Build tower to grow potatoes in small space

BY MARIANNE OPHARDT FOR THE TRI-CITY HERALDApril 12, 2013 

We live in the middle of a major potato growing region of the U.S. We can get good quality, standard-variety potatoes fairly inexpensively, so why waste garden space on growing potatoes? While quality standard potatoes are available, there are many varieties that gardeners are missing when they don't grow their own potatoes.

Before my son graduated from high school, he was in 4-H and had a vegetable garden as one of his projects. While he did all the work, I had the job of buying the seed potatoes. It gave us the opportunity to try some different red and white potatoes that you don't find in the grocery store. Two of our favorites were Bison and Sangre, red potatoes with a smooth texture.

Because I have limited garden space, I haven't considered growing potatoes at my new home. After browsing through Irish Eyes Garden City Seeds catalog, I may reconsider. Just outside Ellensburg, Irish Eyes specializes in organic seed potatoes, garlic and vegetable seeds. In their catalog and online, they give directions for building and growing potatoes in a 4-foot-square tower. If you grow the potatoes in the tower according to their directions, they say you may be able to see a harvest of 100 pounds of potatoes.

How does it work? The first 2-by 2-foot layer of the tower is constructed out of 2-by-6 lumber on top of prepared garden soil. (There is no bottom to the tower.) This first layer is filled with soil media, and the seed potatoes are planted four inches deep. The height of the tower is increased with additional layers of 2-by-6s and additional soil media as the potatoes grow. Whenever the tops of the plants reach a height of 12 inches, add a new layer and four more inches of soil media. This layering stops when the tower reaches a height of six layers (about 33 inches tall.)

Irish Eyes recommends using potato varieties that keep forming new potato producing stolons over a longer time, such as yellow finn, Indian pitt, red pontiac or any of the fingerling types. They also recommend never covering more than one-third of the vine growth at one time and frequently checking the soil moisture because the towers will quickly dry out in warm weather.

You can find directions for constructing a tower in the Irish Eyes catalog or their website (irisheyesgardenseeds.com).

If dealing with lumber and construction isn't your area of expertise, you can buy commercially available potato bags made from polyethylene (although most available aren't much taller than 12 to 18 inches) or you can make your own with cylinder made from wire fencing lined with paper (newsprint or brown craft paper) or landscape fabric.

I recommend using potting soil to fill your potato tower, but because a tower contains as much as 11 cubic feet of soil, most gardeners will want to use something less expensive. Less expensive options are compost-amended soil or well-rotted finished compost. The crucial factors to success are having a loose growing media, keeping the soil media moderately moist even through the hottest parts of summer, and using late season potatoes that continue to send out rhizomes and form tubers through the entire season. Maybe I'll try this if I can find the right potatoes and enough compost-amended soil.

-- Composting workshop

A Composting & Waste Reduction Workshop will be Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon at Mid-Columbia Library,1620 S. Union St., Kennewick.

The class is free and open to Benton and Franklin county residents. Attendees will receive a free compost bin and book about composting. Pre-registration is required.

The class is sponsored by the Solid Waste Division of Benton and Franklin counties and the cities of Kennewick and Richland, WSU Extension, and the Benton Clean Air Authority.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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