Last spring, I tried an experiment in growing potatoes. This morning, my daughter Louisa and I went out into the garden to harvest them, which was like opening a present! A barrel full of potatoes all nice and neat! Here’s how we did it:
1- cut the bottom off a plastic or wooden bucket or barrel (or drill multiple holes into the bottom to insure proper drainage). The barrel should be about 2 feet high.
2- lay old carpeting under the barrel
3- lay seed potatoes (or cut up chunks of bigger potatoes) spaced out on the carpet that serves as the floor of your barrel. If you are using big potatoes cut into chunks, let them dry after cutting overnight to reduce chance of molding. Grocery store potatoes will work, but only if they have not been treated with anti-sprouting chemicals. If your potatoes in your pantry are sprouting, they’ll work fine.
4- sprinkle soil lightly over the potatoes, just to cover about 1″ with soil. Use “Mels’ Mix” —a blend of 1/3 part peat moss, 1/3 part vermiculite and 1/3 part compost (mix 5 different types of compost so all nutritents are present). You’ll find the recipe and lots more valuable information in Square Foot Gardening). The type of soil is vitally important—I wouldn’t recommend this with “plain ole’ dirt”.
5- water well and wait a week or so, until green sprouts are pushing up through the soil and leafing out.
6- when the leaves are about an inch or two up through the soil, sprinkle on another layer of soil, completely covering the potatoes with another inch of soil.
7- keep watering very well. Lots of water means big potatoes!
8- keep up the process of adding more soil as soon as the leaves push through the soil. About once a week will do.
9- when you’ve added soil to cover the growth each time, the barrel will eventually get full of soil. When you’ve reached the top, your only job is to keep those potatoes well watered. The vines will grow up and tumble out over the top and blossom. When you see the blossoms, you’ll know potatoes are forming. Red potatoes have pink blossoms, and white blossoms form on plants with yellow or brown potatoes.
10- fall harvesting: if the leaves have died back, you are ready to harvest. My potatoes had lush green foliage right up to the frost, however. To harvest, just put on your garden gloves and “go fishing”. We did not need any tools at all, as the soil mix is so loose and light. Just fish around in the soil and you’ll feel your potatoes and can scoop them out! Very fun!
I planted red potatoes, brown russet and yellow Finnish potatoes, which are supposed to be “waxy” and best for potato salad, as well as lower on the glycemic index than standard brown grocery store potatoes (russets).
The great thing about confining the growth to the barrel is that when you scoop right down into the barrel with your hands, right to the carpet floor to harvest, you know you have them all. I had a big crop just laying side by side on the carpeted bottom! The potatoes form on the stem, so as you add more soil, another layer of potatoes forms higher on the stems, and more and more. If you have a long growing season, and give them lots of water, your whole barrel can fill up with potatoes. It seems magic to see soil transform itself into delicious fresh potatoes!
No tools at harvest means no cut or damaged potatoes, and being able to stir the soil around with your hands and pull the potatoes out means you get every single potato, including the “babies”, which will be saved for seed potato for next spring’s planting.
Once the potatoes are out of the barrel, stir in compost to fill the barrel back up to the top and smooth it over. Cover with an old blanket, tarp, or piece of cardboard, secured by a rock or log, and you’ll be all set for spring to come. (We buy old blankets at yard sales for this purpose.) You’ll be surprised, with a blanket cover, how clean the soil stays over the winter! No weed seeds will blow in and your potato barrel will be weed-free and ready to go as soon as the snow melts!
When spring comes, and danger of frost is past, remove all the soil from the barrel, lay down your seed potatoes, sprinkle on an inch of soil over the seed potatoes, and here we go again . . .
Easy, easy painless potatoes!