Mud Songs used to be a gardening blog until beekeeping took over. Most of the old gardening posts that weren’t of much interest to the general public have been deleted. The more popular ones about potato towers are archived on this page in chronological order. Comments are disabled. Follow-up posts documenting our attempts to grow potatoes in potato towers might be added to this page eventually — but only if the potato towers work.
Potato towers sound wonderful, but in our experience, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Potato towers require more soil and more work than most people realize, and the final yields more often than not are nowhere close the “100 pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet” as claimed in the original Seattle Time article featuring Greg Lutovsky. Most gardeners will be lucky to get 25 pounds, if that.
If we ever have success with our potato tower — or if we can find indisputable proof that potato towers can actually work — we’ll post the evidence here. In the meantime, we recommend that most gardeners forget about it.
• How to Build a Potato Tower (May 12th, 2010)
• Potato Tower Failure (Part 1) (February 10th, 2010)
• Potato Tower Failure (Part 2) (February 28th, 2010)
• How a Potato Tower Might Work (March 1st, 2010)
• Introducing Potato Mini-Towers (June 7th, 2010)
• Are Potato Towers Worth It? (December 3rd, 2010)
• Mini Potato Tower Success (October 24th, 2011)
How to Build a Potato Tower
May 12th, 2010.
The concept is simple and very cool: plant the potatoes in a small raised bed. As the plants grow, keep adding soil, slowly burying the plants and forcing them to grow up even higher.
Meanwhile, everything that gets buried develops roots. Just keep adding boards around the raised bed until it’s 4 feet high. All the roots beneath the 4 feet of soil turn into potatoes.
The potatoes are harvested by removing the lower planks of the tower first and working your way up.
The construction of the tower was easy: 4 square poles screwed together by 4 planks. The corner pegs or poles are about 5 feet tall. The original blueprint for the tower calls for 2-inch thick lumber covering a 4 x 4 area, but we passed on that and made due with 1-inch planks and a 3 x 3 area. We bought two 6-foot long planks (untreated, cheap knotty pine, $5.50 each), 1-inch thick, 10 inches high, and cut them into 3-foot lengths. I found four 5-foot long poles in my shed, 2 inches by 3 inches. We screwed the four sides together around the poles — nothing to it. Done. (Note: I would hate to do this without a powered screwdriver, or in our case, a drill jury-rigged with a screwdriver bit.) We placed the tower on the ground over some cardboard boxes. The boxes will eventually rot, but the tower has to be rebuilt every year, removing the soil each time, so we’ll just replace the cardboard every year. The total cost of all the materials if you had to buy them from scratch is about $25 or $30. But making due with what we already had on hand: $11.
Potato Tower Failure (Part 1)
February 10th, 2010.
The big potato tower experiment was not a success. The original article in the Seattle Times makes it seem easier than it is. I haven’t heard of too many success stories so far.
We planted our potatoes around May 17th. We did our first test harvest 3 months later on August 17th. It looked like this:
Not too shabby. So we left it alone and let the potatoes grow until the first week of October when we just couldn’t wait any longer. This was the moment of truth for the potato tower.
We got a nice large bucket of potatoes from the first level of the potato tower. We had high hopes for the second level. And…
Not a single potato above the first level. I didn’t take any photos, because what’s there to see besides a big pile of dirt?
Rob over at One Straw (who knows a lot more about growing veggies than we do right now) had a similar experience with his potato towers. He had high hopes just like us, and like us, instead of 100 pounds of potatoes per tower, he got about 3 pounds. (Yup, it was disappointing for us too.) He had some problems with heavy rain and grew a different variety than us, but at least he got some growth above the second level (we got zilch). Rob said:
- My strong suspicion… is that all the aggressive hilling perpetually knocks back the leaf growth and the plants never develop a lush canopy of sugar producing leaves to build the starch needed for a good harvest.
