Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Man Humbled By Potato

Without giving it much thought, this spring I decided to try growing potatoes in a box after reading a story in the Seattle Times.

It didn't work. From an initial planting of three pounds of seed potatoes I harvested one and a half pounds of potatoes. That's right, I went backwards. A far cry from the 100 lbs(!) or more mentioned in the article.

After swallowing my pride and setting aside the feeling that I was a fool for wanting to Believe, I came up with a few thoughts on why it didn't work.

The first might be that I planted the wrong variety, i.e. not late season, of potato. Inca Gold are a mid season potato; I've read that you should avoid early season varieties because they only set up one bunch of potatoes. While excavating the potato box, that seems to be what happened in my case. All the vines grew 12-16 inches, set up one cluster of potatoes, then no more. That's still only a partial explanation. I should have a lot more than 1.5 lbs from one "set" of potatoes.

One clue that things weren't going well was a dearth of flowers on the tops of the finished vines. Flowers are a sign that the tubers are setting up, I only remember seeing a couple in mid-August.

It was very cold this summer in Chicago this year, though I don't think that's the answer. I found a couple of slugs inside the potato box, but the potatoes, and vines, didn't look gnawed on. The plants looked healthy, suggesting they had enough water and fertilizer. I've grown tomatoes successfully on the same spot--in the ground, not in a vertical tower--in the past, so I think it gets enough sun. With so many variables, it's hard to know what went wrong.

Honestly, I'm at a loss. I was hoping to at least be able to figure out what happened. Maybe some of our readers will have a clue.

I plan on reusing the soil, a mixture of coir, peat, and vermiculite, in my several of my rooftop SIPs next year.

I'm not sure if I'll try growing potatoes in a box again. I'd like to try something more conventional, like growing them in containers.


art and chel said...

AAArrrggh!!!!! Bummer. I've been waiting for what I thought would be a bumper crop. Well, this is the life of the roof-top/balcony farmer--it seems like there are as many failures as there are successes. For as sad as the outcome is, I think the process of learning by experience is gratifying. And the fact that I can now learn from your experience makes it valuable to someone else. I have a feeling you will be up to your eyeballs in potatoes next year. I have finally decided that your site has provided me with enough confidence and instructions to try a small SIP setup next season! Get ready for the questions!

Bruce said...

Yeah, that's how I felt too. I was hoping to at least understand what went wrong. The fact that I can't come up with an explanation is frustrating.

I think you'll do great with the SIP/container gardening. Good luck! Of course we'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Unknown said...

Hey Bruce too bad for you, better luck next time I guess ?
Love the title of your blog post though :)

Mr. Homegrown said...

Damn! I've also had my share of potato growing disasters. Much more failure than success over the years. I'm looking for another crop--maybe peanuts?

Alisa said...

Bummer, I am sorry to hear that! And yes, I second the other poster. Great headline, reads like an Onion story.

Chris said...

Well my bumper crop did not turn out either. Although I did have better luck than you did. I ended up with around 33 pounds of potatoes. From others that I have spoken with it just seems like this was a bad potato year.

Unknown said...

As I had mentioned before, I have grown potatoes in containers the last couple of years. 5 gallon bucket sub irrigated planters summer 2009, and plain 5 gallon buckets and pots in 2008. No bumper crops, but they did OK both years. I didn't weigh them, but I would guess about 5 to 8 pounds of medium and small tubers per container. I suspect that the container size limits them. I start with half a bucket of dirt and add some more as the plants grow, not scientific, but filling it by August or so. One thing I will say is that potatoes seem to need need full sun. Without that they just don't seem to develop much in the way of tubers. My current thinking on this is that it is the surplus energy, after the growth of the greens and flowers, that goes into the tubers. I had some in pots on the ground in 2008, and they were partly shaded and did not do that much in comparison with those in buckets on my roof in full sun. I don't know about the mid season varieties, but I didn't get some of mine out of the ground soon enough, (November) and some of them started to rot and were lost. I still like growing and eating potatoes though. Rich Hagen

Mud Songs said...

I had such high hopes for my potato tower. I think I got maybe 10 pounds of spuds out of it. I'm impressed with Chris getting 33 pounds. I've done more research and so far it seems the two main factors in getting high yields from a potato tower are: 1) Choosing the right variety such as Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, Caribe, Red Pontiac or Red Lasoda. 2) Hilling very carefully, that is, covering the new-growth as soon as it sprouts so that only 1-inch of plant is above ground at all times. Stalks and branches exposed to sunlight harden and will not produce roots.

I'm so tempted to try it again. But I don't know.

Anonymous said...

"Tuber development declines if the soil temperature is over 20ºC (68ºF) and nearly stops if the soil temperature is over 30ºC (86ºF)"

A lot of info about growing potatoes above ground comes from the UK where they don't usually have hot summers like the Midwest.

Just a thought to help explain why your crop failed.

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