A good friend purchased cloth grow bags for her potato planting a few years ago. Being a frugal fixer (tightwad, penny-pincher, etc.), I thought I could make the same thing using a roll of old landscape cloth and my sewing machine for much less than she had paid. To my surprise, not only did they work beautifully, but I am still using them! Here is my "Tater Totes" tale and tips on non-sewing versions for others to consider!
Tater Container Concept
Potato plants form their tubers close to the soil surface which means they need to be shielded from the sun to keep from turning toxic green and inedible, thus the traditional "hilling up" around the plants. The hilling process can be backbreaking and there is a potential of damaging a few forming spuds. Planting potatoes in a container with little soil and lots of mulch keep the plants happy and the spuds covered.
NOTE: I do not have much soil to spare in my little yard, but I can always find some type of mulch, like shredded leaves, sawdust, hay, straw, and even bags of office-shredded paper (which I have used more than once). Those using straw bale gardening (DG forum for subscribed members) have found that potato plants love growing in the previous year's semi-composted straw (or hay) and it is perfect to mulch with, too.
My friend Pam and I prefer containers for potatoes, mainly because there is no digging to harvest. We just dump the containers and the taters fall out at our feet. There is the benefit of constant peeking to see how the little taters are doing, as well as, easy potato robbing around mid-season without harming the plant! And the composted mulch is added back to the garden beds. We have grown potatoes in the ground, raised beds, various containers, and stacked tires, so fabric grow bags sounded like a great idea.
Fabric Grow Bags
When fabric is used as a container, excess water easily drains away, unlike a hard surface container with a few drain holes. The cloth also allows good air circulation to prevent root rot that can sometimes take out an entire in-ground potato crop during a cold wet planting season. The roots will grow through the fabric and into the ground. The small roots growing through the side of the bags are essentially air-pruned, preventing the plant from becoming root-bound like a hard container.
Growing potatoes in a cloth sack is a similar concept to growing them in stacked tires. I add a little soil and manure to cover the seed potato, and then mulch (some may prefer more soil). Instead of adding tires as the plants grow, the bags are unrolled, as more mulch is needed. The process continues until the bag is completely unrolled.
The Tater Totes (or any cloth containers) are much easier to deal with than tires. They drain water more easily, allow better air circulation, are lightweight, and store folded in a drawer until the next season! I have, also, picked up my planted Totes to run from equipment during a yard project (baby backhoes need more room than you think). You cannot do that with heavy containers of soil or a stack of tires!
Tater Tote Tips
The Tater Totes can be made as large in diameter as can easily be handled and the landscape fabric can be double layered for additional support. Just sew a tube about 18" long (or longer), then sew across one end to form a bag. Use nylon thread for all the seams as cotton will quickly rot.
If you do not have the ability to sew, other materials can be used, like cloth shopping bags, feed sacks, and old clothing.
I found the planted fabric pots were self-supporting if grown in double or triple rows. We have terrific winds that shoot between buildings at times, so I do not position the pots in single rows unless supported by a fence or building on one side.
The shredded leaves worked really well as mulch in the Totes, but tightly packed hay did not and caused rot in a couple of the bags.
The shredded leaves between the Totes were not necessary, and hindered air circulation and water drainage that may have encouraged the rotting hay issue.
I have not had many pests when using these Totes, but I also companion plant with marigolds, nasturtiums, and bush beans.
I borrowed Pam's Potato Bins (potato grow bags) one summer and learned that a hole was not necessary in the bottom of the Totes. I sew straight across the bottom now (much quicker to construct).
Cloth grow bags can be used for many vegetables and are especially helpful for those needing to be hilled or blanched during the growing season.
I am not sure how long the Tater Totes will last, but the material is rugged and I have made only a few minor repairs when needed. The commercially sold grow bags are much thicker and sturdier than Tater Totes, but are said to last just a few years. My Tater Totes are starting their third growing season in 2012 (I did not plant potatoes last year), and I think I can get at least another year or two of use from them. I am now using a double thickness of the landscape fabric material to make them more durable (just in case I need to pick them up to run with again).
On a whim, I created a how-to on the construction of my Tater Totes on the Instructables web site that immediately became a "Featured Instructable" (I was so proud)! If you would like more information about how the Totes are constructed and see additional photos of the planted Totes, please take a look at the slide show video (1:43 minutes).
Viewer comments offered excellent ideas for reusing fabric feed sacks, recycled shopping bags, burlap sacks, and blue jeans in lieu of the landscape fabric.
NOTE: Be wary of shopping bags created and printed with lead-based inks/paint, especially those manufactured outside the United States.
Although the Tater Tote design and use has changed a little, the concept is still the same.
Special thanks to my friend Pam (DG's pdhickey) for her gardening help and encouragement, as always!Photo Credits: All photos and video remain the property of the author.
About Bev Walker
I was a serious organic gardener and composter 30 years ago, then my life took me in a new direction with kids and career. I am just now returning to gardening and learning new techniques, and loving every minute of it. I hope to share my experiences with you from my shady yard.