Friday, June 3, 2011

Potatoes in Buckets, Round III


I may not be the most diligent blogger, but I'm dogged when it comes to gardening.  I'm not a quick study, and certainly no expert.  But I'm willing to experiment, and to persevere with empirical tinkering.  For the last two years I've experimented with growing some of my potatoes in buckets.  The first year, wet and cold 2009, saw all my potatoes eventually succumb to late blight, but the potatoes in simple perforated buckets held out longest and produced very respectable yields.  Last year was hot and incredibly dry, and to compound matters I situated my fancy self-watering buckets on the driveway, which only baked the poor plants all the more.  The yields were abysmal.

This year I'm trying a new potato-in-bucket method.  I realize that those of you in the northern hemisphere who grow potatoes will already have planted yours by now.  So this is just for documentation purposes.  I'll do a follow up post around harvest time, and maybe some of you will choose to use a bucket method next time you're ready to grow a few spuds.  I came across this technique about two years ago, somewhere on the internets.  It's a very easy one to implement and may just combine the best aspects of in-ground cultivation and container growing.  All you do is cut the bottom off a bucket, turn it upside down, and plant your seed potato in a prepared garden bed.

Potatoes cultivated in the ground have plenty of space and access to the huge reserves of nutrients in that soil.  The drawbacks include higher susceptibility to damage from rodents and other pests, some difficulty in digging for harvest, the risk of damage from harvesting tools, and the likelihood of missing some tubers entirely.  Potatoes in containers can be easily hilled, which is thought to encourage better yield.  They can also be pampered with a rich mixture of garden soil and compost.  My experience suggests that in a year of blight both their elevation and the ability to spread the plants out protect them from the fungus by increasing air circulation around the leaves and stems.  Harvest is also remarkably easy, with little chance of missing any tubers, and no chance of spearing them with a digging tool.  Simply dump the buckets in a wheelbarrow, and gather up the spuds.  The downside is the need for additional diligence in watering, finite growing space inside the container and thus limited nutrients, which may limit yields.

This third potato bucket method promises to deliver most of the advantages of both in-ground and container cultivation, and few of the drawbacks.  While hilling will be easy, the plants' roots will still be able to draw on the garden soil for both nutrients and moisture.  To harvest, the buckets can simply be kicked over one at a time, and the tubers easily gathered without the need to dig, and therefore without risk of damaging them with shovels or pitchforks. That, anyway, is the theory.  We'll see how it works out in practice.

I know of two potential drawbacks of in-ground cultivation that will remain with this method. Once planted, the spacing of the plants is fixed.  If late blight shows up, the plants can't be separated to increase airflow around them, as would be possible with other bucket methods.  Also, damage from rodents is still possible.  With loosened soil around and below the buckets, gnawing critters might have little difficulty making inroads.  This risk may be mitigated by the fact that I used the buckets directly over the cardboard layer of sheet mulching in the beds.  So the rim of the bucket rests against a flat surface, at least until the cardboard rots in place.  I cut through the cardboard inside each bucket in several places to prevent water from pooling in there and rotting the tubers.  This also gives the potato roots access to the underlying soil moisture.  I suspect that just the elevation of the potato leaf canopy creates a much less favorable environment for late blight through better air circulation.  It's also a less sheltering and inviting space for rodents as compared to in-ground plants which drape their leaves to the soil.  It might also help to tamp down the soil around the bucket, making it more difficult for the rodents to get in, but I'm very reluctant to deliberately compact the soil after working so hard to loosen our clay.

I had hoped to be organized enough to run side-by-side trials of the all the bucket methods I've tried.  That didn't happen this year, but I did at least record the weight of the seed potatoes I planted in each bucket.  I can compare those to the results I got with my first bucket potatoes in 2009.  If I'm more organized and less frazzled next spring, perhaps the three methods of bucket potato cultivation will go head to head.

The potatoes are all growing well, with the bucket grown plants showing a big more growth so far than the in-ground plants.  I've already hilled them once, and they're due for another.  So far the year promises fair for a good potato harvest.  I'm also allowing all the volunteer plants coming up from spuds we missed at last year's harvest to go ahead and grow.  We had no problems with disease last year, so there's no real reason to remove them.  They came up in what I intend for a melon patch this year, so they should be able to share the space nicely.

This year we're growing Red Pontiacs, Kennebecs, All Blues, German Butterballs, and possibly a few Sangres, depending on which varieties are represented among the volunteers.  Are you growing potatoes this year?  If so, what varieties and what methods are you using?

24 comments:

Mrs. J @ roadlesstraveled said...

Very cool! I'd be interested in your results. This year we are growing potatoes for the first time. I put most of them in the ground, but a few in tires and a composter to do the container hilling. I'm looking forward to seeing how they do so we can pick the best way next year. I definitely like the concept of container potatoes.

rosaria said...

This sounds most interesting. I have a couple of potato plants that have poked up from spuds left in the ground from two years ago. I bet I can concoct a similar bucket brigade.

Mulberry Mama said...

