Since I work on a farm, I can get a little lazy about my own vegetable garden. It's more fun than functional most years: herbs, tomatoes, kale. But, of course, when farm season is over, so are the days of free leftover farm veggies. This year's goal is to make a big dent in our grocery budget by growing the things we eat the most.
I am really excited about growing potatoes. Garden-grown potatoes have a flavor like nothing else, and they store really well. I know that I can expect five pounds of potatoes for every pound I plant, so I kept this in mind when I took up my bosses' generous offer of free potatoes leftover from last year (I told you they kept well), and bought a bag of potatoes in a variety the farm didn't grow. I have two red varieties, a purple, and a yellow.
Potatoes can take up a lot of space in the garden. We four 4x4 and two 2x6 raised beds, which may seem like a lot, but they get filled up quickly. For the past couple years, I've been mentally collecting ideas on how to make growing potatoes more space efficient. I've seen people grow them in tall-sided raised beds (pretty design, but we aren't ready to replace our wood raised beds just yet) and even plastic laundry baskets (a smart idea since they have built-in holes to allow air to get in).
In the end I decided to build open chicken wire (oh, sorry, poultry netting) columns and grow the potatoes inside. I knew this would take up just about a fourth of one of the square garden beds. I also had a vague plan to use the tower as a sort of anchor for other things (vining plants, etc.), but, real talk, that plan did not solidify until I'd finished constructing the thing.
Here's how I did it:
Five bamboo (or other) stakes
Chicken wire (24" or taller)
The potatoes don't necessarily need to be chitted, but I found that my storebought ones were sprouting, and I'd left the potatoes from the farm in a bag in the garage to do their thing. I like being able to see the eyes sprouting so I can make strategic cuts, if necessary - maybe cutting a potato into sixths on a particularly sprouty one instead of just into fourths. In any case, cut your potatoes into fourths, or sixths if they're big.
If you're making a freestanding tower and not using a raised bed, find an area (full sun) of your garden with soil that's fairly soft so you can easily push the stakes deeply into the ground. Arrange the stakes in a circle that's at least 18" in diameter. I didn't measure mine, but it looks to be just about 24" across.
So: stakes in, time to wrap the chicken wire around them. The wire is thin and malleable, so you can wrap the end of the roll around the stake and then secure it to itself to keep everything in place as you continue to wrap the chicken wire around the outside of the stakes. I chose chicken wire with large holes, which isn't bad, but smaller holes would be a better choice. I wrapped the stakes twice to help strengthen the entire structure and create a little overlap with the holes. The stakes are about a foot higher than the height of the chicken wire, but this is okay, because, as you'll see in a couple paragraphs, I'll be using them to support other plants.
Now the fun part: filling and planting. I alternated layers of soil and leaf litter. Potatoes went in between each. So, the layers essentially looked liked this: half a dozen potato pieces, leaf litter, soil, potato pieces, leaf litter, soil, potato pieces.
Here's where I decided how to make the most of the tower and plant things both on top of it and around the perimeter. Instead of alternating leaf litter and soil all the way to the top, I put a thick layer (six inches or so) of soil at the top of the tower. I decided to plant round carrots (they're cute and globe-shaped and don't need a ton of well-tilled soil!), but there are lots of other vegetables that would do really well planted there. Radishes would be great, since they can be harvested in 30 days - you could plant a couple rounds of radishes before it would be time to take up the potatoes. Leaf lettuce is another one with quick turnover. Around the outside I planted peas. They'll use the chicken wire as a vining support. If it's already too hot where you are, beans that have a harvest date close to when you'll be taking up the potatoes would do nicely.
Once everything was planted, I watered well using a watering wand with a mist feature so I wouldn't disturb the carrot seeds. I watered straight down into the tower and around the perimeter at the soil line.
It was a really simple and satisfying project. You're essentially just building an enclosure and filling it with good soil and potato bits (and then harvesting a big mess of potatoes in a few months!).