Saturday, May 1, 2010

Potatoes in Buckets 2.0 (Finally!)

Last year I grew potatoes in buckets.  They did better than their siblings in the ground so far as resisting the late blight we got after a horrendous month of rain in June.  They also offered the advantage of being really, really easy to harvest, and of being impervious to rodents who would gnaw the tubers underground.  The yields were good, but I didn't see the prodigious and strangely elusive yields that are rumored to be possible with exceptional hilling.  You can read about last year's harvest here.

The bucket system last year was very simple.  I used mostly 5-gallon buckets, along with one smaller kitty litter bucket.  All I did was drill several holes in the bottom of each bucket and start the seed potatoes in a few inches of a mixture made from our clay garden soil and compost from our township's yard waste facility.  I hilled the plants as they grew and they reached the tops of the buckets in very short order.  Then it was just a matter of keeping them sufficiently well watered.  This was probably the most challenging thing about growing them in buckets.

Since last spring I've done some research on the growth of potato plants.  Here's what I've learned.  There are two critical phases of plant growth that affect tuber production.  The potato plant sets a certain kind of root that produces tubers early in its growth.  Tiny seed tubers are produced at that time.  Then the plant concentrates on top growth - the leafy green parts we see above ground.  When there is sufficient leaf surface for a good deal of photosynthesis to take place, the plant flowers and then works on storing excess energy in the tubers, which grow rapidly during this phase.  At these two phases of growth - the production of the tiny tuber "seeds," and the bulking up of those tubers - a steady water supply is absolutely critical.  The kicker is that there's no way for a layman to tell by looking at the top growth when those phases are happening.

So my solution is to try self-watering containers.  Basically, I'm using the exact same technique I put in place for my fig trees, writ small.  To make these smaller self-watering containers, I tried to collect smaller cans for the reservoir, such as for wet cat food or canned fish, but I came up rather short in that area.  My husband came up with a pretty good workaround for that.  (See below.)

As usual, I've been running late with getting everything planted this spring.  Getting the majority of our potatoes into the ground was a higher priority than the refinement of my container potato experiment.  But the potatoes are finally in their buckets.  So here are the steps.  Click on any of the pictures to enlarge.

Collect your materials: You'll need buckets, a piece of cardboard, a permanent marker, scissors, the sort of cans that catfood or fish are sold in, some hardware cloth, burlap or some other absorbent and cheap material (ratty old towels?), and dirt.  You'll need about three cans for each bucket you want to plant.  If you're short of cans, have extra hardware cloth on hand to make support rings for the cans you do have.  You'll also need something to cut the hardware cloth with, a drill to make holes in the cans, needlenose pliers, and (ideally) a mandrel bit large enough to make a hole to accommodate the end of your garden hose, and a kitchen scale if you wish to keep records.  You may or may not want to take the trouble to find food-grade plastic buckets.

Prepare your materials: Drill one hole each in the side and bottom of each metal can.  Trace the bottom of the bucket on the piece of cardboard and cut it to make a template.  Arrange three cans in the bottom of a bucket and set the template on top of them.  Does it rest on top of the cans with a little gap all around?  If not, trim it until it does.  Use this template to cut out a piece of hardware cloth for every bucket you wish to grow potatoes in.  Using the pliers, crimp back the sharp edges of the hardware cloth in a 2"-3" length edge of each piece.  Then take the template and trace out circles on your burlap, but leave a wide margin around the template.  You want the burlap to be larger than the cardboard by about 2" all around.  So just put the template on the cloth to give you an idea.  Mark out one circle of cloth for each bucket. Cut the burlap circles out.

