For an urban backyard, we have a decent amount of space here at Hyperion. However the areas that receive direct sun are somewhat limited. This summer I wanted to try and grow a serious amount of potatoes without having them take over a big chunk of the yard. Searching around on the old internets I came across a number of strategies for growing potatoes vertically, so I decided to give that a shot with at least part of our crop.
This is the first time I have tried to grow potatoes, so I chose to go the seed potato route just to be safe. 5lbs of yellow finn from Seed Savers. It turns out a 5 lb bag was way too much for me, I’ll definitely scale it down next year.
I decided to build two bamboo towers. The idea being that as the potatoes grow you keep filling the tower with dirt up around the stems, leaving only the upper few leaves exposed. The stalks should reach a few feet taller than normal to get their tops over the edge of the tower. Then little roots should come off the buried parts and produce potatoes all along the stem. When it is time to harvest, instead of hunting around in the ground for your potatoes you can just open up the tower and piles of potatoes will come pouring out. At least in theory.
Here are the towers just after they were built:
I made the towers by sinking bamboo poles procured from a friend about a foot into the ground, leaving approximately 5 feet of exposed pole. With heavy clay soil like we have, this proved pretty challenging. At a certain point I broke down and used some rusted old metal fence posts we had lying around for two of the poles. Much easier to get in the ground.
Then I wrapped the poles with some bamboo fencing from the hardware store making a nice bamboo cylinder. The fencing came 6 feet high, so I cut it half for a three foot tall tower. I lined the west facing side with palm fronds we had lying around because I was paranoid about the towers drying out. I have found that lack of moisture in the towers is really not an issue, so I doubt that precaution was necessary.
Faced with the prospect of a bunch of leftover seed potatoes I decided to reclaim another slice of the yard and created a potato river oozing out from the bottom tower. I just broke up the the clay with a digging fork and turned in some manure and nearly finished compost to make the earth more reasonable for planting. Potatoes are supposed to improve soil texture so I am hoping for that.
And then in went the potatoes! I had so many I didn’t bother trying to cut up the potatoes into eye sections, which you can do apparently, but rather just planted them whole. 5 seed potatoes in each of the towers, covered up with some dirt. Maybe 15 or so planted in the potato river.
And here is how it looks now, about two months later. Notice the giant Burgess buttercup squash trying to take over the place.
I’ve been doing my best to keep mounding around the stalks but potatoes grow fast and I’ll admit that the plants have gotten away from me at times, their scraggly stems flopping all over the place. What mounding material to use has been another issue, since I don’t have a lot of particularly nice dirt or finished compost lying around. Straw is an option I came across a lot, but the only actual tower I saw which solely used straw for mounding was pretty unproductive. And piles of straw creates the adorable problem of providing a perfect mouse habitat. Early on, when I had just covered the potatoes with straw in one of the towers a little mouse friend took up residence almost immediately. He was clearly a pretty brave, not bothered by our three backyard cats. I had to squirt him with a hose repeatedly over the course of an evening before he relocated.
So I’ve taken a different route, creating sort of compost piles out of the towers. I put a few inches of aged horse manure, saturated with water, alternating with three times as much damp straw. The soil creatures seem to approve of this tactic, I’ve been seeing lots of worms, but the material is heating up in a way that makes me sort of uncomfortable. The heat doesn’t appear to be damaging the plants though, which are beginning to flower and appear happy and healthy for the most part. The real test will be when I harvest in a few months. While I may not get a ton of potatoes, at the very least I should get some fine looking soil.
Update: Potato tower fail! I’d hoped the compost pile would be the slow and steady sort but sadly it heated up too much and devoured the potato plants in the center of towers. The plants that remained on the edges of the towers were fried by the blazing LA sun. Oh well. I’m going to try for a winter crop at a different location. Winter is the time for potatoes in Los Angeles I’ve decided. We’ll see how it goes.