The Lazy Person’s Potato Garden

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Purple Potatoes

Purple Potatoes

Growing potatoes always sounded hard.  Dig a deep bed, “fluff up” the soil (especially painful with clay), then go back with the shovel for harvest.

I am a lazy gardener.   I started my gardening career at roughly the same time as my corporate career, so if it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t going to happen.  This spoiled me for life.

This is why, many years ago, I decided to grow potatoes in cages.  It requires (almost) no digging—to prep or to harvest—and as an added bonus, they are ready weeks before most local potatoes.  With membership in two CSAs, I am buried in food by fall but let me harvest something weeks earlier and I am so there.  It’s tough to be a fresh food junkie.

Growing potatoes in cages is easy and space efficient.  A little known fact about potatoes is that if you mound additional soil around the plants as they grow, they will continue to add spuds upwards in the new dirt.  By growing vertically in cages, you can get a nice crop in less space and it is easier to harvest.  Just remove the cage, loosen the soil, and pick out potatoes.

As a laziness bonus, I don’t buy seed potatoes.  By late April, the few remnants of last year’s harvest have sprouted and are starting to shrivel.  Anything moldy get tossed into the compost bin (which has been known to grow an occasional potato crop itself), but those that still look reasonable go into my cages as the foundation for the new crop.

We reuse the same cage for a number of years, and construction is simple.  My husband cuts a 7 1/2 ft length of wire mesh and folds the top over to shorten it without leaving sharp ends.  Then he circles the sides together and secures them with wire (or sometimes he just twists the cut ends together).   The final model is about 2 ft in diameter and about 2 feet tall.

Potato Cage Ties

Potato Cage Ties

Here is how the planting goes:

1.  Remove the sod (this is optional but makes for better anchoring of the cage) and set the cage about 2 inches into the soil.  Line the cage sides with newspaper to keep the soil inside (some people use straw, but then I’d need to go out and buy some—remember this is easy).

Basic Potato Cage

Basic Potato Cage

2.  Fill in a layer of compost or garden soil, then add sprouting potatoes.  If you are short on potatoes, you can cut them in pieces, leaving a couple eyes on each, but then you risk problems with rot.  If you decide to do this, let the cuts dry for a day before planting to reduce the risk.  (I always have plenty of sprouted potatoes or friends with same).

Cage with Potatoes

Cage with Potatoes

3.  Add another layer of compost and more potatoes, then top off.

Compost Bin

Compost Bin

4.  As the potatoes sprout, continue layering with more dirt for about a month as the plants get taller.  Then neglect them for awhile.

5.  The potatoes are ready to harvest when the plants begin to die back.   If some are dying off too slowly (a risk from planning miscellaneous varieties with different maturity times) and your patience is failing, you can snap off the late stems and the potatoes will begin to “ripen” underground.

Some experts recommend letting the potatoes rest in the soil for 2-3 weeks before harvesting, to let the skins toughen.  If you are trying to keep your potatoes over the winter this is probably a good idea.  If you plan to eat them quickly (and save your CSA potatoes for winter), the waiting time can be shortened.

6.  When you are ready, you can pull off the wire cage loosen up the soil and go on a treasure hunt!

I am excited to have my potatoes started.  Last year, we harvested in July and I can hardly wait!

32 Comments

  1. What a great idea! I’m curious to try growing my own potatoes sometime, but I doubt it will work in a window box. :)

    • Yes–I think you’d even have trouble with fingerling potatoes in a windowbox! Perhaps there will be a terrace in your future (though I might grow something tasty and ornamental then!)

  2. WHAT A GREAT Idea, Inger!!! I wasn’t thinking about growing any vegetables this year, although, the compost is “mighty ripe.” However, if I were, I would definitely try your way. I think I’ll pass this link to my daughter. She is doing a vegetable garden this year and she’s been so worried about losing her crops to the dogs. Square foot gardening is on her agenda but, she lives in Idaho and I bet she would love to pass this technique on to her friends.