Assemble the buckets:  Set a few of the cans into the bottom of a bucket.  Place the hardware cloth on top of it and mark a spot on the outside of the bucket so show the level of the hardware cloth inside the bucket.  This point will become the top of the water reservoir.  Take the hardware cloth and cans out of the bucket.  Using the mandrel bit and an electric drill, make a large hole with its lower edge just where you made the mark on the outside of the bucket.  Replace the cans in the bucket.  Take the hardware cloth and note the area where you crimped back the wires.  Wrap the hardware cloth in the burlap and set it into the bucket, on top of the cans, with the crimped edges directly facing the hole you just made.  Tuck the burlap down all around the hardware cloth, except where the hole is.  Lift the burlap to cover the hole at that point.  This will prevent the soil from spilling out of the bucket when you fill it.

Plant the potatoes: Put two inches of good soil on top of the burlap.  Take your chitted seed potato and remove all but 3 to 4 of the largest sprouts from it. Make sure all the sprouts you leave are pointing more or less in the same direction.  If you wish to chart your yield ratios, weigh the seed piece.  Record the weight and variety of the potato on the outside of the bucket, using the permanent marker.  Place the seed potato on the soil, with the sprouts pointing up, and add more to cover the potato by 2 to 3 inches.  Place the bucket where you wish to grow potatoes and fill the reservoir with water.  Check the reservoir again after 3-6 hours and top it off if it is low.

 Bucket planted with a German Butterball seed potato weighing 3.7 ounces

After planting, keep an eye on both the water reservoir and the plant growth.  Check the water reservoir by putting your finger in the hole and top it off with water whenever the level seems low.  As the plant grows, add more soil, leaving only 2"-3" of top growth above the soil line until the plant is above the edge of the bucket.  When the plant has died back in the fall, harvest is easily accomplished by dumping the bucket into a wheelbarrow and picking out the tubers.  You won't have to worry about any gnawing from rodents.

I'm pretty confident these potato buckets can be used any time after the danger of real freeze is past.  A short frost won't bother the seed potatoes in these buckets.  And if freakishly winter weather is forecast after you've put your potatoes in these buckets, you can always put them in the garage for a few days.

Aside from the new container system, I'm introducing two other variables in this year's potato bucket experiments.  I'm trying the Carola variety alongside the German Butterball that I grew last year.  A few people have reported success with getting the Carola to set additional clutches of tubers higher along the plant stem than where the seed potato was planted.  I didn't see this happen with the German Butterball last year.  Also, I will try to be extremely punctual in hilling the plants this year.  Some have speculated that potato plants do not set additional tuber-producing roots once the stem hardens off as it grows above the soil line.  Since I can only hill to the height of a 5-gallon bucket, minus the height of the water reservoir at the bottom, I should only need to watch carefully for plant growth for a few short weeks.  I plan to hill assiduously, leaving only a few inches of top growth visible, until the plants clear the top of the bucket.  After that, they'll be left to grow, flower, and bulk up their tubers.  I suspect that the potato tower technique, which forces the plant to grow, and grow, and grow, continuously striving to stay ahead of the hilling, is stressful on the plant and gives it less time to set its top growth and settle down to the business of productive photosynthesis.

We'll see how it goes.  I'll also be growing some potatoes in the normal way, in the ground.  Any of you planning on a special potato growing technique this year?  Do tell.


Oya's Daughter said...

Due to running out of compost at the moment and needing to postpone getting in more soil for a week or two when funds are a bit freed up, I have been looking into "growing in paper". I've heard you can use finely shredded paper and straw to grow potatoes and sunflowers in, but I do question whether you can "grow" them, or whether you can "grow a good crop". So, I put in an initial base of rich compost mixed with bone meal, then my first hill-up consisted of shredded waste paper and semi-rotted compost, then some grass cuttings, and then a bit more soil (all I had spare). I'm beginning again with more paper shred and grass cuttings, and then hopefully I can finish the lot with more dirt soon. The final step will be when the comfrey root cuttings arrive, as I intend on laying some of the leaves on as a topdressing/mulch. I intend on doing the same process with my squash bed, so we'll see how we do.

maggie said...