We didn’t have that problem. We kept hilling as the plants grew — that is, we kept burying the lower parts of the plants in soil as they grew up and up — and even though they looked pretty darn bedraggled afterwards, they’d bounced back into a rain forest of leaves within 24 hours. Our potato plants (a red variety I can’t remember the exact name of) had no difficulty growing through an extra few feet of soil and staying healthy the whole time.
The problem was that the roots didn’t grow out from the submerged branches. The original Seattle Times article quotes potato seed grower, Greg Lutovsky:
- A lot of people think you plant a potato and that the new ones grow below it, but that’s not so… Potatoes grow between the seed piece and the above-ground plant.
That didn’t happen with our plants at all. After we tore down the tower, all we had was a bunch of potato plants with really long submerged stocks. They looked exactly like the plant on the right (photo borrowed from Rob at One Straw who said: “Buried ‘Stem’ had ZERO roots developed after 3 months beneath the soil”). With the exception of the first level, nowhere between the seed piece and the above-ground plant were there any potatoes in our potato tower.
The potatoes we got from the first level were beautiful, though, the most flavourful potatoes I’ve ever had. Baking them on the BBQ in tinfoil with a bit of butter and pepper — we loved every minute of it. So the potatoes did their job, but the potato tower — which was supposed to fill up with potatoes — did nothing. We would have got just as many potatoes in a 3×3-foot raised garden bed.
So what did we do wrong? I’ll try to answer that question in the next post.
Potato Tower Failure (Part 2)
February 28th, 2010.
Photos of some of the potatoes we harvested from our potato tower can be viewed in our photo album, Potato Harvest 2009. The potatoes were excellent, but they didn’t grow above the first level of the potato tower. You can check out the original article in the Seattle Times while you’re at it.
Potato Tower Results — An End to the Hype? by Rob over at One Straw provides a more realistic account of what it’s like to grow potatoes in a potato tower. He had about as much success as we did. The problem for us was that the potatoes simply did not grow above the level they were planted. They grew well within the first 10 inches of soil, but no potatoes grew in the other 40 inches of soil above that. We were supposed to get about 100 pounds of potatoes, but I’d say we got more like 7 pounds, probably less. We put a lot of time, money and effort into those 7 pounds of potatoes.
So what went wrong? Why didn’t it work for us? Let’s take a look at what we did first:
Our potato tower was 3×3 feet square (we used this diagram as a rough blueprint). The bottom was lined with a cardboard barrier because we have lead in our soil. The first level of about 10 inches was filled with 100% composted soil. We planted 8 or 9 small seed potatoes (a red variety, maybe Yorkland Reds? — something like that) on May 17th. We saw the first sprouts on June 7th. By June 27th, the plants were looking great. We added a second level on July 4th, covering up the lower portions of the plants with a mixture of composted soil and peat from Traverse Gardens. (We bought several bags of this soil throughout the summer as the plants and the tower grew.) The plants looked half-dead every time we built up the soil around them, but would bounce back to life almost overnight. We saw our first blossoms on July 18th. We trimmed the stems on the 3rd level thinking maybe it would provide more room for roots to grow. On August 27th, 3 months after planting, we harvested a few potatoes from the first level and they looked great. Then we left things alone until the first week of October and did our final harvest. We got some beautiful big red potatoes out of the first level. And not a single potato on the 2nd, 3rd or 4th level (each level was about 10 inches high). The potato plants had long stems. We saw blossoms only once — in July for about a week. A couple times we watered the potatoes with water that may have had some tomato plant food in them, but that was minimal and only once or twice. The plants were watered regularly and were healthy all summer long. They grew through at least 40 inches of soil to the top of the tower. That’s all I can think of it. What did we do wrong?
These are my best guesses:
— We had the wrong variety of potatoes, a red variety (Yorklands — I still can’t remember the name). Rob over at One Straw says:
- Supposedly late varieties do better in towers — so look for Late, High Yielding varieties like Burbank Russet, Bintje, Romanze, Desiree, etc.
