Why can’t the earth be softer?

I finished digging out the first of my two garden beds after a three hour push to get it done. I am getting really sick of digging, but I keep telling myself that I will always have the pride of knowing that I built the garden without having to fall back on a rototiller. Maybe the pride will be enough; who knows. The bright side is that my forearms have become rock solid. Move over Popeye!

I originally had planned to dig out a plot for my potatoes as well, but my lower vertebrae have been loudly voicing their opinion that maybe a third bed would be a bit much for this year. However, rather than give up on my beloved potatoes I have decided that rather than burying them in the ground, I will try to grow them up in the air.

I ran across an article a while ago about growing 100 lbs of potatoes in 4 square feet; it is basically a wooden version of growing potatoes in tires. You make a box out of the boards at the bottom and screw in four 4×4′s as supports. You then screw additional boards up higher as the potatoes grow taller. Potato plants are adaptable and the stalk can either produce potatoes or leaves depending on whether it is under the soil or not. So as the plants grow taller you keep adding soil and boards until you get up to three feet or so (hopefully). I really liked the idea, but rather than just screwing and unscrewing planks to 4×4′s, I wanted something that was a bit more refined and good-looking (I like the melding of form and function). Here is what I came up with:

This is the finished tower. Instead of pressure treated lumber I used cedar. It is more expensive, but also looks better and is naturally rot resistant. It is approximately two feet square by three feet high.

The base is made from 1×2′s to keep the structure off of the ground to improve drainage (to much water will make potatoes crack). A sheet of 1/4″ mesh hardware cloth sits on the base, and all of that is attached to a box made from 1×4′s (1×8′s would have been easier, but they cost over three times as much per board foot). The four vertical supports (each is a 1×3 and a 1×2 screwed together) are attached to the box by hinges so that they can drop down, as seen in the picture.

I made a sort of wooden hoop to hold the supports together at the top. I was running out of lumber and the cedar that I had left was pretty poor quality (the local Home Depot had been picked pretty clean) so while the hoop is functional, I will probably make a better one when I have a few bucks to spend on better wood.

Here you can see the interior of the tower once the boards (more 1×4′s) are put in. They just stack in, log cabin style, and can be added one row at a time as the potatoes grow (I really was wishing that I had a miter saw by the end; with just a circular saw I had to clamp on a board to use as a guide for each cut).

I had ordered my potatoes before I made the decision to do this (Irish Cobbler; they were out of Kennebecs) and I am hoping that they will work in this tower. The thing is, this works best with potatoes having a longer growing season as short season potatoes only set tubers once. Irish Cobblers have a longer growing period so I am optimistic, but it will be what it will be. Next year I will try Red Pontiac which are highly recommended for this type of enterprise.

I also bought a couple of fabric “potato bags” for growing above ground as well. They are not nearly as large as the tower, but I figure I would give them a shot as well and see how they perform.

I am setting up a composter this year as well, so the long-term plan will be to use the fresh compost in layers with grass clipping and leaf litter (making even more compost as the potatoes grow). To keep the soil from sifting through the hardware cloth I will put a heavy layer of straw or long grass before adding compost. When the season is done I can claim the potatoes and spread the used compost in the rest of the garden for next year. Potatoes are not heavy feeders so they should leave plenty of nutrients in the compost, and because I will always be using fresh compost in the tower there is no chance of carrying potato diseases over from previous years.

I will let everyone know how the tower is working as the season progresses. It has worked for other people, but I am not setting my hopes on getting 100 lbs of potatoes. Like anything it will probably take some tweaking to make it work right, but I will get it figured out.

Now I just have one more bed to dig. Sigh…