Patio Potatoes - A Tubful of Tubers
(Editor's Note; This article was originally published on December 19, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Many years ago, when I had quite a large vegetable garden, I grew some potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) in a half whiskey barrel for a lark. As I recall, they did pretty well. I remember having a pail full, but not the variety or any other details. But the taste of those potatoes...ah, the taste...that I remember! These days my garden, or my 'farm' , as I laughingly refer to it, is confined to a large patio. Remembering those potatoes, and longing for that taste again, one of this year's experiments on the farm was container potatoes.
Reading the Territorial Seed catalog one day, I came across potato seeds. These are not seed potatoes, which are small potatoes, or pieces of potato, with eyes, which will grow into new potato plants. These are actual seeds which develop from the flowers of a potato plant. I love growing plants from seed so I ordered some 'Catalina Hybrid', the only potato seeds they carry. The Gardener's Supply catalog tempted me with an interesting product called a Potato Bin®. It is an 18-inch diameter fabric pot that accommodates four potato plants. The pot is inexpensive and can be used a second year, so I purchased two of them. These are the dangers of reading the spring gardening catalogs!
Potato seeds are started the same as tomatoes and I had no trouble with them. The seeds germinated easily and grew into healthy seedlings. On June 5, the seedlings--four of them--were planted in the bottom of the tub into several inches of potting soil, amended with a slow-release, all purpose vegetable fertilizer (5-6-5), the same one I use for my tomatoes. As the plants grew, I added more soil periodically until the tub was full. Potatoes continue to develop tubers on roots that grow from the buried parts of the stem (see the photo at left as I started to remove the soil from the plant). The plants grew beautifully with no signs of disease or pests. They got watered as necessary to keep the soil in the pots from getting too dry. There is really no danger of over-watering because the pots have super drainage. Some liquid fertilizer was added as a supplement every week or so.
| At planting - June 6|| 1 month July 8||2 months|
'Catalina' is listed on the package as "110 days to maturity." At 110 days from setting out the plants, on September 22, two of the plants had dried up completely and the other two were still very green. From what I had read and the instructions that came with the seed, potatoes should be havested when the plants have dried up. With some concern that the potatoes on the dried up plants might rot, and perhaps a little over-eagerness on my part, I went ahead and dug them at 110 days.
Harvesting was extremely easy. With a plastic garbage bag on the ground to catch the spillover, I just placed a large container next to the tub to scoop the soil into as I dug down. You could just dump the whole thing over, but that's a lot of soil and a big mess to deal with. The light container mix just falls off the potatoes. They came out as you see them here. I did no additional rub-off or cleaning. There were quite a few marble-sized baby spuds and I did not want to miss a single one, so I sifted through it very patiently. A couple of handfuls of these little gems gently simmered in salted water just until tender, then shuffled with a little butter to coat (yes, only real butter will do), was our lunch that day. This is a waxy-textured potato and wonderful for boiling.
The harvest on the 'Catalinas' was a little disappointing. They are beautiful and delicious, just a little small and few in number. I asked on the Self-contained Box Gardens Forum  for advice on what I might have done wrong. A low nitrogen (5-10-10) fertilizer was recommended, so the plants will put their energy into developing the tubers and not direct it all into growing the beautiful foliage that I enjoyed so much. Total yield for the four plants was a little over five pounds, weighed after I had taken out the babies for lunch, so probably about five and a half.
Having purchased two of the potato tubs, I decided to grow seed potatoes in the other one. So I ordered 'Red Cloud', also from Territorial Seed. Seed potatoes sometimes are large enough to be cut into pieces, each piece containing two to three 'eyes'. They should be cut up a day or two before planting so they have time to form a callus on the cut edges to prevent rotting. Mine were small enough to be planted whole. They were planted in the same manner as the 'Catalina' plants, four in the bottom of the tub. Unfortunately, I didn't get them planted until July 12. At that point I decided that it was better to plant than to throw them out. Only one of the four sprouted but it grew into a very large plant.
|Comparison (Red Cloud at left)|| 6 weeks - August 22||Tuber|
The 'Red Cloud' plant started to die down just about the time of our first hard frost. On October 19 I dug out the potatoes and was amazed at the size! As you can see in the photo above, the largest tuber was over four inches long. It was not the exception either. Unlike the 'Catalinas' which had about half and half tiny and larger potatoes, this harvest was mostly big spuds. They are very heavy and solid with a pretty red skin and a crisp white flesh. The weigh-in from this one plant was over four pounds.
Plans for next year? Using the correct fertilizer should increase yields. Saved seed from the 'Catalinas', an F1 hybrid, would be unlikely to produce potatoes with all of the same characteristics we loved in these potatoes. There are so many interesting varieties available through seed catalogs and on the internet, that I almost feel obligated to try some different ones. Some growers offer variety packs. There is no reason why the four plants in a tub have to all be the same variety. And there is always the possibility of buying 8 or 10 more tubs when those irrestible catalogs start showing up in January.
 Click on the title if you would like to read more about my 'patio farm' and what I grew this year. 'My patio farm diary, the back forty square feet'
 Start seeds indoors into sterile potting mix 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost. Transplant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed.
 Here is a link to the thread where the problem of the small yield on my potatoes was discussed.