I;'ve got Kennebecs, Vikings, and Yukon Golds in my garden. I usually just plant them directly in the ground and call that it, but this year I'm trying to do a row-hilling method. I planted them in a shallow trench, and and hilling the entire row as the potatoes grow. They're getting pretty big now, and I've got about 1/2 of them mulched with thick straw. Then I'll just watch them for blight and bugs, and let nature do the rest. Hoping for good results!

Nina said...

There's an interesting article I came across recently, outlining a method of growing potatoes in a barrel. The basic premise is the same, but the yields sound enormous, especially for a container that takes up so little space.
Here's the link if you'd like to check it out ...
http://greenupgrader.com/11708/4-simple-steps-to-grow-a-hundred-pounds-of-potatoes-in-a-barrel/
Happy growing! :)

Frogdancer said...

This year we're growing Nicola, Desiree and King Edward potatoes in grow bags.
Well, I've ordered them and I'm still waiting for them to arrive.

Mandi! said...

I've heard of this concept & know it can work well but I'm wondering about the plastic being warmed by the sun & emitting chemicals onto the veggies?

Kate said...

Mrs. J, I'll definitely post results on the harvest in general, and the yields specifically from the buckets later this year. I haven't yet settled on the "best way" to grow potatoes. For the time being, I'll continue to mix it up, with some planted in buckets and others in the ground. As I mentioned, there are definite advantages to both ways.

rosaria, yes, you might even be able to simply place one of these cut off buckets over the plants that volunteer from spuds missed at harvest. That would be an easy way of doing things.

Mulberry Mama, I've done row hilling with some potatoes. I don't think I've quite worked out the best way to use that system. I had many potatoes with green sun scald on them because my trenches weren't deep enough, or I didn't hill well enough. Hope you have better results.

Nina, I started experimenting with container grown potatoes on the basis of exactly that sort of claim. I'm keen to see results from such experiments that tell me what sorts of yields those methods have actually produced, in terms of weight of seed potato planted to the actual harvest weight. I'm not terribly pressed for space here, so I'm more interested in maximizing the actual harvest weight than I am in conserving every square foot of growing space. If you ever come across an article showing a method that produces better than 20x yield in potatoes, or if you ever achieve that yourself, please give me a shout. And happy growing to you too!

Frogdancer, I've never tried the grow bags. I hope they work out well for you.

Mandi, I use food grade plastic buckets, which are white so they won't warm up too much in the sun. Beyond such limited precautions, I consider plastic leaching in the garden to be too far down the list of things to worry about. Don't get me wrong; it's on my list. But there are much bigger worries that take precedence. I don't have a perfect system, only one I consider better than most alternatives.

Jenni@ RainyDayGardener said...

This is very interesting. I planted two containers of potatoes for the first time (ever growing potatoes) and haven't a clue as to what I'm doing. This was great!

Paula said...

I am growing potatoes for the first time this year, and have Sangre and Nicola in grow bags that I made myself from heavy duty woven weed stop fabric (you have to sew them together with nylon thread) that I got from Amazon. The German Butterballs are cooling their jets in the fridge until I can get to them. Plus I want them for late harvest).

Most of the bags are set on concrete pavers to try to keep out termites as one of my readers said that she grew potatoes in bags and they were all decimated by termites. But, I've also read that this method works really well. I'll hill up with chopped straw. My old neighbor used to grow beautiful spuds in soil he'd made, and he hilled up with just leaves; by the time the potatoes were ready to harvest, the leaves had pretty much broken down into new soil. And his spuds were great! But I have to grow in bags because I have really heavy clay soil.

Hazel said...

I'm growing a mixture of English heritage varieties: Fortyfold would have been eaten by Nelson and Wellington; Edgecote purple are originally from about 15 miles away from my village, even if the seed potatoes came to me via Scotland! Highland Burgundy Red, Red Duke of York and Dunbar Rover have been around for a while, plus Vitelotte which is completely purple all the way through and Yukon Gold because it is raved about so much on US sites- it will be interesting to see how it does here.
The multi coloured potatoes (yellow, red, white and blue!) are partly fanciful, but are also all good, tasty varieties and the red and purple ones will be higher in lycopene, bioflavinoids and anthocyanins, which isn't bad for a staple!

octopod said...

So is it better to hill them with dry leaves and hay, or with soil/compost mixture, or to alternate the two? We did our first round with dry leaves, and I'm considering going with municipal compost for the next one.

Kate said...

Jenni, I often start out clueless with my garden experiments. Sometimes I find it preferable to doing research. It's more fun to learn directly and empirically.

Paula, I'm impressed with your DIY grow sacks! German Butterballs are my husband's favorites. They are a very nice spud. Sangres are one of my favorites for their unbelievable silken texture. As for termites, I hope you avoid their predations. I did read that there are many, many different species of termite, and they're all quite particular about what sorts of materials they dine on. So if your reader is in another part of the world with different termites than you have, you may not have that to worry about. Our clay soil is sort of medium-heavy, and I use the hilling of potatoes as an excuse to dig some of it up and mix it 50-50 with finished compost. Clay is incredibly rich in nutrients; it just needs loosening. I expect you'll find your soil is fabulous after a few years of mulching and other good practices.

