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.
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.
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!