Rob uses words like “cultivar” when talking about potatoes. I don’t even know what that is, but he seems to know a lot more than I do, so I’ll take his word on it. Greg Lutovsky in the Seattle Times article recommends Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, Caribe, Red Pontiac and Red Lasoda (at least for the Western Washington area).
— Maybe we used the wrong kind of soil. There can’t be anything wrong with our first level of 100% composted soil, but the subsequent levels were a mixture of composted soil and peat, and there may be some mild fertilizer in the mix too (I’ll have to ask Ross Traverse specifically what he puts in his all-in-one soil). Perhaps we should have added straw with more raw, loose compost. I’m not sure. I thought Ross’s soil was pretty much good for everything. Maybe not.
— We may have over-planted. 9 small potato seeds in a 3 x 3 bed. Is that too crowded? The plants certainly seemed to grow vigorously. They were healthy plants, that’s for sure. But maybe there were too many of them. Maybe there wasn’t enough room for roots to grow out from the buried stems. I don’t know (but I doubt it).
— Did we harvest too early? I doubt that too. We could have waited a few more weeks, but I can’t see that short bit of time making much difference.
— Did our initial test harvest from the first level damage the root system? I don’t know. Even if it did, it shouldn’t have made any difference to what grew above the first level.
So in the end, I don’t really know why the potato tower didn’t yield a bountiful harvest of potatoes. I think the whole thing might be a bunch of hype. I’d like to see proof from Greg Lutovsky, who may be the originator of the potato tower idea, that it actually works.
The folks over at LandShare Colorado did exactly what we did. They built a 3×3 potato tower and planted red potatoes. Everything looked great until harvest time. The potatoes on their first level were plentiful and delicious just like ours, but that was pretty much it. I have yet to find evidence that potato towers work.
Rob at One Straw says the Carola and Purple Viking varieties may do well with the potato tower method of growing — that is, roots and subsequently potatoes might grow out of all the buried portions of the plant as it grows up — but I’ll wait to see how well it turns out for him in 2010 before I take another crack at it. I would love to see it work, but I’m just not sold on it yet.
How a Potato Tower Might Work
March 1st, 2010.
I found what might be a potato tower success story. (It might also be a potato box or potato bin success story. As far as I know, I came up with the term potato tower, but it’s the kind of phrase anyone could come up with, so I’m probably not the first. Most people seem to call them potato bins. That’s not nearly as cool as potato tower, though, is it? I didn’t think so.) Anyhow, Jaki over at Farming At Country Dreams [a site which no longer exists] managed to grow about 25 pounds of Yukon Golds in her potato tower. That’s not great, but it’s the best harvest from a potato tower I’ve found evidence for so far.
I would have liked to have seen photos of the potatoes in the tower as she was harvesting them so I could actually see how high they grew, and links to her online references would have been helpful too, but otherwise Jaki’s post is very detailed, showing how the whole project went every step of the way, from building the tower to harvesting the potatoes.
I found something in Jaki’s post that might explain why potatoes didn’t develop above the first level of my potato tower. Everybody pay attention now because this might be the magic trick that makes the potato tower work. Jaki got some of her info from the Gardening with Ciscoe web site. Let’s hope it’s correct. She says:
- [You] definitely cover all but the very top leaves to avoid letting sun get to the stalks and lower leaves. Ciscoe says at 4 inches cover all but the top inch. The concern is apparently if the stem and leaves get too much sun they don’t produce potatoes. That would be horrible to do all that work and get nothing.
Yeah, tell me about it.