    Thanks for sharing…

    P.S. Have you ever heard about growing bulbs in straw bales???

  3. Lol, I don’t think there is a National Bulb Month, yet…

  4. I’ve just come across this post of yours, and totaly believe in a bit of laziness every now and then in the garden. I’ve always meant to try a cage for growing them, but as with many things never got round to it! Mind you I’ve cut back on the volume of spuds to grow this year, we just don’t eat that many, but the cage would certainly help solve competing space probelms

  5. How do you water potatoes that are grown in this manner?

    • The rain takes care of most of the watering, though if we hit a particularly bad dry spell, we use a hose or sprinkler like for a regular garden. This year as warm as it has been, I started them before the outside water is even on and we’ve watered once or twice with a big bucket!

  6. Thanks for the information.I will give this a shot in dry ol’ Utah.

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  9. This is me allll over it! I can’t wait to try this when I get a house =)

  10. Being a lazy gardener, I am going to remember this, Inger. Thank you! P.S. We have some blue (purple?) potatoes in the basement gifted by a fellow gardener. Trying to decide what to do with them…

  11. Great idea…I always wanted to plant potatoes, but thought I didn’t have enough room in my garden! Can’t wait to give this a try!

  12. I cannot wait to try this. I thought I would need to build a wood bin but your method looks so very much easier, thank you!

    • We love doing this Angela. Many people like the fact that it saves space, but even with a good sized yard, I like the ease of planting and harvest. Your kids might have fun going on a potato hunt at the end of the season too! Hope you get a chance to try it.

  13. Good idea. I have a surplus of cardboard which I dump. Am going to try stealing the top and bottom flaps to the side of the boxes and use them to grow the potatoes in. Stephen in Queensland Australia

  14. This article is so helpful. I am wondering what you would recommend if there was no ‘safe’ soil to place the cage on top of. We have just moved to a very old historic home. I know that it is very possible that there is lead in the soil and as the lot is very small, its not an option to move far from the dwelling. What would you propose to use as a “bottom” for the cages if digging into the dirt is not an option? We are actually going to have a small container garden on a cement patio. Thank you!

    • You are wise to be concerned with this, since my understanding is that potatoes can pick up quite a bit of lead–have you had the soil tested so you know how bad it might be? That can influence your approach to gardening.

      In the potato cages, the potatoes don’t actually grow down much into the base soil, but you would still need a good barrier if you plant over contaminated soil. This article http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/Soil_Contaminants.pdf from Cornell recommends raised beds with landscape fabric as a barrier as does the National Gardening Association (http://www.garden.org/urbangardening/?page=sept-lead ). If you try this, you would place the potatoes higher in the cage with extra (clean) soil below. Or if you could find a big shallow pot (it wouldn’t need to be as wide as my cages) and can adequately anchor the cage, you might even try it on the patio. I think they are reasonably nice looking when they are big. If you try something, I’d love to hear how it goes. Have fun with you container garden.

    • You could always get large flower pots and either plant them in the flower pots or put the cage/fencing on top and prepare it as per the directions in the article.

      • Thanks Maxine. I suppose there must be big pots out there–people plant trees after all, don’t they!

  15. You mentioned you put one row of potatoes on the bottom, then cover them and add another layer of potatoes on top of the bottom potatoes. Does this cause the potatoes to be small since there are a lot in a small space? I’m planting today and was curious. Thanks

    • Wow I wish we were warm enough to start this here! I get a whole variety of sizes but since it’s the only way I’ve ever grown potatoes, I am not sure how the growing style impacts size. I get some that are tiny (which my kids fight over as bite-sized potatoes), some that are the same size as the “parents” (and I assume the CSAs filter out the smaller potatoes they grow) and some in between. I do put a good bit of dirt in between layers–this goes through a lot of compost. Good luck trying this and if you get a chance let me know how it goes this fall.

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