Gardening Blog

Gardening Blog: Barrel Potatoes

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There are some vegetables that donít fit in small gardens. We already talked about monster squash, pumpkins and invasive species like Jerusalem Artichokes that once established, can take over your garden and are almost impossible to eradicate. A lot of gardeners think potatoes are just too space hungry for a small garden, considering the return per foot of row, but there is a low cost, effective alternative. Barrel potatoes.

Barrel Potatoes

By visiting a recycling center like Habitat, or ReStore, it should be possible to get yourself a barrel or vertical container of some 50 gallons capacity. Smaller will work as well, but the yield will be smaller. Make sure your container/barrel hasnít been used to store anything toxic before your purchase.

When you get it home, use your power drill and a good-sized bit to drill a series of holes in the bottom and ensure good drainage. Some people cut the bottom out altogether and let it rest directly on their garden soil. Give the barrel a good scrub out with a detergent soap and hot water and then with glycerin to catch any particles or fragments still present inside because of the drilling. Follow with a thorough rinse.

Find a spot in your garden where you will be happy with your barrel staying over the summer because itís going to get a lot heavier as the season progresses. Put about six inches of a mixture of sand, loam, well rotted manure and milled peat moss into the bottom of the barrel. Now you are ready for your potato starts.

How to Plant

Potatoes are grown from other potatoes, not normally from seed. Plants that grow from seed can produce a wildly variable crop and while itís a great random experiment to find the next hot potato cultivar, itís not recommended for people who want to rely on eating what they grow.

Buy a half dozen potatoes from the co-op or garden centre. Make sure they are firm, not withered as the food in the old potato feeds the new while itís getting established. Iíd suggest Yukon Gold as your cultivar, first time out. These potatoes can be boiled, baked or fried with equally tasty results and they donít grow overly large.

Cut each potato into about three good pieces, each with a well established sprout on each. Let them sit in a clean, well-ventilated place for a day so the cuts dry out completely, to avoid mold and fungal infections. Now using, say, long handled barbeque tongs, placed the pieces in well spaced circles on the six inches of soil in the bottom of your barrel, sprout side up and cover them with another six inches of your soil mixture.

Hereís the secret.

Potatoes are members of the Nightshade family like tomatoes. Their stems are jointed and at each joint are those bumps that spawn extra roots in the tomato. In the potato, those nodes are where the potatoes grow. So all you have to do is let the foliage of your potatoes grow up sufficiently to add another six inches of soil and keep this up until the foliage is spilling over the top and the barrel is full of soil. All the way up the stems, where ever the nodes are, potatoes will be growing. Youíve created a vertical potato garden!

At some point from mid-August on, the foliage will die back announcing that the potatoes are ready for harvesting. Recruiting a strong friend, you can tip over the barrel and the soil and potatoes will spill out. (Put down a ground cloth to save the lawn and make it easy to transport the soil).

Grown this way, potatoes are easy to retrieve, easy to clean up for eating and will come in a variety of sizes, so you can have new potatoes, boilers, roasters, what ever your heartís desire. It should be possible to get a half a bushel or more of potatoes out of a fifty gallon container, especially if your soil mixture contains equal amounts of nutrients, sand and loam.

Shake the stalks out of the dirt and put the soil beside your compost heap to over winter. If you live in a cold climate, the sub-zero temperatures will deal with any bugs or pathogens in the soil. If you live in a warm place, mix the soil in with your compost and let the heat from the pile sterilize it.

Storage

If you have enough potatoes from your experiment to store them, put them in a cool, dry, dark, place to rest, as the sprouts sprout to light. If you have lots of potatoes to store you can immerse them in a water bath with one teaspoon of bleach per gallon, which will inhibit the sprouts further, making sure the potatoes are completely dry before you store them. Note: Green potatoes that grown at the top of the barrel and are touched by direct sunlight should not be eaten. The green is a chemical called solanine and besides tasting vile, itís a poison.

So there you have it. Barrel potatoes. This isnít going to provide spuds for a family of four for the whole winter, but once youíve tasted potatoes grown in your own garden that havenít travelled hundreds of miles, endured exotic chemical anti-sprouting baths, or dried out on the shop floor, youíll look forward to next years home grown crop. Served to your family and friends, they will be the product of a great garden, gratefully consumed by the lucky family of an absolute beginner!

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