but lettuce was a little disappointing. It all balances out.

But, if it makes you feel any better, I was healthy as a horse all summer long, and my potatoes in buckets were a bit disappointing, as well. It was just too hot ... and dry ... for them.

timfromohio said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Maggie said...

Bummer! Truthfully though, it really has been a very difficult year in the garden. I'm just a bit south of you and my potatoes got clobbered. Last year was such a different story!

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

It looks like we all had similar results. My bucket potato gardening finished with mildly amusing results. Our weather turned too hot too early, so the above-ground plants dropped in July. The potatoes were good but small.

I agree with Hazel, and I like the sound of Bellen's method.

Better luck next year!

Kate said...

Amy, I get a lot of my buckets for free. From time to time I post a wanted ad on craigslist and ask for people's kitty litter buckets or any large buckets they have and don't need. I've heard reports of bakeries and delis giving away 5-gallon food grade plastic buckets too. If you keep your ear to the ground, I'd bet you could find some for free.

Edgewise, yes, it's a learning experience every year, isn't it? I'm not at all giving up on the bucket method. But I do understand better now the parameters which will make the method successful.

teekaroo, this year our in-ground spuds did better than the buckets, while last year it was just the opposite. Clearly the weather has a lot to do with how different methods of potato cultivation work out.

Hazel, I'd certainly agree that nature bats last when it comes to agriculture, but I also really hope that skill can influence the outcome by more than 5%. What else are years of gardening experience good for, if not for stacking the odds in our favor? My fingers are crossed along with yours.

Bellen, did you have any trouble with tubers nibbled by rodents? I like the sound of this method, but even our in-ground spuds get nibbled. I would expect it to be worse with the loosely caged tower method. But I like the sound of snap pea camouflage!

Wendy, yeah, I'm with you on the diversification of crops principle. That's why I'll keep planting potatoes in the ground unless or until I come up with an alternative that works year in and year out. It is some consolation to hear that so many other people had trouble with potatoes this year.

tim, will email you privately.

Maggie, indeed, last year was as different as night and day.

4 Bushel Farmgal, thanks. Better luck to you next year too.

CallieK said...

My bucket potatoes failed this year too - see

Maybe it was just a bad year for potatoes?

Plain and Joyful Living said...

We tried planting potatoes in tires this year as well and the ones under the ground came out more prolific as well.
Thank you for sharing.
Warm wishes, Tonya

Kate said...

CallieK, it's possible Toronto and Pennsylvania had similar enough conditions this year to make it a bad year for potatoes in both places. But it also sounds like you had drainage issues with your experimental planning. Every year is a learning opportunity! Better luck to both of us next year.

P&JL, my hunch about hot versus cool years is only being confirmed by the trend of comments here on the bucket method. Vermont was hotter than usual this year too, wasn't it?

Joel said...

I have some planters made of old almost-5-gallon grease jugs, scavenged from restaurants.

I poke a few holes in the upper surface, cut it off a couple inches down, invert it, and place it in the bottom of the container, then place wicking materials in the former neck of the container and fill with a mix of soil and compost.

I've had some good tomatoes from them so far, and am planting potatoes in them now (my winters are very mild).

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see others got small-ish crops! Not because I wish you ill, just because it was the first year I tried potatoes in a bucket and got just shy of 1lb per 4gallon bucket on average. And the skins are rough. I think they stayed too wet. We had an oddly wet/cool summer and I planted late. Still, it's a kick dumping out a bucket and getting potatoes. I rent and have a very clay soil in the yard so container and raised bed gardening is my only hope (also movable if I buy a place).

Anonymous said...

My most consistent results come from planting taters as deep as my trowel blade (6"?), cover with soil, water, then cover with flakes of straw, laid like tiles on the whole bed.

The "good soil" bed got 1.5 lb/sf and the "6 inches of compost over hardpan clay" got 0.5 lb/sf this year. Summer was much, much hotter, humid, and more still than the last 2 years with a little less rain, but things were OK despite a gray mold scare in July.

Kate said...

Hi Emily, our summer was a little hotter over all, hotter earlier, and much drier for the whole summer. Maybe this is a taste of what's to come. Good to hear of your technique. I've been reluctant to try the straw/hay covering just because of how much rodent pressure we have, but it might paradoxically work better, now that we have some serious hunting cats around. When the seed potatoes were deeply buried, we've had lots of gnawing damage, but maybe that's because the cats couldn't find them down so far. Maybe if they were closer to the surface and the soil much looser, then the cats would take care of that problem for me? Might be worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Kate. I guess we are really lucky with the rodents (or lack of rodents) here! Then again, the caterpillars get all my kale if I don't cover it 100% of the time, and I'm told others in town have no problem with the little green boogers...

I have found that slugs are NOT a problem with this mulch, and it was a bad slug year here, and I used straw that had overwintered outside and should have been covered in them. Maybe they moved out before the sprouts came up?

Ronnie said...

Hi. I tried the bucket method this year after reading about it here, and the plants looked great, but I had to be on constant hornworm patrol to keep the plants from being dessimated. The only good thing was they seemed to prefer the potato plants tenfold to my tomato plants. Anyone else deal with hornworms? How do you keep them away (without pesticides). I would let my chickens have acess to the potato plants, but they would eat the larvae and all the leaves too! I haven't harvested yet, but it looks like they will be ready soon. (I live in a pretty warm climate)

Kate said...

Joel, I think I can envision what you describe. I hope the system works well for you.

Anon, containers do have the advantage of mobility in case you go from renter to homeowner, or just move from one rented space to another.

Emily, glad to hear rodents aren't a problem for you. Slugs here are trivial compared to other areas I've gardened in. But I did see how bad they could be in a wet year with lots of mulch applied (last year). I found that diatomaceous earth helped a lot, and it's a "natural" product, so I felt okay about it. In other areas, I tried all sorts of control and nothing ever worked as well as the DE.

Ronnie, hornworm damage has been very minimal for me in PA. I suspect the best method is to keep very tidy tomato vines and then hunt the hornworms down and pick by hand. I hear they're hard to spot, so tidiness would count.