Urban gardening enthusiasts find all kinds of ways to grow food, but not every container and method gives you awesome results. This is especially true with veggie plants that have large root systems, which potato plants do. But they need depth more than they do room to spread, so there’s a trend for growing potatoes in garbage cans, garbage bags, wooden crates, stacked tires, and hardware cloth enclosures. If it will hold dirt and looks feasible to the non-plant partner in this project… people are growing in it.
The most popular container will be free, recycled trash. Next comes the cheap dollar store trash can, which is not food grade plastic, and I’ve yet to see a harvest of decent sized potatoes from a garbage can potato. You’ll have even worse results from garbage bags! God only knows what kind of toxic plastic they’re made from.
It’s amazing the excitement people express over pitifully small fruits they would never buy at the store. Growing your own makes inferior very special? The potato plant in each case would beg to differ, and is clearly saying that conditions definitely weren’t optimum or comfortable for working in.
The first part of the problem with these makeshift potato plots is the growing media. Whether they just lack real soil completely in the city setting, or prefer the less dirty and lightweight wonders of potting mix, soilless blends aren’t your potatoes’ best friend. Both too much air through the sidewalls and no airflow at all are dampers on root productivity.
Then there’s the internal environment. A hardware cloth enclosure means your moisture is completely gone only part way through a hot day. The inside of that garbage can or black garbage bag can easily reach scorching temperatures during the heat of the day. It may hold moisture better, but it’s baking your plant’s brains so to speak. You aren’t going to get many potatoes here, and they will be small.
Wood crates and raised beds that drain freely and allow air flow into the soil will be much better, but you need a huge crate for potatoes – one you can add depth to as more root covering soil is needed. Fiber pots work awesome too, because they allow the root system to breathe. You will always have a more robust root system with air pruning that fiber pots provide, and you can grow in straight topsoil in them too. The drawback here for potatoes is the none of them are really deep enough to get much of a harvest that hasn’t been exposed to the sun.
Finally, and probably the best way to grow excellent potatoes is straw. It’s inexpensive, renewable, holds moisture really well, allows air pruning, insulates against hot and cold, and grows a mean potato crop. There are three different methods for growing potatoes in straw. The easiest and most compact will also be a better environment for your young potatoes, and falls right into the raised bed garden mantra… without the need for edges or retaining walls.
[dropcap size=small]1[/dropcap] Straw Bale Potatoes
It couldn’t get any easier or cleaner this this. Poke two potatoes into the stubbly side of the bale about 4-5 inches deep. Roll it over so that side is on the ground. Prep the top like you would for any other straw bale crop, and water it following recommended guidelines for your climate. When the plants have withered on top at the end of the season you’ll be harvesting by simply breaking open the bale. No digging, and a quick rinse is all you’ll need to clean them too. There’s no mud inside even the decomposed bale of straw. Your largest potatoes will always come from waiting until the plants wither, but feel free to grab some early potatoes if you like.
[dropcap size=small]2[/dropcap] Straw Trench Potatoes
Still no digging here, and as the Colorado State University page about this says, your potatoes will store longer when they’re free of cuts, gouges and bruising that comes with digging your harvest. This one needs ground… Dig a 6 inch deep trench, and plant your seed potatoes a foot apart. Cover thoroughly with loose straw. As the plants grow up through the available depth, keep covering them with more straw, just as you would in a garbage can or raised bed.
[dropcap size=small]3[/dropcap]Newspaper & Straw Potatoes
This idea has some merit, but also some bad points. But first the steps to follow are: lay down open sections of newspaper and wet down thoroughly. Place the seed potatoes about a foot apart on your paper base. cover well with straw. Keep it watered, and continue fresh depth coverings of loose straw as the plants grow through it. So, here’s what could go wrong here… A lot of rain or overzealous watering might cause moisture problems. Wet newspaper doesn’t drain, and do you really want chemical-based ink being drawn up by your food? It does keep the weeds at bay, but Method 1 – the straw bale potatoes is a far better way to go.
By the way, the even heat inside the straw bale early in the season promotes much faster growth than in the ground or a container.