Friday, March 16, 2012

Potato Towers

Four and a half years ago I was introduced to potato towers by an urban homesteader friend of mine.  She always had the earliest new potatoes of us all.  The veggie gardeners that read this can relate but for those of you that don't garden just be known that there can be a bit of a competition between gardeners.  It's usually friendly (anyway, I've never come to blows over it) but there is a certain pride in having the first tomato, the biggest pumpkin, the sweetest strawberries...  Early potatoes earned my friend bragging rights.  Of course we all had to know her secret and she just shrugged and pointed to some garbage cans standing in the corner of the yard. 

Because she lived on an urban lot, she had to conserve her garden space.  She couldn't spread her potatoes out like we country gardeners did, so instead she spread UP.  She grew her potatoes in towers made of garbage cans.  She started them early in the greenhouse and when the weather was warm enough she moved them to an out of the way spot in the yard.  While we were just getting to planting our potatoes in the cold ground, hers were already happily growing in the greenhouse.

Well, you can teach an old dog new tricks and I for one love to learn new things.  The next year I bought a garbage can, gave it a try with early season potatoes and it worked great!  Later that year two of my friends that live in the Town of Leeds were throwing out their old garbage cans because their Township had switch garbage haulers and they needed to buy certain garbage cans from the haulers themselves.  While this seems like a scam to me, I was more than willing to scoop up their old garbage cans before they went to the landfill.  Now I have six potato towers for my early season potatoes.  I still plant my late season (winter storage) potatoes in the ground, but I can puff up with a bit of pride now when I serve a potato salad with new potatoes from my own garden at summer parties.  Everyone wonders how I could possibly have potatoes so early.

Potato towers are really easy to make and you don't need garbage cans to do it.  I know people who grow potatoes in the greenhouse in empty feed bags or even empty bird food bags.  Other people simply made a cone of chicken wire and put the dirt down in that.  I have even heard of people piling tires up and planting down in the well.  This is a great chance to use your imagination and come up with new ideas.  While you can grow potatoes in small amounts of dirt, to get a good crop you should really have a container that holds at least 40 gallons.  Then get out your drill and drill holes all over it.  If you don't have a drill, a hammer and nail can be used to poke holes too.  Make sure there are plenty of drain holes in the bottom because potatoes can rot if they sit in water too long.  Drill up the sides of the container too because air does need to get to the plants for a good crop.  In this way bags can be better than my plastic garbage cans.

After you get lots of holes in your tower(s) fill them 1/5 to 1/4 full of dirt.  While potatoes are known for growing in poor soil, mixing a bit of good compost into the dirt will give you a bigger crop.  Put the potatoes onto the dirt and cover with a couple more inches of dirt.  A bit of a mulch down in the tower is good now.  Because potatoes get less diseases in soil that is slightly more acidic in nature and because my soil is a bit more alkaline than I like, I use pine needles as my mulch.   By using pine needles I have avoided getting potato scab, a disease that is caused by the soil being too alkaline. 

Then you let the potatoes grow.  When they reach about 6 inches (don't get anal and measure them, this is an approximate measurement) cover them up by half.  You may be covering some plants before others so it's often easiest to cover by the hand full instead of the shovel full.  Then again when the plant grows a few more inches cover it up by half again.  Just make sure you have a couple levels of leaves on the stems above ground each time you cover.  Every few covers of dirt, add a bit of mulch.  If it's a particularly rainy season, add mulch after each covering.  Mulch helps keep any soil borne diseases (like blight) away from the leaves of the plant.  When you reach the top of the container with dirt, mulch well and let the potatoes grow.  You can harvest new potatoes throughout this process by reaching down through the soil.  I would think if you had bag potato towers you could even cut small (hand size) holes through the sides of the bags and harvest new potatoes through the sides of the tower.

If you are growing storage potatoes let them grow until the leaves begin to yellow or die back.  Then just lay a tarp next to the tower and tip it over.  This is a MUCH easier way of harvesting potatoes than digging them up from the ground.  

A couple bits of information;  Don't use the same dirt from those towers year after year for any member of the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, egg plants...), but you can grow other vegetables in it.   I simply till my used dirt into the corm field, but you can transfer it to other pots for other plants if you are container gardening.  Also if you are like me and use your same towers over and over, you need to wash them with soap before you use them again.  This way if there was any diseases from last year potatoes, you won't infect this year potatoes with them.  

Besides those two things, potato towers are a great way to get new potatoes earlier and a great way from those who don't have a whole lotta space to still grow a good crop of potatoes.  And potatoes, as long as you buy certified disease potatoes, are pretty easy to grow.  They are very forgiving if you forget to water them for a short while, if your dirt isn't perfect, and as long as you have plenty of drain holes, if you make them mistake of over watering them.  Home grown potatoes are also better tasting, have a better texture, and you know that they don't have all the chemicals that mass farmed potatoes may have.  Plus you get to smile that pride filled smile when someone tells you how delicious your potatoes are and marvels at how early they are.  You MUST be a great gardener.  LOL 


  1. I swear, THIS is the year for potatoes at our house!! Will this system also work for Sweet Potatoes? There's NO way I'm spending 88 cents a pound on sweet taters at the grocery store and my fall / winter stash is getting LOW!

    1. Sweet potatoes are even easier to grow. Their tubers grow down instead of up so you can just fill a container (I use a big tote) with soil and then bury the sweet potato or its slips (the little great stems coming off the tubers--eyes in potatoes) a bit into the dirt. It will grow the right way so you don't have to keep burying the upper part.

      I have to grow sweet potatoes in containers in the greenhouse because Wisconsin can have early frosts, so I only grow them in containers.

      They need a bit more heat though so I won't be planting them until May. The other cool thing about sweet potatoes is once you have them you can use your same sweet potatoes for seed year after year.

  2. I read about this several years ago Rea...its good to know someone who has actually done this and now I may give it a go this year. Looks relatively simple. :0

    I love your tutorial on this...very informative.

    Happy St. Patty's Day!

    1. Happy St. Paddy's Day to you too! I found it to be very simple for how well it works, and I like simple. LOL Thanks for your comment.

  3. A great tutorial. Thanks! I've never grown taters anywhere but in the ground using the hilling method or mulch method. I have plenty of field garden area in which to grow my potatoes but I am interested in trying to grow sweet potatoes which are nearly impossible to grow outside in our short, cool growing season here in northern Minnesota. If I tried them in totes as you suggested, I could bring them into a protected spot during our cool nights.

    1. We can't grow sweet potatoes outside either. All we get is stringy little tubers. But I've been growing them in totes for several years now and I get a whole winter's worth of them. I haven't quite planted enough of them to last a whole year yet though.

      It started when I had a store bought sweet potato that sprouted. I read up on how to plant them and I took the sprouts (slips) off the tuber and planted them in a black tote. Black worked really well because it kept the soil warm.

      Then I just save out one of the tubers from the next harvest and sprout that all winter. When May rolls around It's time to put them into the totes again. I've never bought another sweet potato, even for planting since.

      Thanks for commenting.

  4. Just watched your video and wanted to say thank you! I have never been able to understand the topping up of the pot. I've been trying to understand for 20 years ha haa haa. You explained and showed us PERFECTLY. I LOVED your whole video, thank you

  5. Just watched your video and wanted to say thank you! I have never been able to understand the topping up of the pot. I've been trying to understand for 20 years ha haa haa. You explained and showed us PERFECTLY. I LOVED your whole video, thank you