Do They Actually Work? (Not So Much)
“Potatoes make french fries, chips, and vodka. It’s like the other vegetables aren’t even trying” – Unknown.
Gardening is a big experiment for me, but it’s an experiment we take on because we know that it might one day be my only food source. If it was our only means of survival, we would probably die, as we are far from a master gardener. The potato is one of the best prepper foods, right up there with sunckokes and sunflowers. So we had heard about and even suggested a potato tower for those with lousy soil or limited space. Because we recommend it, we wanted to put it to the test and bring my studied understanding of it into practice. We also wanted to test it out because we had seen people online who never posted results, had weak harvests, or simply claimed that the potato tower doesn’t work. Because of this, we turned to my test garden to give it a try. Here is what we did and my results, and we will let you judge how well this first harvest succeeded or failed.
BUILDING THE POTATO TOWER
Building the potato tower is pretty straightforward. You want to begin by making the tower. We used some fencing material, but chicken wire, metal, or plastic fencing could be used. Your plants will grow out the sides and top of this. Here we use a mix of soils and hay. The hay is really to keep all the soil from running out. Depending upon the size of your fencing holes, you could use sawdust, but straw, hay, or some similar grass or twigs will work best. It will also help retain moisture in your mix and allow water to penetrate more deeply into your tower. So, though it is essential on the outside edge, it is equally important to mix the hay throughout.
Our soil is not the greatest, so we used a combination of local dirt and organic garden soil mix. To this, we add in the hay. My ratio was about three parts soil to one part hay. Mix this up thoroughly. The wire or fencing tower is easily constructed by creating a loop with a diameter of about a foot and a half to two feet and fastening the ends together. When placed in your garden area, you will want to stake it down. You can add a long pole on the side or through the middle, as you will want to ensure that your tower doesn’t tip. The idea of the tower is that it takes up less space. Potato plants will spread out in your garden, so adding a layer of hay at the bottom will prevent them from escaping into the rest of your garden. We have our tower in one of my raised beds amongst my chives, bird peppers, sage, oregano, and artichokes. On a side note, the presence of the tower and the run-off caused my other plants to thrive, likely because of the additional watering. To this layer, we will add a healthy couple of inches of my soil mix. With some hay around the sides, you can add regular garden mix or soil if you think you have too much hay in there.
To this layer of dirt, you will add a few of the seed potatoes. We will address that a little later in this blog. You will want to place them around the outside edge, about 6 per layer and about 4 to 6 inches in from the tower’s outer wall. The plants will grow outside, and the potatoes will be in the center. Place another layer of about 4 to 6 inches of soil mix directly on top of those seedlings. Repeat the process of placing seedlings around the exterior, add more dirt, more seedlings, more dirt, more seedlings, all the way up to the top of your tower. We found that adding more hay and working that to the sides was an excellent way to keep the soil secure in the tower. With each layer, you want to ensure that your seedlings have good access to a healthy amount of nutrient-rich soil. We also got in the practice of just using a thin layer of hay on the exterior to keep my soil contained better. Don’t be afraid of packing the soil densely in the tower. The seedlings will find their way.
Because one of the complaints about potato towers is keeping the tower irrigated, we watered every few layers to ensure the initial soil was moist enough. Repeat this stacking procedure until you reach the tower’s top. The amount of dirt in your tower will depend upon its height and base radius, but we calculate mine to have taken about nine cubic feet of dirt and hay mix, which is a third of a cubic yard. That’s a lot, so take that into account when setting out to make your initial mix or digging the dirt out of one area to fill your tower. As you get to higher levels, building your tower is easier. We estimate that it took me about an hour to make the whole tower. Using some of my own soil in the mix allowed me to filter out grubs who might feast on my potatoes. The hay we put at the base will help prevent these grubs from coming up into the tower and eating my potatoes.
On the final layer, add hay or sawdust to the top and a mound of dirt on top of that. The top dirt will wash down through the hay, and the hay will hold moisture in your tower. Water the whole tower gently until it is completely saturated. We gave it a thorough watering out the gate. Watering and retaining the correct moisture levels is a big challenge for potato towers. We found the best method for watering to be to wrap a hose trickling water around the stability pole we inserted on the edge of the tower and right in the center. We don’t get much rain in southern California, so this method worked well, even when we accidentally left it on overnight. Spraying the sides is effective for already sprouted plants, but top-down irrigation from the center is best. You can also hand water by slowly adding water to the center.