Hazel, I love hearing about the heirloom varieties you have over there. I grew Yukon Golds one year and then swore off them. It's not that they're not good potatoes. For roasting, they're nigh on incomparable. The problem for us was that they're all so small, and so if we wanted them for a meal, we had so much scrubbing to do. They ended up languishing in storage because it was so much faster to grab four big potatoes and prep them, rather than scrubbing 30 small potatoes. But I don't mean to discourage you. Maybe you'll find it's worth your while. I love the colored potatoes too. I'm not sure if our Red Pontiacs are going to have just red skins, or be reddish on the inside too. We'll see...

Octopod, I'm not an expert by any means, but I would say go with the alternating layers, or else the soil/compost mix first, and then a heavy covering of dry materials. Just make sure you use *finished* compost - not stuff that's still in the process of composting.

Hazel said...

Well, we'll see about the YG's then! To be honest, I've never even see one for sale before, but I'd read about them and then MIL, who loves Ina Garten's cookery shows, said she named them as her potato of choice, so I figured they were worth a try!
I don't mind a bit of potato scrubbing, though I know the grab-the-big-potatoes feeling! We grew Shetland blacks last year that were tasty but a bit on the small side.
I got my potatoes from a chap called Alan Romans, who is slightly obsessed about potatoes! I chanced upon one of his talks at a Potato Day near me, and what he doesn't know about them is probably not worth knowing.
His web site is here http://www.alanromans.com/c-634-potatoes.aspx if you were interested in English potato porn!

onehundreddollarsamonth.com said...

I'm a big fan of planting potatoes in garbage cans with the bottoms cut off. It makes harvesting such a breeze.

gardenvariety-hoosier said...

This year I'm growing potatoes in cages. Like you I had concerns with potatoes falling over and not getting air circulation. The cages proved their worth when a storm came through a few days ago that would have flattened unprotected plants. Red Pontiacs do best for me in SW Indiana, maybe they tolerate the high pH soil better, but I also grow some Yukon Golds.

Dmarie said...

hmmnn, Hubby has boycotted potatoes due to potato bugs...maybe this method will encourage him to try again. thx!

nantuckettiechic said...

We've got about 200 potatoes growing this year. Our soil is sandy (of course!) so we add tons of fish racks and manure from our chickens. We have Yukon golds, Kennebecs and a red one, can't remember the name. We tried baking potatoes last year but they only grew 4" long. Hope to grow enough to make it thru the winter this year. I know what you mean about sunscald on row-hilled potatoes. You do have to be diligent about keeping them covered. Especially when you have kids who dig around the sides to get baby potatoes to snack on.

trashmaster46 said...

Last year I grew a handful of bentjes I'd picked up at a farmer's market, and I just threw them in the ground. This year I'd hoped to put together some sort of pallet bin for them, but I haven't gotten around to it just yet. Maybe this fall, maybe next spring.

Marsha S said...

I planted a few potato eyes just because this year. They are growing and a week or so ago I planted a few more that are popping up. Whether we will actually get any potatoes is yet to be told.
I'm not master gardener by a long shot, but it is my dream to have a large garden and get a majority of our fruits and veggies from it, if not all.
I do a Frugal Friday linky on my blog and I would love it, if you have time, if you would link up some of your posts.

Baby Birder said...

I'm doing All Blue and Fingerlings in grow bags from Gardener's Supply, and I got nervous the other day because I felt as if I hadn't seen much progress,so I dug one up, and there were tons of baby potatoes! I did some on our deck, and the rest next to our garden, but raised up on a bed of sticks so they didn't rot in such a wet spring we had. I put about 3-4 inches of garden soil in the bottom of the bags, then have been using hardwood mulch to hill them. I'm like you (and your other posters) I'd rather try it myself to see if it works, I'll learn much more than reading it in a book.

Sheryl at Providence Acres Farm said...

Looks like a great way to grow potatoes! Cool! If it will stop me from cutting into many of the large ones with the shovel, it'll be good for me to try!

Victoria said...

Awesome blog!!! I feel inspired by your creativity.

Victoria

Victoriaspatiogarden.blogspot.com

Tania @ Out Back said...

Hmmm I will keep this method in mind. I am about to try growing potatoes so any different ideas are good. I looked at a blog today that grows them in bags, so just need to decide with way I am going to try...

James said...

I am always interested in seeing how others grow.

I've grown potatoes in the ground, in tyres and in tubs. I don't have a proper plot of earth for vegetables and just squeeze them in where I can.

This year I am trying cardboard boxes. I only have so many tubs and never like buying anything. I can pick up cardboard boxes for nothing in skips, any where.

I detail what I am doing here Growing Potatoes in Cardboard Boxes

I have grown other things in cardboard boxes with no problems. I never thought to plant potatoes in them.

Of course, they will only last one season but can just be dug into the ground and new ones found next year.