Last Spring I decided to experiment with the “potato in a barrel” growing method. I had read that one could put a handful of seed potatoes at the bottom of a barrel in a few inches of dirt, then add soil (or even sawdust or hay) to the barrel as the plants were growing. This would force the poor potato bush to put down more and more tubers as it kept trying to rise above the dirt. One hundred pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet was the claim.
Since I live in the city and have just a tiny, communal strip of land behind my apartment building, this idea of vertical planting was extremely appealing. Of course I thought I could improve on it.
Although all the seed companies say to use only certified organic disease-free seed potatoes I didn’t want to spend double digit dollars for some mail-ordered package to be shipped half way across the country. Instead I walked to the local farmer’s market and picked up a dollar’s worth of beautiful fingerlings. No boring old Idaho potatoes for me, I wanted a hundred pounds of fancy, gourmet potatoes.
Rather than buy a barrel and drill drainage holes into it, I used some landscape fabric and sewed it into a large sac. This is actually a good idea if you have a sewing machine. It’s quick, easy, light, dirt cheap, and drains well. (Dirt, by the way, is not cheap). You can also roll up the sides, so the young seedling can get some sunlight.
I watched the plants grow and thrive, added dirt every day, hooked it up to a drip irrigation system, and, worst of all, bragged to my neighbors.
When the plants finally withered and died, it was time to knock over the sac and reap the rewards of my tender loving care. I headed to the garden with gloves, trowel, a huge pot for my bounty, and a camera to preserve my wonderful harvest for posterity. I started digging very carefully, crumbling any clump with my fingers so as not to damage the small tender fingerlings. Nothing. I dumped half the sac into the wheelbarrow and sifted through the dirt. Nothing! Reaching directly into the sac I felt something small and round, which turned out to be a pebble. Only at the very bottom of my sac did I find these six, tiny little potatoes — much smaller than my seed potatoes.
I changed my dinner plans in a hurry.
A little further research revealed that some early setting potato varieties, such as Yukon Gold, and, apparently, fingerlings, only set fruit once. They won’t work in a sac, a barrel, or any other type of vertical set-up.
After a single season in a community garden I now consider myself a farmer… in other words, I’m an optimist. I will try again. I will improve on the design (this time I will sew a little window in my sac so I can harvest from the bottom while the plant is still growing above). I will not be greedy, I’ll use a solid, thick skinned potato. I will probably still be cheap and use a handful of potatoes from the local farmer’s market. Rain or shine I will report back next year.