If her information is correct, then it’s no wonder I didn’t get potatoes above the first level. I let my potato plants grow into a jungle before I piled more soil up around them — they were well over 12 inches by the time I first added more soil. Check it out:
Look at those stalks. They got plenty of sunlight while they were growing. If exposure to sunlight makes the stalks of the potato plants too stiff to sprout roots under new soil, then I spent 4 months last summer nurturing potato plants with the world’s longest stalks. Neither John Saul or Greg Lutovsky say anything about this in the original article on potato towers in the Seattle Times. Let’s get ‘em!
The relevant info comes from Ciscoe Morris who provides instructions on growing potatoes in a garbage bucket, which is smaller than a potato tower, but the process is similar. During planting, he recommends using the slow-release fertilizer Osmocote 14-14-14 that will stay active for the first couple months of growth. He suggests covering the plants with new soil as soon as they grow 4 inches. He says, “Every time the vines grow another 4 inches, keep covering all but the top inch.” So in a potato tower, you would have to carefully add the new soil by hand, building up the tower until it reaches the desired height (we capped ours off at about 40 inches because the plants weren’t growing much after that). Then just wait for harvesting time and see what happens.
Jaki at [the now defunct] Country Dreams, who managed to get 25 pounds of spuds from her tower remember, thinks she may have gotten more if she hadn’t let the plants grow out of control in the higher levels of her tower:
- In hindsight I think I got lazy in hilling my potato plants as they were growing. Sometimes I would let them get to be 8 or so inches tall and jungle-like before dumping more dirt in and covering the stems. I now know that causes the plant to become a stem rather than a root, stopping growth. As it is, I didn’t get much production in the top part of the bin. I think that’s the reason. Remember, constant vigilance!
Rob at One Straw voiced concerns over this hilling process, though. Constantly burying everything but the top inch of the plant may stunt the growth so that the potato plant doesn’t develop a healthy canopy large enough to produce the sugars needed for big potatoes. But who knows, maybe the plants do well by the time they have a chance to rest at the top of the tower.
I’m almost tempted to try it again in 2010.
Introducing Potato Mini-Towers
June 7th, 2010.
We decided this year not to waste our time and good organic soil on a potato tower again, but we did build two 3 x 3 raised beds for our potatoes, and we might build them a couple feet high, just enough to qualify as potato mini-towers. We’ll follow the same technique of covering the plants with soil as they grow up, but this time — and we believe this is crucial — we won’t let the stalks get hard before we cover them.
If the stalks grow and get hardened by the sun, then you can forget about them turning into roots and tubers when they’re covered with soil. They have to be soft and rooty to transform into roots that will eventually produce the glorious bounty of potato tower spuds (theoretically). So we plan to bury the stalks while they’re still soft, covering all but an inch or two of the plants until they’ve reached the top of the mini-towers. That shouldn’t be too hard on them because they’re only going up a couple feet and then they can relax (a benefit of growing in a mini-tower).
Late-season varieties are more ideal because unlike short-season spuds, they continue to set tubers throughout the season — essential to growing potatoes in any kind tower. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any late-season varieties around town, so we planted a mid-season blue potato on June 5th called Blue Pride in one mini-tower. For the second tower, we ordered a mid-to-late season red potato from Veseys called Chieftan Organic and planted it on June 8th.
We might also plant in multiple layers. That is, we’ll plant more seed potatoes about half-way up the mini-tower as the first layer of plants grow up. That way, if the plants from the first layer don’t produce anything higher up (we would give up on the tower concept completely then), then at least the plants on the top layer would produce something and the extra soil would not have been wasted.
We also read that adding a slow-release fertilizer can help the potatoes along. But we’ve also been told not to add much fertilizer — some people say don’t add any. We compromised and added a light sprinkle of a generic 10-10-10 fertilizer and we’re hoping it’s not too much or too little. The only fertilizer we added last year was a basic tomato food that we mixed in with the watering once in a while, and the potatoes were excellent.
So we’re modifying our methods from last year and hoping it’ll pay off (it better). If the yield is impressive, then we might get back on the horse and build a full potato tower next year.
We’ll post photos of the mini-towers after they’ve begun to sprout.