Aaargh! I was right there with you until you said to check the water level with my finger. I LOVE a good garden experiment- but check the level by poking my finger in there? I am pretty sure that is exactly what the little snake is hoping I will do. :{

The potato experiment I would like to try is to make big bags out of weed-blocker landscape fabric and plant the potatoes in them, unrolling the lip of the bag as it is filled with soil. I've heard it works well, but I haven't done it. How early in the growth process do the pre-potatoes set?

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of growing potatoes in buckets. We have tried in raised beds with straw, and that has worked so-so. I seem to run out of time and space, so the buckets might be a good solution!

Michelle, Queen Behind the Lens! said...

Hi Kate. Thanks for signing up for my giveaway. Please let me know which collection you would like your name put in for.

Your potato setup looks awesome. I'll be watching to see how production is for you. Thanks for all the great info. you share on your blog!

TheNormalMiddle said...

I plant potatoes in a huge bin...think the large rubbermaid type things you put Christmas decorations in for storage. My system is much like yours except I have my hubby drill holes in the bottom of the bins and I make an extra layer of soil before adding the potatoes.

I add soil slowly and gradually as the growth comes up. Then when the bin is full to the top with soil, I (obviously) stop adding. Then I wait for the plant to bloom and die back. When that happens, its time to start harvesting a little.

So far, so good Last year I harvested probably 100 potatoes per bin. They were delicious!

dltrammel said...

I'm trying my hand at potatoes for the first time this year and am going with the tower method. I have a bin 2x4' of cedar built, with the potential of 4' of height.

It's situated as is the rest of the garden on an East-West axis, South facing so it gets loads of Sun, and I'm using Mel's mix (50% compost, 25% Vermiculite, 25% Peat Moss) as the soil.

So far the potatoes are sprouting like I'll put up pics when I update my blog tomorrow.

As for your post, I can sort of understand your thought about tower methods stressing the plants.

Did your research say when the plants set the pre-tubers? It would seem that once they have set those, any further burying would be counter productive.

So much to learn...

timfromohio said...

We started our potato bucket experiment over the weekend as well. We have 17 food-grade buckets. 11 are 5 gallon, the other 6 are either 4 or 4.5 gallons. We are trying Yukon Gold as well as Carola and seed potatoes were purchased from SSE. We weighed each seed potato prior to planting in the bucket (buckets are numbered). The growing medium is a mix of the not-so-great, clay-rich soil from one of our newer gardeing areas mixed about 50/50 with good compost (~90% aged horse manure). Basically, similar setup to what you posted from last year (thanks for the idea!). We'll track our yields and report back at harveset time.

Joel said...

I'm trying several self-watering containers, including some made from restaurant grease jugs. There's a nice line around the jug a couple inches from the top, to cut by; the inverted top rests nicely a short distance from the bottom, supported by the handle & spout. It's easier to cut and drill than buckets are, and the water level is easy to see through the clear sides.

I'm also trying a few different sorts of vegetation as wicks.

The potatoes seem happy thus far. Thanks for the tips on hilling, I think I've caught them in time, but I'll be especially scrupulous in the future.

It also occurs to me that sticks might be inserted between the wall of the container and the soil, to allow deeper hilling with mulch. It wouldn't take too many, if the mulch material were something long like straw.

Kate said...

Hathor's bath, I have heard of this sort of technique, but never for sunflowers. I can't imagine that would work eith a normal sized sunflower. Mine always lean *way* over as their own weight increases as they grow. Sometimes I have to tie them to the fence. Without any soil to anchor them in place, mine would all be on the ground. But it should work just fine for potatoes if rodents aren't a concern in your area. Even growing my potatoes in fairly heavy soil, we seem to have a fair amount of vole damage.

Ah, Maggie, I doubt a garden snake would take to an aquatic environment. I like the sound of your landscape bag experiment. Please let me know if you ever try it. I'm not really sure how early potatoes set those pre-tubers. I just know it's fairly early in the season.

