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Potato Towers and Open Source Innovation

potato-tower-rung-4

Last fall, I built some wire mesh towers to house expand my home’s composting system.

I had lots of leaves to dispose of and it was easy to build them (<5 minutes a tower from some recycled wire fencing).  It was so easy, in fact, that I built them wherever the leaves were collected.

So far, they’ve worked well.  The large towers have stayed alive and cooking throughout the New England winter.  As they cooked down, I’ve added new kitchen compost and covered it with the “brown/carbon” shredded leaves I had stored in smaller towers around the property.

I like the way these towers conserve space and are easy to manipulate/move.  So, now I’m now trying to figure out what else I can do wire mesh towers during the gardening season coming up.

One of the ideas I’ve been researching is how to build potato towers.  This research effort has proven to be an interesting example of resilient innovation in actin.  Read on to find out why.

The traditional approach growing potatoes is to hill them.  Essentially, you use a hoe to cover up the potato sprouts (shaws) as they emerge to get more growth out of them.  Here’s an example from a growing resilient community in Seattle (love the way this parking strip has been turned from scrub grass and into productive raised garden).

Potato Hills

In contrast to the above, a potato tower grows the potato vertically, above ground.   This method has the potential to yield more than an “in ground” method while using less space and reducing the labor required to dig them up.  Here’s what a potato tower (via OJSkinner), using wire mesh would look like:

Potato Tower Exmaple

 

IN this method, the sprouting seed potatoes would be placed at the bottom of the tower.  As they sprout vertically, you would add soil to cover it (with straw on the exterior wall to hold it in).  Seems like a straight forward innovation.

However, as with many early innovations, the early experiments with potato towers haven’t proven it to be effective.  Yields have been dismal.  For example, Rob built impressive towers like the one below but got a very small yield on the plants that actually did make it.

potato-tower-rung-4

Is there a way to fix this? I suspect there is.

Some innovative work by a small entrepreneur in the UK (Henley Potato Tower) has found that the key to towering potatoes is a combination of the following:

  1. A few high quality seed potatoes and good soil (don’t scrimp).  Lots to the efforts that fail do this.
  2. Very rapid covering.  Cover the shoot before it leafs out and becomes a shaw (the tower should make this easier to do).  I suspect that all you will need is two feet of covering soil at most.  The idea is that once it coverts to leaf, it doesn’t fully convert back, sapping the plant of energy.
  3. Turn a root from each seed potato into a “shaw” (leafy shoot) as soon as possible.  Essentially, guide the root to an opening on the side of the container and let it grow outwards.  IF you don’t do this, the plant will not get enough energy to yield.

Without getting too technical, a potato tower that is working correctly will be covered in green, from base to top.   If you only see green at the top, you’re going to get a poor harvest.  I suspect that explains what happened to Rob’s harvest.  His tower didn’t allow roots to grow outwards, fueling the potatoes with the energy they need to become bountiful.

Let’s try this out this spring.

I’ll let you know how the experiment at the “resilient Robb house” as the year progresses.  We’re getting better and better at this.  The key is to keep digging and continue to innovate.

Resiliently Yours,

 

JOHN ROBB

PS:  The amazing thing about resilience is that there’s still an incredible amount of opportunity for original innovation and amateur science.  So, if you are creative and want to move the future of humanity forward (like Rob above), dive in and share what you find.   The more people that join in, the faster a transition to a resilient world will happen.

PPS:  Steve M, the gracious Strategies member that contributed the solar case study for the December 2012 RS report, just told me that the hardware prices for DIY solar equipment are even lower than they were last fall.  We’re on the positive side of history folks.  Local superempowerment is getting easier by the day….

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  • I’ve also read that instead of soil, you can place your compost on top of the potatoes and get two jobs accomplished in one.

    • Make sure that it’s mostly brown-type compost — too much nitrogen will make the fruit of any member of the Solanum family poisonous.

  • To stack 3 functions in one, you could also splice tomato, eggplant, etc. (Solanum) to the base potato stems to grow fruit above ground. I’ve heard the potatoes will grow normally, but the spliced plants will have smaller fruits.

    • John Robb

      Got a primer on that? Thanks Dale. JR

  • We did potato towers for two seasons and found them to bit heavy on the hype. When compared to trenches, they simply can’t stack up, even with excellent seed and soil.

    I went with salvaged food-grade buckets from local delis for the experiment (and a random trash can) rather than the more popular (and pretty) wood towers since not many folks actually *doing* the towers were getting good results. I found lots of articles citing the wonders of potato towers written by journalists, but it was clear none of them had actually planted these and watched over them for a season until harvest time. On the other hand, there are many more blog entries by folks actually doing the planting/harvesting with buckets.

    From a time perspective, towers also require more time to tend to them; time I would rather be spending on another resiliency-building project.

    Photos, pounds, and details here: http://optoutenmasse.com/?s=potato+towers.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Scott. I seen lots of bucket success too, which still allows you to go vertical. JR

  • dan

    When making the towers take into consideration the wind. I did this a couple different ways in KS and the winds and lack of moisture/rain did them in. Not much of a harvest even with watering them quite often.
    I would do this again with sides of weed fabric and then see if that would keep the wind out.
    I just went out and got 27 acres and found that now the little buggers will grow all over! hahaha
    be well;peace…dan

    • John Robb

      Dan,

      Definitely, if you have the land (most don’t), use it.

      JR

  • You should try the way most people have been doing this vertical potato thing for years!

    Use tires, like this:
    http://www.kiddiegardens.com/growing_potatoes_in_tires.html

    Potatoes are root veg so likely won’t like light penetrating the sides of the tower – they like to be in the dark!

  • Jeannie

    I just wanted to say thank-you for this site..I brainstorm with myself after reading it. I see arbors on my way to work in some of the yards and pole beans would just love that. In our garden we put the gourds on the fence which freed up a lot of space and made for easy picking and this year the late lettuce may go in next to the gourd wall for shade when the lettuce is little. Up until last year my entire former lawn was veggies . My friend and I put a massive garden on her farm so my neighbors who have no good spots planted tomatoes in my yard which kept me in delicious tomato sandwiches . Thanks again for this site. Jack Robb( I’m a big fan of Jack!) told me about it . I have very high hopes for the future.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Jeannie. JR

  • Ray

    Potato towers that work.

    Stack up 4 or 5 old tires. Fill with dirt. Soak the soil thoroughly.
    May need to add more dirt after watering – depends on your soil. Could mix in compost if desired.
    Plant 5 or 6 sprouts just around the rim of the top tire.
    You can cluster them closer than if you were planting in hills because they grow down through the looser soil and there’s room and nutrition enough for all.
    You can water them fairly heavily and the excess water will either drain out the bottom (if over-watered) or gather inside the tires, from whence it keeps the soil moist.
    Being black rubber and fairly bulky the tires absorb heat which promotes growth.
    Come harvest time, just kick over the tires and rummage around. No potatoes damaged by pitchforks or shovels. :-)

    Advantages: 5 or 6 plants in a 3′x3′ space, puts old tires to good use, easy harvesting.

    Been doing this for 60 years.

    • John Robb

      Thanks Ray. JR

  • Carolyn Q

    Large family with big appetite and small budget

  • Kay Bradley

    I’ve seen the old tire suggestion many places – but I’m concerned about the toxins leeching from the tires in the food I eat. Am I just being paranoid?

    • John Robb

      There’s better ways to grow potatoes. JR

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