Are Potato Towers Worth It?
December 3rd, 2010.
Potato towers aren’t worth it. I’ve experimented with growing potatoes in towers for two years. The results during the first year (2009) were zilch. The potatoes did not grow higher through the soil and were no more plentiful than regular potatoes. The second year (2010), I modified my cultivation methods and had better success with one of the towers and unimpressive results with the other. So I can’t say for certain that potato towers don’t work, but after two years of trying to make them work, it hasn’t been worth the effort.
A potato tower (a.k.a. potato bin or potato box) supposedly allows people to grow a large amount of potatoes in an area no larger than 4 square feet. The seed potatoes are planted in a square frame. As the potato plants grow, they’re covered with soil so only an inch or two of the plants are ever exposed (this is called hilling). Another square frame is built on top of the first square frame as the hilling process continues. The plants keep growing and the frames are built up around them until they reach about three or four feet in height.
According to Greg Lutovsky, up to 100 pounds of potatoes can be grown using this method. But I’d say the average backyard gardener would be lucky if they got even a third of that. I got about 6 pounds my first year. I realized afterwards that my hilling methods were flawed and the variety of potato I planted wasn’t the best. So for year two, I was careful to do it right. Once the plants began to grow — and they grew fast — they required daily attention until they reached the top of the tower, and I used a different variety potato. Here’s how it happened…
The first change I made for year two of the potato towers was to reduce the height down to 20 inches. That way, if it didn’t work, it was only 20 inches of wasted soil instead of three or four feet (it takes a lot soil to fill the towers). Then I made sure to plant mid-to-late season varieties because they continue to set tubers throughout the season — essential to growing potatoes in any kind tower. Plenty of well-drained watering and loose organic soil and a bit of 10-10-10 fertilizer also helps (never put lime in soil meant for potatoes), but the most important part is hilling the plants every day once they start growing. The key is to cover the stalks while they’re still soft. If the stalks have a chance to get hardened by the sun, they won’t transform into roots and the extra potatoes won’t develop. So if you plan to go away for a week while the plants are still growing, it’s game over.
Mini Potato Tower #1: The Blue Pride Potatoes
Blue Pride, purchased locally from Gaze Seeds, is a mid-season potato developed for Newfoundland’s climate. We didn’t get them planted until June 5th, but they sprouted two weeks later and grew fast and grew well. I had to hill them carefully every day until about July 11th. Then I just watered them and gave them fertilizer for the rest of the summer. I harvested a few large potatoes in August. They were scabbier than our preferred red potatoes (which have thin smooth skins), but we ate them just like the reds, skins and all. A bit dry but tasty enough. We harvested many of them well above the first level of the mini-tower. Is that proof the potato tower method can work? I’m not sure.
The final yield was 8kg of potatoes (about 17 pounds). That’s not great, though it’s not entirely pathetic. If the tower was 40 inches high instead of 20, would we have doubled our yield? If I went with a full sized tower, the daily hilling process would have lasted longer (at least a month) and gotten tedious fast, and it requires a large amount of soil. It is a lot of work to get it right. How many extra potatoes did the tower method provide? There were some large potatoes, that’s for sure, but I’m still not convinced it was worth the effort. 8kg is okay, but it’s certainly not a bumper crop even if it was from a mini-tower.
Mini Potato Tower #2: The Organic Chieftain Potatoes
The organic Chieftain Potatoes, a mid-season potato ordered from Veseys, were not worth the effort. They were planted the same time as the Blue Prides, but took much longer to sprout and were slow to grow. None of the potatoes grew above the first level of the mini tower. The final yield probably wasn’t even 5 pounds (I didn’t bother weighing them).
