The Potato Harvest (and how nothing went as planned)

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This week, we realized it was time to harvest our potato bin. It was looking haggard and sad and dying. Fun fact: potato plants wither and die when they’re ready for harvest. And no amount of rain or sun or vibes of happiness will bring them back.

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Elba potato plants dying off. They look so sad. Also, the obligatory sleeping dog in the background.

Before I planted these beauties, I made sure to do my research. I knew potatoes could grow easily in the ground and required little maintenance, but could they grow in containers?

Turns out they can! But not for me, even though I come from Irish heritage and I thought surely I can grow a few potatoes.

But, no. My harvest was an utter failure. I ended up with no Elbas at all, and a small basket of Norland reds.

And that’s okay! Because honestly, this was my first year growing them and I quickly learned I had royally messed up. On top of that, Mother Nature decided this was a great year to dump heavy rain on my region for six weeks straight. A lot of my transplants died in the spring – I had to replant my roma tomatoes four times before I finally got them to succeed. I(t) was a hot mess.

What Happened

So, my potatoes died, and not in the way they should. Here’s a quick list of the mistakes I made this season:

  1. The container was just all kinds of wrong.Potatoes need to be planted deep to prevent greening from sunlight. Green potatoes are created when UV rays hit the tubers during growth. They are toxic and should never be eaten.Unfortunately, my brain went into “the deeper the better!” mode, and I decided on a huge 32-gallon recycling bin for my container. That was strike one. There was just far too much soil which ended up incredibly compacted and didn’t leave enough room for growth. Lesson learned: size does actually matter.
  2. Too much rain.Well, I couldn’t really control this one. No one can control nature’s whims, especially a farmer. Our spring was six straight weeks of rain, followed by intense humidity. Potato and tomato plants (did you know they’re related?) are  both susceptible to blight – early blight hits in the spring, especially when it’s particularly wet and humid. I’m sure you can guess what happened. My husband was making Irish famine jokes for weeks.
  3. I didn’t set up my soil correctly prior to planting.I ended up having to add much more soil than I thought I needed and because I didn’t have the funds to buy what I really needed, I ended up with half of the container filled with the good stuff, and the other half filled with top soil. Now, potatoes are pretty hardy plants and they can grow in pretty terrible soil, but the amount in the container plus the poor mixture led to a failure to fertilize, since I couldn’t reach the roots properly.
  4. Good drainage that turned into poor drainage.Turns out six straight weeks of rain leaves the ground incredibly saturated and will turn even the smallest of back yards into a pile of mud. So, even though my husband stilted the bins on blocks and drilled extra drainage holes into the lower edges of the bin, those pesky buckets eventually sunk back to ground level and were too heavy to move due to the immense amount of soil in them (seriously, I have so much motherfudgin’ leftover soil right now it’s ridiculous).Eventually, the bad drainage rotted my seed potatoes and ultimately, I lost nearly everything.

I say nearly because I somehow managed to still grow a few early-season Norland reds. I harvested those in early July and promptly fried them up for a little family lunch.

Total yield from 20 potato plants: about 20 small red potatoes. No bueno.

Looking Forward

This season was a huge learning experience for me. I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong, but next season’s attempt will be another building block into my potato crop knowledge. Luckily, the winter always provides ample opportunity for farmers and homesteaders to learn and improve on their craft.

Next year, we’re planning to cut the recycling containers in half so the plants don’t have to grow as high to reach the sun. Shorter green growth mean less energy has to go up, and the plant can instead focus on creating the optimal tuber. We’ll also plant fewer seed potatoes per container – this year we planted ten per recycling bin based on recommendations I gathered through various sources.  Next year, we’ll plant six to eight per container. We’ll also plant the seed potatoes in a higher soil base – this year we planted in four inches, but next I’m thinking more like six or eight.

Drainage will also be a big factor for us in 2019. I’m sure my husband won’t mind having another excuse to break out the tools and build me a platform.

We have a lot to improve on, but hopefully next year’s harvest report will be a bit more successful. Only time will tell.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. As your potato plant grows, gently place chopped straw around the plant rather than always using soil. It is way easier on the somewhat fragile stems than soil. The straw also holds in moisture without becoming too heavy. It will also keep you weed free and then eventually turn into soil.

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