Aka: Spud

 You say potato, I say Solanum Tuberosum

Dare I say that this is one of THE easiest vegi’s to grow? Potatoes are a simple crop to maintain and are perfect for container or small space gardens.

In this post we will discuss how to build a potato cage, also known as potato bins or towers. This method of planting allows for the plant to grow vertically and produce tubers along it’s stolons ( or underground stems).

Not all potatoes are equal.

Without getting too deep into it, there are determinate types and indeterminate types….like tomatoes. Basically, early types, like Yukon Gold will only grow in one layer requiring a small hill. Main crops or later varieties like Russets, typically are indeterminate and can be forced to grow ‘up’ in bins, towers or potato cages. Check out this eHow article for some good choices.

Let’s start digging shall we?

Potato Shoots

Potatoes require deep loose soil, which you did already when you followed my double digging tutorial, right?

( click here if you want to know more about this old tried and true garden prep method).

Place the seed potatoes ( or cut pieces with a min of two eyes each) in a shallow hole. I put 5 in a 30″ radius, 1 in the center and 4 around the outside ). Cover with about 6″ of soil and wait for the first shoots to come up. Once the shoots are about 6″ – 8″ tall, start to ‘hill’ up the soil around the plants covering it’s main stem until just 1/3 of it is showing. Repeat this process again in about a week or so when you get another growth spurt of 6″ – 8″ and add more soil to your hills.

Hilling up

This is about all the soil I had reserved sitting off to the side. We now have at least a good 12″ – 16″ of earth on these spuds so we can go ahead and cage them. I sprinkle a good organic fertilizer on the soil around the plants at this point. Now I’ve seen all sorts of wood slat bins, bamboo screens, chicken wire etc. The problem I see in some of these methods is that they can be way over built.

We will be using straw not soil in our cages so we won’t have a weight issue to deal with. I have been using the same three pieces of green plastic fencing for years, no staples, nails or zap straps….just a few pieces of bamboo to hold them together. (Reason #37 to always have bamboo stakes on hand).

Bamboo stake

My fencing pieces are about 6′ long x 3.5′ wide, I simply wrap it around the potato leaves then weave a bamboo stake through the meeting point driving it into the ground. Four stakes in each cage like this and you have a stable

self supporting potato growing bin.

Potato Cages

I’ll let these grow taller and every week or so I will start to add handfuls of straw around the stems. The key here is to make sure that developing tubers are not exposed to direct sunlight. I’m sure most of you are aware that green potatoes are toxic due to glycoalkaloids that can accumulate just under the skin.

Here’s a couple of pictures from last year to give you an idea of what you can expect this cage to look like.

Potatoes with straw

Hay vs Straw

Hay is considered ‘green’ feed as it is harvested with it’s seed heads still intact. It’s components include grasses, grains and clover. This is NOT what you want as it’s seeds are viable and can spread through your garden.

Straw is what is harvested after the seed heads are removed….this is great mulching and composting material.

Potato leaves

Generally when you see the flowers, that means there’s baby tubers growing below….ahhh. You can dig a few of these tasty new potatoes out by sliding your cage up on the bamboo stakes and reaching into the straw below. Be careful not to damage the stolons though, all those pea sized potatoes are the following months harvest.

food picture abflowers5122.jpg

Potato Flowers

After your plants have died back, leave the potatoes for a couple more weeks before harvesting them. This period will allow the skins to toughen up for storing.

Harvesting is as easy as pulling out the bamboo stakes and sifting through the straw to find all your tasty taters. Throw the straw into your compost or use it to mulch your perennial beds. It’s a great cover for your fall bulbs too.

Final note about crop rotation. You will notice that in the pictures above, the potatoes were planted at opposite ends of the garden bed. Next year the potatoes will end up in the middle of the bed and the year after that, they will begin at the right side again.

Moving your crops on 3 year cycles is imperative in the prevention of diseases accumulating in the soil. Another good reason is the balance of nutrient fixing and depleting.

Wikipedia explains it like this:

Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row disproportionately depletes the soil of certain nutrients. With rotation, a crop that leaches the soil of one kind of nutrient is followed during the next growing season by a dissimilar crop that returns that nutrient to the soil or draws a different ratio of nutrients.

Crop rotation

( The above diagram is from Kings Plant Barn )

I’ll finish with this quote from a fellow potato lover…..

po-ta-toes? Boil them; mash them; stick them in a stew

~Samwise Gamgee~

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