15 June 2009

Urban Potato Farming

My local city council recently decided to replace everyone's recycling boxes with giant bins on wheels. All commentary about cost, practicality, and aesthetics aside, the new system left us wondering what to do with the old--unrecyclable--boxes.

I'm fairly sure the city will take the old boxes back if you return them (what they do with them, I have no idea), but I decided to hang on to ours. Even if they're useless for their original purpose, they're still pretty handy. I've been using one to store all the large pine cones that fall into our yard from the neighbour's tree. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do with them (holiday decorations? Fire-starters?) but I'll figure that out eventually. Meanwhile, I still had a recycling box to contend with.

Talking to a friend a few months back about our gardening plans, she mentioned she wanted to grow potatoes in her old recycling boxes. I thought that was a great idea. The boxes are a good size for potatoes, and they're far easier to harvest when grown in a container than in the ground (no digging is even necessary--you can just tip the container over and pick up the potatoes!) They're also fantastic if you only have a small area (like a balcony) for growing things. Since I wasn't planning on growing potatoes myself, I just filed the idea away in the back of my mind.

A week or so later, in the process of making dinner, I discovered several of my potatoes (Yukon Gold, for the record) had gone soft and bore large sprouts (like onions and garlic, potatoes will automatically start sprouting in spring. Sensible for them--annoying for us). Rather than toss them into the compost, I decided to put my remaining recycling box to good use and set up my own mini potato bed.

The procedure itself couldn't be simpler. Conveniently, the box I had on hand already had holes in the bottom for drainage. If yours doesn't you'll need to break out a drill.

I started by placing a layer of soil, about two or three inches thick, on the bottom of the box. I moved the box to the sunniest spot on my deck, and then spaced my sprouting potatoes evenly on top of the soil. Technically, you can cut the potatoes into pieces to get even more plants out of them (as long as each piece has at least one or two "eyes" or sprouts). My potatoes were "new" (that is, small) and I had just enough of them to fill the box, so I wasn't overly concerned about making even more. Once the potatoes were in place, I put enough soil in to just barely cover them.

Because I wasn't sure how cold-hardy they'd be (I started them well before the last frost date) I covered the box at night with a board until the weather improved and the plants seemed strong enough to handle nights without the extra layer of protection.

As the plants have been growing, I've been filling in the space around them with growing medium: potting soil, triple mix, manure, compost...whatever I have on hand. Eventually, the box will be filled to the top (it's already almost there). The potatoes will grow in the soil, so the more soil in there, the more room for them to grow.

I was concerned about inadvertently rotting the seed potatoes, so initially I only watered whenever the soil was looking particularly dry (I aimed for moist but not wet). As the plants are getting bigger they're starting to need more water. I wait until the plants look a little limp (but not wilted) before giving them a thorough drink. Right now they need watering about twice a week.

So far, I've only seen two potato bugs (where the heck did they come from? Is there a potato farm over by the subway I'm unaware of?) I'm squeamish about killing bugs (it's that whole crunching thing), but it's one of those unpleasant chores that must get done. Potato bugs multiply fast and will eat every last leaf off your plants. You can avoid the whole crunching issue by drowning them in a bucket of water (a little dishwashing detergent or soap in the mix helps too). Of course, then you've got a load of soapy, buggy water to contend with. Go with whatever creeps you out the least.

Potatoes have surprisingly pretty flowers and deep green leaves. That's good, because recycling boxes aren't exactly the most attractive of containers. Luckily mine is green, which blends well in a garden. It's also hidden by masses of tomato plants. If you want you can also grow potatoes in half barrels, or in any other large containers you can find/afford. I personally enjoy an extra level of satisfaction in knowing the container has been re-purposed. At least, it makes me feel better about not being able to get those beautiful pots with the hundred-
dollar price tags down at the garden centre.

In a few short months (about the end of July to mid-August) the plants will start dying. Once they're dead, it's time to start harvesting. There should also be enough time left to grow a crop of something else in the same container once the potatoes are out: carrots, chard, green onions, lettuce--anything fast-growing and cold-tolerant (I haven't decided yet). There's something about food you've grown yourself--especially in the city--that just makes it taste so much better. Happy gardening--and happy eating!

(All plant photos by me.)


Devona said...

This is a great post. Great idea, great description and thorough information. I have been wanting to grow potatoes indoors in containers, but haven't been dedicated enough to go spend four million dollars to buy pots I wouldn't mind having in my house and are large enough to grow a lot of potatoes. Right now I am sticking with my outdoor plot of about 4 square feet.

Would you mind if I posted a link to this on my website, clevernesting.com? I know a lot of our readers are gardeners, and would benefit from this detailed explanation. If you don't want me to use your images I can take some of my own plants, but I'd really like to show your container in use. It's brilliant!

On another note, how ironic that the recycle bin isn't recyclable!

Aspasia said...

Wow--thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! Feel free to post a link and use the photos (as long as Domicile gets credited).

The media around here have a field day pointing out the hypocrisy of the waste bins not being recyclable. Our city council's not the brightest...

greengirl said...

Great article! This is the first year I have tried to grow potatoes and I have no idea what to expect, so thank you for the info and tips (haven't see a potatoe bug yet, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time!). I love the idea of planting them in the containers to tip out at the end of the season, I will try that next year. Beautiful photos too!

amy said...

this is awesome! i came over from clever nesting and i'm SO EXCITED about this!

i babbled on a bit on clever nesting, but basically what i said is that after tasting home grown potatoes again for the first time in years, i really wanted to grow my own! i thought i couldn't, because i don't have the space (or the strength) to build up rows.

i'm kinda creeped out by the potato bugs (i was scared of them when i was a kid!), but i'm so desperate for potatoes that aren't force grown that i'm willing to ignore them! thank you so much!

Aspasia said...

Thanks for all the kind comments!

If it helps, I've only seen three potato bugs so far, so I don't think they're a major issue in an urban environment. Still require killing, though.

Also, I should mention that quite a few hardware stores sell recycling boxes for pretty reasonable prices (I know the city used to sell them too). Even if you need to buy one, they're cheaper than a comparably sized (albeit more attractive) pot.

Happy growing!