Last year we planted potatoes for the first time and achieved a reasonable level of success for a freshman effort, though our part of Colorado isn’t at all suited for potato growing. To our south and east, however, you’ll find the San Luis Valley: the second-largest fresh potato-growing region in the country and justifiably famous for the crop. Their loose, sandy soils are much better for potatoes than our heavy, rocky clay.
Last season’s potato towers.
But like any stubborn farmer, we love being told what we can’t grow, so that we can try it anyway. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be planting potatoes in the ground and so opted for potato towers: layers of soil, compost, newspaper and straw in a wire cage, with seed potatoes nestled gently in between. We planted about one and a half pounds of seed potatoes in each of three potato towers, and yielded about twenty pounds of potatoes in total – not bad, considering the minimal growing space and effort required, but not the thirty-plus pounds we were hoping for. And some of the potatoes were really tiny, like the size of marbles. Not very practical.
Seed potatoes drying before planting.
Here’s the kicker, though: the potatoes we grew were the most delicious potatoes that have ever been grown anywhere in the world since time began. That’s a true statement. We tend to think of potatoes as a supporting player – on the sidelines, but without much punch or sparkle. They’re comforting, cheap, kind of bland, always available; they’re just…there. They’re never the star. And when it comes to the differences between shipped-in produce and homegrown, tomatoes are always heralded as the only reason to garden. But we learned last year that there is a world of difference in flavor between inexpensive plastic bags of supermarket commodity potatoes and the ones we grew – which means that we’re motivated to try again this year, and we hope to grow far more potatoes.
Can we grow potatoes in here?
These old wooden fruit crates are a common sight in the area, as our region is the center of Colorado’s stone-fruit industry. New food-handling regulations required commercial orchards to move to plastic bins that can be easily sanitized, so the wooden crates are now obsolete. There are still lots around, though, and we happen to have two on our farm, so we thought we might repurpose them as experimental potato beds. If this experiment is successful, we’ll definitely collect more abandoned crates for future seasons.
As with the potato towers, we layered these crates with newspaper, compost, straw and a small amount of sifted soil. We need a nutrient-rich yet light growing medium, and the open base of the crates allows moisture to drain away so the potatoes aren’t waterlogged.
Sadly that soil has already been sifted at least twice.
There is one clear downside to growing in aboveground crates or towers: we live in a distinctly hot, dry and windy area. This means that we have to be absolutely on top of the irrigation, because it’s easy for these structures to dry out. Potato roots also like to be cool, and since it seems we’re already well into summer here that might be a bit of a challenge. It would of course be ideal to grow potatoes in lovely, loose, sandy soil in the ground, but that simply isn’t an option for us right now – so we’ll try to make the best of our towers and crates. Our yield might be lower, but it’s better to have some homegrown potatoes than no potatoes at all, and besides regular watering, growing potatoes really doesn’t take much effort.
This season’s larger potato towers.
In addition to the fruit crates we’re growing in potato towers too, though our wire cages are about twice as large as last year’s. As the sprouts appear on the surface we’ll continue to bury the plant material, in an attempt to convince the potato that it’s actually growing underground. We’ve also planted the seed potatoes in only one layer this year, rather than the multiple layers we tried last year, in an attempt to improve the yield. We want the potato plants to spread out more and not feel quite so crowded. It’s social distancing for potatoes.
We’ve planted a total of about fifteen pounds of seed potatoes in the two crates and two towers, and the potatoes planted in the crates in early April have sprouted! Stay tuned, friends, for the results of this year’s potato harvest. Exciting things are always happening at Quiet Farm.