One of the concepts I discovered on Pinterest last year was to plant potatoes within a cage to which you add straw after the potatoes are simply laid on the ground within a wire cage and mulched with straw.
Normally potatoes are planted within a trench; you cover with dirt and as the vine grows you rake more soil onto the plant. In my case, this is not too efficient because it prevents me from being able to plant anthing else beside the rows because the dirt is just laying there doing nothing, waiting to be used to more deeply bury the growing vines. After the potato vines flower they turn yellow and die back; you then dig up the potatoes, let them sit in the sun for a day or so while the skin hardens so they can be stored away in a cool, dry location. The problem is that while digging the potatoes, it's impossible to avoid stabbing some of those potatoes because you never know exactly how deep they are, or how far away the spuds have grown. It's also pretty easy to miss some of the taters and leave them in the ground by accident.
I decided to risk it all and plant all my potatoes within cages this year. The various methods are quite simple, and I, of course, chose what was easiest of all. Here's what I did:
- As is tradition here, I planted my potatoes on St. Patrick's day. It's ok if the weather is still cold, your potatoes should grow just fine with this planting date here in zone 7.
- I wanted round cages that would simply sit on the ground versus using tomato cages that are narrower at the bottom and thus limit the number of potato eyes that you can plant. I found a partial roll of 3' wire fencing, snipped them with wire cutters to make the diameter I wanted (about 18") and tucked and bent the cut wire ends to create a round cage.
- I placed the cages where I wanted them
- I sprinkled potting soil into the bottom of the cage, about 2" deep
- I set the potato eyes onto the top of the soil. (I've been marginally successful in the past when planting eyes from old potatoes I get from the grocery store, but I have greater success if I just buy seed potatoes in a package.). Be sure to keep the seed potatoes about 2" from the sides of the cage because if the potato is exposed to the sun then it is ruined!
- I planted 5 or six different varieties, as I usually do, to add diversity to my potato selection
- I covered the seed potatoes with 8" deep straw, packed relatively tightly within the cage to add stability. (Do not use hay, which is used for livestock feed and will produce more weed seeds. Use straw, which is what is used for bedding in barn stalls.)
- I watered well. Since the potatoes aren't buried in soil but are simply covered with straw, they'll need a bit more watering. 1" per week is usually sufficient.
Then I waited. And waited. And worried that I was going to miss my treasured crop of potatoes this year by betting the whole crop on this newfangled method. I was somewhat relieved to see some potato plants emerging within the raised beds, obviously growing from potatoes I missed last year during harvest. Well, at least I'd get SOME potatoes from those little volunteers!
And some 6 weeks or so later, I was finally rewarded with green sprouts sticking above the straw, as well as growing through the straw out the sides of the cages!
- As directed, I added more straw when the sprouting vines were protruding about 8" above the straw. I added enough to nearly cover the growing vines. I repeated the process as needed until the vines were protruding well above the top of the cages. By this time, the potatoes were blooming.
I did take a chance and put towers in 2 diferent locations. One group was placed within one of the raised beds. The other group was an after thought; I had used pallets to create a new compost bin outside of the barn where it would be convenient to throw the straw we use in the chicken coop. Then I looked out the kitchen window and found I was NOT happy looking at that compost bin! So I made up more cages, bought more seed potatoes and obscured the 2 visible sides with the cages on March 24. I didn't look up and realize that the tree they were sitting under was going to have leaves on it within a few weeks, meaning my potatoes would be trying to survive in a pretty shady spot. But here we are, in mid-June, and the tater vines are still exploding from the cages placed in both locations. The ones in the shade are not blooming yet, but I am pretty confident they're doing just fine!
When it comes time to harvest in a couple of weeks, I anticipate no damage to the potatoes. I'll simply lift the cages and the potatoes will fall out! I'll recycle the straw by using it to mulch other crops. The strawberries I planted down in the old pony pasture are just waiting for some more straw!