potato towers


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Every year I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my potato crop. There’s something about the joyful discovery of unearthing hundreds of tasty morsels from the ground that really brings out a childlike sense of delight in me. But then in the months after the harvest, when I discover I have volunteer potatoes sprouting up in places where I really didn’t want them, I start getting annoyed. There’s always that one (or ten!) miniscule marble-sized spud that goes unnoticed and starts replicating. Don’t get me wrong–in general I love plants that resow (and I’ve written about that before) but there’s something about potatoes popping up underneath and in the midst of other planting areas that I just don’t appreciate.

So this year I finally decided to isolate my potatoes in potato towers, a growing method I’ve always been curious to try. The basic idea is to plant the potatoes in an upright structure (usally some kind of wire tube) so that at harvest time you can just open the tower and all your potatoes spill out above ground. And the extra bonus is that this very tidy and contained approach is also supposed to provide higher yields.

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I’ve read about various methods for constructing potato towers but I ended up basing my decision on the materials that were most cost-effective and easily-available. I found chicken wire in 4′ width and bamboo fencing in 6′ width that I cut in half in to make 3′. So the final size of my towers is 4′ high (with the bamboo screen at 3′) and 2′ in diameter. I ended up with these dimensions rather arbitrarily but they turned out to be ideal in terms of my ability to load soil and compost from above.

Once the towers were constructed, I reasearched numerous planting techniques–some people plant at the bottom and then fill the towers only with straw while others continue to layer soil and compost as the plant grows. I wasn’t sure which way to go so I blended both approaches–first laying down a bed of soil, then the potatoes, then a layer of compost followed by a layer of straw.

Once the first potato leaves emerged (last week, about a month after planting) I added on another thin layer of compost and more straw. When the leaves poke out again I plan to continue mulching with straw only.

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As for varieties, I planted a different one in each tower (five total). I repeated three of my usual favorites–German Butterball, Yellow Finn and Banana Fingerling and then added in two I haven’t grown before–Rose Finn and Bintje. As I’ve mentioned before, I usually buy my organic seed potatoes from Ronninger’s, but they’ve now merged with a company called Potato Garden. As far as I could tell they seem to have the same great selection, so I plan to keep supporting them in this new incarnation.

Potatoes are right up there on my list of important vegetables to grow at home. First off, because they are a critical crop to eat organically. According to studies by the USDA, Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group, 79.3% of potatoes sampled were found to contain pesticides. Yikes. Secondly, because you can grow so many more varieties of potatoes than you can find in stores. (At last count, Potato Garden was selling over 75 varieties.) And lastly, because there’s nothing quite like a fresh potato from the garden, cooked up with a little butter (or rosemary and olive oil) on top. Yum!

Counting the days to harvest!

unintentional egg hunt


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Straw is something I always have to have on hand. Either for lining the chicken coop and nesting boxes or for mulch somewhere in the garden. But since I don’t have a barn (or anything even remotely like that!) it’s hard to find a good spot to store the large bales (which at their smallest are about 2’x2’x4′). The solution I’ve come up with is keeping partial bales in waterproof plastic tubs outside in the garden and then stowing a full bale right under the chicken coop. It’s a good dry location and a whole bale fits underneath with just a couple inches clearance on top.

On Friday I was adding another layer of straw to my potato towers (which I realize I haven’t even written about here—subject for a future post) and had finished up the loose straw in my plastic tubs. So I walked back to my chicken coop and bent down to pull off some straw from the end of the bale underneath. As I separated off a section of straw, I was startled by an egg rolling off with it. What? I crouched lower so that I could see the whole top of the bale and was shocked to discover a large pile of eggs right in the middle! What a funny surprise.

I have no idea how my chickens were managing to squish themselves between the bottom of the coop and the top of the bale, but I guess it must have made a cozy adjunct nest. Unfortunately I don’t know when they started doing this or how old the eggs are so sadly I didn’t feel comfortable eating them. But throwing away a dozen organic eggs was a depressing thought. Then I had an idea–every year my kids love dyeing eggs but no one ever wants to eat dozens of hard boiled eggs afterwards. Why not just dye these before tossing?

At first I thought about blowing out the insides and coloring the shells only, but I realized this would be too delicate an operation for the kids. So I decided to hardboil them, let the kids dye them and then toss them out. Since the process of art (and life) is the continual cycle of creation and destruction, this seemed an appropriate solution. And if you’ve never dyed brown (or blue-green) eggs, the beautiful deep jewel-tone colors they become put the traditional bright pastel colored (white dyed) eggs to shame.

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garden planning mania


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I’ve written before about how sometimes I am a very meticulous gardener–carefully documenting what, when, where, how I’m planting. But at other times I can be completely impulsive and whimsical–planting this and that, here and there and thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to make a note, I’ll remember what I did.” As a result, every year when my seeds start sprouting I inevitably find myself staring quizzically at a some of the leaf shapes wondering what plant will surprise me.

But this year I’ve been determined to really be much more methodical about my planting. I’ve been keeping very careful records of everything I’ve been sowing and also thinking through the best possible strategies for companion and succession planting. So imagine my delight when I accidentally stumbled on an online garden planner being offered by Territorial Seed. I’ve never used any kind of software for managing my garden before but so far this planner seems like a fantastic idea. I’ve been playing around with the free demo for a few weeks and now I’m becoming obsessed with garden planning!

What impressed me right away was that I could customize the planner to my exact growing region (by zip code) and it found the first and last frost dates for my area from a weather station right in my neighborhood. Based on that it plugged in the recommended planting dates for sowing indoors and planting out. Even though I already know that info for the crops I’m used to planting, the really handy thing is that going forward the planner will send me email reminders when it’s time to start sowing the various plants I’ve selected. Love that! Even after all these years of gardening, I still find that time just seems to get away from me and before I know it I’m starting certain seeds weeks later than I know I should. A sowing nagger is just what I need.

Also, all the plants in the database are coded according to botanical family and the planner keeps track of what I’m growing where. So if I keep my whimsical impulses in check and remember to plant according to plan, not only will I not have any more “mystery plants” but next year the planner will warn me if I plan to plant in a way that violates standard rotation practices. How cool is that?

One of the things I love most about gardening is how many learning opportunities it provides. The more years I grow fruits and vegetables, the more I find to discover and explore–new varieties, new growing technologies, etc. etc. My hope is with this planner I’ll be able to really be able to streamline my garden information and make this (and future) year’s learning even more efficient and productive. And in the meantime, it’s also very fun. Check it out!

p.s. Also curious to hear about any other garden planners people have used!