Chitting is a method of preparing potatoes or other tubers for planting. STOCK Regular store-bought potatoes aren’t the best for this, as they are often sprayed with sprouting inhibitors. If you have potatoes with eyes forming into sprouts, you can use those. Place them in a paper bag in a cool place and let the eyes develop into shoots. When they are at a healthy stage, you can plant the whole potato, cut in half, or cut it into eye sections with a good solid inch or more of potato attached to each eye. Here is where we think we went wrong. We used a combination of store-bought seedling potatoes and some red potatoes that had started chitin in my storage- purple, Kennebec, and Yukon gold. As you can see from my early harvest at just 90 days, none of the store-bought seedling potatoes were successful- just a few baby Yukons. The red potatoes that had gone too long in my cupboard were far more successful.
Separate your sprouted sections, then let them dry on the potatoes’ inside. This will take no more than a day but will lock the moisture into the plant piece. At this point, you are ready to plant. In hindsight, my seedling potatoes were so small to begin with we probably should have skipped this step and planted the whole potato to let it work its magic. That may have been part of the smaller harvest, but we’re not sure, as even the established sprouts with four inches or more of sprouted section didn’t grow in my tower.
GROWING & HARVESTING
Depending upon your weather, you should start to see the green leaves of the potato plant sprouting through in a week or two. Pull back on the watering when you do, and avoid over watering, which can lead to rot. The plants will get more prominent as the growing season progresses. Ideally, the more greenery you have growing around your tower, the more energy will be sent into the roots and forming potatoes. Potatoes are a root plant, and you can see here how they form along the root of the plant. As they get bigger, the potatoes will only maintain small, hair-like, tendril root connections to the plant, so they easily separate from the plant at harvest time.
You can harvest as early as 90 days, but it will be a small harvest of just new potatoes. You will want to wait until the green part of the plant flowers and yellow, browns, and then dies off before harvesting. Since we were getting inconsistent growth patterns–one side of the tower wasn’t greening up, and we had some die-off without flowering– we opted to call the experiment at the 90-day point to assess the result. Ideally, you want the plants to flower and then start to die off, and for the most significant harvest and potato size, wait 120 days from the time you first begin to see the green popping out.
The easiest way to harvest is to pull out the supporting stakes and then tip the whole tower over onto a tarp. At this point, you only need to sift through the dirt and separate the potatoes and plant sections. We first noticed that the potatoes at the top were bigger. Rolling the tower easily separates the soil and potatoes from the wire tower. It will take some time to remove all the potatoes and plants from the dirt mix. Using the tarp method allows you to really shake the soil around to sift out any potatoes. We did one final sift with the shovel before adding the ground back into my garden. We will probably get at least one volunteer potato plant next season by reusing the dirt in this way. Potatoes are cool weather vegetables. Planting potatoes two to three weeks before your last frost date will result in potatoes sprouting in early spring. You can get at least two successful crops per year of potatoes.
As we said, our tower produced mixed results. Our harvest was, quite literally, small potatoes. Our store-bought seedlings failed to deliver, and remember, we harvested at the earliest point possible. If we had waited a little longer, we are sure the potatoes would have grown slightly larger. We will probably make another tower this month to confirm my results and apply what we learned from this first run at it. Unfortunately, we don’t think we can completely bust the myth of the efficacy of potato towers. In total, we put in 26.5 ounces of seedlings. We don’t know how many ounces of those were specifically the red variety. In our next tower, we will confine to red, organic, store-bought potatoes and maybe fingerlings to get a better handle on input versus output. Our yield was a paltry 45.4 ounces. PTHarvestDumpWeigh.MP4 That’s not a success by any measure.
By far, the best results we have ever had is when the potatoes are planted directly in the ground and allowed to do their thing. This also allows you to periodically harvest and check potato sizes for the most significant yield. Unfortunately, as a prepper in the suburbs, we don’t have that kind of space. We have had good results in the past growing potatoes in containers, five-gallon buckets, and even construction-grade trashbags. All of these methods do work.
Our final assessment is we are not entirely sold on the tower method but enthusiastic about it enough to give it another try with what we have learned. Unfortunately with this first attempt, we can’t confirm that they’re successful all the time or failures all the time. Any gardener will tell you that gardening is an experiment. The more you practice, the better you get, so we will give this another try to either refine the practice or write it off and stop recommending it to people over the 5-gallon pot method, which we know works within the smaller confines of space.
What do you think? Have you gotten the potato tower method to be successful for you? What did we do correctly, and what did we do wrong? Let us know in the comments below while we chit out some more potatoes.
As always, stay safe out there.