Guest post today from the Tree House Homestead –
We are newish to the homesteading lifestyle, but we had finally found our “dream” home on 5 nice high and dry acres two years ago and decided to go for it. We had grown food off and on over the years on our little city lot and had fun experimenting with growing veggies out of the half-whiskey barrels either found, given, or bought on sale.
I remember growing tomatoes and lettuce out of those barrels with great delight. There was also a barrel just for the herbs and one even for a pumpkin. But, out of the 10 or so veggies we picked each year my stand out favorite was and still is potatoes. I love them of course for their taste and versatility in the kitchen. I love reading about how potatoes kept millions alive and fed like no other crop could. I am in awe at how easy they are to grow and I am amazed at how well they keep.
Each year we always pick something new to grow and usually try to grow something in a new and different way. My beloved potatoes are no different and after several years of the tried and true “hill” method of growing I decided to give one of the “alternative” ways that potatoes can be planted and harvested a try.
I am talking specifically about growing potatoes in a garbage bag. Now, you may not have heard of that before but I have read about it repeatedly from lots of different sources and of all the various ways to container grow the potato. There is the garbage bag like I just mentioned, and I have also read of growing them in tires, or cardboard boxes, or even rubbermaid bins or garbage cans. ( I would not recommend the tire method as apparently tires can leach toxins into the soil and thus your food).
The reasoning to plant using these methods is really three-fold. The first is for convenience, especially if garden space is at a premium or perhaps you live in an apartment and do not have access to a space of land for a traditional garden. A quick container made from something on hand such as a garbage sack or cardboard box is cheap and clever. Those two items in particular work out well for the balcony gardener as they are very light weight. Try hauling a half-whiskey barrel up a flight of stairs and you’ll see what I am talking about!
Then there is the whole “keeps the potatoes cleaner” line of thought. If you are pulling them out of straw or shredded newspaper instead of digging them out of dirt, you don’t have as dirty of a potatoe now do you?
The other main reason is that potatoes have a notorious habit of leaving little seed potatoes in the ground and soon taking over your garden. It can be almost impossible to get rid of them if they get loose! Plus, many people like to rotate their crops to minimize disease and pest contamination and potatoes are no exception for this habit.
So, after reading about these methods and being really excited by the idea of it we decided to give it a try. But, also being somewhat of a skeptic and more scientifically minded we decided to give BOTH methods a try to really see the difference. For our experiment last year I planted 22 seed potatoes in black heavy duty garbage sacks, and my husband planted about 15 in the soil. We both used the same soil, manure, and compost. For the sack method I “hilled” my potatoes with straw. We used dirt to hill the plants for the ones in the ground.
I made sure of course to poke holes in the bottoms of each bag to allow for drainage and both sets of potatoes were watered together at the same times using our sprinklers. I did have to move the sacks around a few times to get the positioning just right for them to get watered.
Well, I kept adding straw as the green plants would grow up, but I noticed relatively quickly that my plants did not seem as big and healthy as the other in-ground group of plants did. Also, I noticed that some of the bags would dry out too quick and that some of the other bags had too much water retention.
My plants seemed to reach a point where there was no further growth happening and I decided to go ahead and harvest them. I did that on July 22, 2008 according to my blog records. We were harvesting potatoes from the in-ground plants well into September, a full two months later!
What I basically determined was that A)- the bags got too hot due to the black coloring absorbing the sun’s rays. B)- there was too much of a variance in the amount of water from bag to bag, and C)- watering with the sprinkler did not work out as well as perhaps watering each bag by hand would have. I have learned that if you are going to use something other than soil to hill your potato plants you will probably get better results if you can somehow deliver the water directly to the roots at the bottom and not have it filter down through your straw or other hilling material.
I did not do a weight or even a count of how many potatoes per plant from either the garbage sack or the in-ground group. But, I would roughly say that we got twice the amount in both size and yield from the in-ground group as compared to the sack potato group. With the ones planted in the ground I got two big harvests, plus a final round-up of potatoes at the end of the season, versus only the one harvest from the bags. I think if I were to ever give it a try again I would use smaller bags, hand water at the base, and put them in partial shade to keep them from getting too hot.
Also, as a side note, I had read in other people’s accounts who used the alternative container method report that they could just reach in and pull out clean potatoes right out from the straw hills. With my 22 plants I did not have that happen on a single one! All the potatoes were growing in the soil only at the base. I also have to complain that it took A LOT of straw in order to hill the plants adequately (especially to keep the plant dark enough around the stalk area to encourage the potatoes to grow out into it).. I was really looking forward to that as I loved the idea of it. In the in-ground group, potatoes were growing into the hills of soil as well as at the base of each plant.
Since we have more land now our garden is on the largish size we try to keep hand watering to a minimum. We set up our hoses and sprinklers so that everything gets a good soaking and it is even throughout the garden. Keep in mind that the year we did this experiment we had also planted 20 fruit trees in our orchard as well as 30 new pine and fir trees on the back side of our property. All of those had to be hand watered which took 2 hours to get them all watered! All in all it was satisfying to figure out that our preferred method of planting in the ground was also the right method for us!