The poor yield may be the fault of the particular seed potato we got from Veseys (our next door neighbour had poor results with his Veseys potatoes too), but other factors may have come into to play. First, some of the soil on the first level of the mini tower had lime in it, which doesn’t encourage growth in potato plants. Secondly, I was gone away for a full week while the plants grew vigorously. When I came back, the stalks were long and had been exposed to the sun for several days. So those two factors together may have contributed to the low yield. But I can’t say with any certainty, because there wasn’t much lime in the soil and the stalks were eventually buried and continued to grow at least another foot or so before I stopped hilling them. So who knows? All I know is the potato tower method didn’t work with the organic Chieftain potatoes at all.
It hasn’t been worth the effort, but I’m not going to give up on the potato tower completely. The plan for next year is to: 1) Plant some locally bred potatoes that are proven to grow well in our climate. 2) Choose a late-season potato (not an early or mid-season potato) so the tubers form for the entire summer. 3) Hill the plants every single day, covering up the entire plant except for an inch or two until it reaches the top of the tower. 4) Avoid using soil with lime. I also plan to use only one mini potato tower and I might find something to add to the soil so it’s stays looser near the bottom of the tower.
I’m hoping that by choosing the best late-season local potato and carefully hilling the plants as they grow, the potato tower method might actually produce a bumper crop for 2011. I would tell most people to avoid it. There have got to be better methods than this for growing potatoes in a small area. But I’ll give it one more try, because, well, I don’t have the space in my small backyard to plant the potatoes any place else.
Or I might just give it all up. I’ll see what I feel like doing next May.
Mini Potato Tower Success
October 24th, 2011.
Our third attempt at growing potatoes in a potato tower has been the most successful so far. We harvested approximately 15kg (33 pounds) from a mini potato tower that is 91cm (36 inches) square and 48cm (19 inches) high. 15kg is nearly double last year’s yield. If the tower was twice as high, would we get twice as many potatoes? I have my doubts, but I don’t rule it out as a possibility. Many of the potatoes we harvested from our mini tower this year grew near the top of the tower just below the surface of the soil (and most of them were large potatoes), which seems to indicate that the potato tower hilling process actually works.
The stocks of the potato plants have to be carefully buried in soil while they’re still young and soft and can transform into roots. The plants grow so fast once they break through the soil that they require attention at least every two days for up to a month. I went out there just about every day and covered the plants with soil until they reached the top of the tower. We used 100% composted soil with no lime. We planted locally adapted Norland red seed potatoes. Then we watered the plants thoroughly and gave them some basic garden fertilizer every two or three weeks. Considering that our mini potato tower takes up about 3 square feet of space in our tiny backyard, 33 pounds of potatoes doesn’t seem too bad.
We began by planting 5 locally grown Norland seed potatoes around the first week of June. Here they are on June 25th:
And with a honey bee:
The plants reached the top of the tower by July 23rd:
Then we simply watered them and gave them some fertilizer every few weeks until they began to wilt sometime in the fall. It was a jungle of potato plants. But by October 22nd, they looked like this:
We slowly moved the soil to another raised bed. Removing the soil is the best way to harvest the potatoes. We were immediately surprised by how many large potatoes we found growing just below the surface of the soil:
We even found a few large blue potatoes that grew from a few small spuds we missed from last year:
Here’s all the potatoes spread out on the ground:
The final bucket of potatoes came in at about 15kg.
Conclusion: Finally the potato tower concept works — at least the mini version of it does. We’ll try it again next year, but we plan to stick with the mini tower design. Constantly hilling the plants any higher than 19 inches would require a supply of diligence that we don’t have. That was the key: making sure the stocks of the plants were buried while they were still soft and could transform into roots. 100% composted soil probably doesn’t hurt either.
Read the previous post on this page for more details.
So far for 2012…
UPDATE: Damn, I wrote a detailed update to this post but WordPress went wacky during the upload and lost all my wonderful words. I’ll write it up again when I have the time. Meanwhile, imported mid-season Red Chieftains don’t work. Local mid-season Red Norlands work better. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, doesn’t make sense.