Sunday, September 9, 2012

More About The Container Potatoes

The recent post on container potatoes has stirred up a bunch of questions.  Some of them you can see on the original post, along with my answers, but some were asked of me in person.  So, I thought I'd aggregate what I learned in this post for those of you still curious.  Please, keep posting questions and your own experiences!

What kind of container should I use?
You can really use any container you like, but tall is what you are going for -- I use a plastic decorative planter from the hardware store that stands about three feet tall and two feet wide.  You could use anything -- a half barrel, a whole barrel with the top cut off, an industrial container (as long as it didn't hold chemicals or petroleum or anything you don't want to eat), or a tall-sided raised bed.  Just remember that you don't want to use something so big you can't lug it outside and tip it over when the time comes.  My container is at the outside edge of what I can roll to the garden and tip once the vines are dead, and I am pretty strong for my size (although you wouldn't know it to look at me).  If you grow in a raised bed or accidentally grow in one of your compost bins, you will have to dig in order to get your potatoes.

Can I use plain old store-bought potatoes or do I have to buy seed potatoes?
The beauty of this project is that you will never throw away another potato that started sprouting in your potato bin; just shove it in the container and let it grow.  That said, it is better to buy organic potatoes than conventional potatoes, because the conventional ones are treated with a chemical that discourages greening and sprouting, so they obviously are less likely to grow in your container.  That said, I have grown potatoes from conventional store-bought "seed."  I just no longer like the idea of consuming that growth-retarding chemical, so I buy organic.

What do I fill the barrel with?  How am I going to get dirt to fill it in the winter?
The beauty of this is that potatoes are very shallow-rooted, so maybe 4 inches of good dirt in the bottom is enough for the roots that grow from the seed potato.  The rest is stem; you bury the stem as it grows, and new potatoes grow from the stem.  This is why you want a tall container more than a wide one; you want lots of vertical room for a single potato stem to grow potatoes.

So, what do you fill the container with?  Potato stems aren't picky; I've heard of folks that put just straw or pine needle mulch around their potatoes.  I do a mix of pine needle mulch and some fresh dirt or compost.  I figure the mulch decomposes while my potatoes grow if I introduce the healthy bacteria from the compost, and I will be dumping finished humus on the garden when I harvest my potatoes.  I always keep a container or two of sifted, finished compost in the sunroom over the winter for repotting plants and for projects like this, so I don't need to dig into the compost pile on a 17 degree day.

Is this really worth it?
If you've ever been frustrated by buying a bag of potatoes only to reach in a couple of weeks later and find that you have a pound of sprouts rather than cooking potatoes, you know the answer to this one!  This is a great way to combat the food waste problem in your house, and it will ultimately take a bit of money off your food bill once you start replanting your container from "seed" that you grew yourself.

What are your experiences?
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