A Maine Homestead, good luck if you give this a go and I'd love to hear back on your yield results if you track them.

Michelle - oops! Will do!

TheNormalMiddle, that's basically what I did last year too, only in the 5-gallon buckets.

dltrammel, no I don't have any exact information on when the pre-tubers form. I'm of mixed mind on further hilling after that point. I think in any sort of container further hilling at least provides more nutrients than the potato might otherwise have access too. So while there might not be any *more* tubers because of hilling, it's possible that the tubers would get bigger, thus still giving a higher yield. And then there's still that tantalizing unknown - is there any way to encourage the potato plant to set additional pre-tubers higher along the stem? I don't have any answer to that question yet. So much to learn indeed.

Tim, I'll be most curious to hear about your results. Your soil type sounds similar to mine. We did a 50-50 mix of good compost and garden soil as well, though I also added a few handfuls of green sand to a wheelbarrow's worth of the mix. Do you have a blog of your own where you would post about your trial? If not, please start one!

Joel, I hope you'll consider posting your results too. I like the idea of extending the height of the bucket with a contained straw layer, but I suppose that will only be useful if indeed some way is found to encourage a second set of tubers higher along the stem. If tubers are only set around the level of the original seed piece, the straw would only be of use in preventing evaporation, unless we're talking about using it with very shallow containers. Potatoes are such heavy feeders that they would need some soil to sustain them.

timfromohio said...

No blog of my own - I was thinking that maybe in the Fall I could email any useful data/pics to you and Rob and you might post if you felt it would benefit readers.

Kate said...

Tim, I'd be happy to do that. When you have pictures/results, drop me a comment that includes your email. I'll respond and delete your comment as soon as I see it if you'd like to keep your info private.

kprsn6 said...

I love this idea but worry about using buckets that aren't food grade. Do you worry about chemicals leaching into the potatoes?

maggie said...

I just read something that made me think of your post here. At this link: I just read that it is EARLY potato varieties that set fruit once and that they do not do well in towers. That tidbit apparently comes from Greg of Irish-Eyes Garden City Seeds. I can never remember which varieties are early and which aren't, so I'm not sure if it applies to your selections this year. But I thought it was worth sharing anyway.

Kate said...

Karen, this year I got all food grade buckets, because it was relatively easy for me to do so, and cost next to nothing. That said, I used a mix of FGP and regular plastic buckets last year, and would have done the same this year if getting FGP had been difficult. On my list of things to worry about, chemicals leaching out of the plastic buckets ranks pretty low. If plastic is really a worry, then I'm not at all sure that FGP is truly a safe alternative anyway. But you should do what feels right to you of course. Ask around at supermarket bakery or deli counters. Apparently some of them give away such buckets for free.

Maggie, thanks for thinking of me and for sharing the link. It seems the potato tower idea is one that a lot of people want to experiment with. I have my own doubts about it, but I'm glad so many are trying. If there's something to it, someone will succeed. I'm growing two late season varieties this year. But the German Butterballs I tried last year were also late season spuds, and I didn't see any extra tuber sets with them. We'll see!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to try this although I think I found your post too late to do much about it this year. I'm curious how many buckets you use and how many spuds per bucket you get.
Thanks for the post,

Kate said...

Hi, Claire. It's a very different growing year than last, but you can follow the link at the top of my post to see what I got last year. I record yields by weight rather than by the number of potatoes. I'll definitely be posting this year's yields when they're in.

loves2spin said...

About 31 years ago, I cut my seed potatoes, as usual, leaving about 2 eyes on each piece, then I laid them on the garden soil (eyes up) and covered them with about 12 inches of straw. When the vine died back, my 4 year old son and I went out to harvest them. We were pulling them up (VERY easy work) and the neighbor came to the fence and asked, "How did it work out?" I replied, "They are kind of small." About that time, my little boy pulled up the biggest potato I've ever seen in my life! We all laughed. :)