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?