Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The 55 Gallon Potato Garden

Smaller than mom's garden
When I was a kid, we had one garden that was nothing but potatoes. It was at a cabin my parents still own in northern Wisconsin, and we spent every summer weekend there, plenty of that time weeding.

Now don't get me wrong, I loved the end result - red potatoes, white potatoes, yellow potatoes, big potatoes, small potatoes, potatoes fried and boiled and baked.  But really, what kid would rather be gardening than riding his bike in the summer sunshine? Not this one. And the number of potatoes we got per square foot of garden always seemed disappointingly small after all that work.

So when I grew up, I subconsciously gave up on potatoes: they were too much work for relatively little benefit. But I have officially taken them up again, because I discovered* a way to grow plenty of potatoes without all that weeding and even without taking up much space. The concept is deceptively simple: you can massively reduce the area you need to grow your potatoes by growing them in three dimensions: grow your potatoes in a barrel.

Here's the way to do it:

The number of the drilling shall be 7
1. Get a barrel.  I prefer heavy white plastic like the one pictured above, but you can use a trash can, half a whiskey barrel, anything that allows you room for 2 or 3 feet of dirt. I prefer white because I can leave it in full sun without baking the contents prematurely.

2.  Drill some holes in the bottom of the barrel for drainage.  Potatoes need moisture, but if you have 6" of sodden soil in the bottom, they'll rot before you get anything remotely resembling french fries. I set the barrel up on a couple of cinder blocks to ensure excess water can escape.

3. Place a screen in the bottom.  This step is voluntary, but since I drill rather large (1") drainage holes in the barrel, I like to line the bottom with a 1/2" metal screen. The smaller holes will hold the dirt inside and let the water out.

4.  Place about 6"of good soil in the bottom. Potatoes like a relatively acid soil,** but if you've grown them successfully in your garden, you should not need to worry about it too much.  I also add some fertilizer/plant food just to provide a little extra boost.

The bottom of a white barrel
5.  Plant your seed potatoes with the eyes up.  Because they'll be growing a lot taller than regular potatoes, feel free to plant them closer together than the instructions recommend.  You should be able to get 2 or 2 1/2 pounds of seed potatoes in a 55-gallon drum.

6.  Cover the potatoes with 3" of soil, then with some mulch to keep the moisture in.  Some folks like to mix in chopped straw and the like, the idea being to reduce the final weight of the barrel.

7.  Give everything a good soaking to start, and ensure that your drainage holes are working.  If you pour 20 gallons of water in there and none comes out, you're going to have a problem long before harvest time. Water it deeply every week.

8.  Once the plants are 9" - 12" above the mulch, add a 6" layer of dirt and mulch again. As they continue to grow, the plants will produce another layer of potatoes in the soil you just added. Keep adding until the barrel is full and the plants are growing out of the top of it.

9.  Once your dirt level is close to the top, plant some bush beans in it.  The beans will keep out the Colorado potato beetle, while the potatoes will drive off the Mexican bean beetle.  Because the potato is set so deep, the plants will not be fighting over resources, so plant as many beans as you can fit. The more you plant, the less you'll have to weed, as well.

10.  Once the plants die off at the end of the year, dump the barrel over and collect your harvest. You can expect to get at least 10 pounds of potatoes for every pound you planted, depending upon your soil, the length of your season, and how many times you cheated and dug up a few new potatoes for a mid-summer meal.   

Four barrels filled with different kinds of potatoes ought to keep your family in hash browns for the whole winter. And it will leave plenty of space in the regular garden for something that your kids might actually want to help with.  Mmmmm... rutabagas.***

UPDATE: Since lots of people seem interested in how this experiment ended, The Disappointing Finale is heretofore linked.

* I didn't discover it myself; I just found some other people who discovered it first.  But it's still new to me.
** As you're adding soil all year, the question of where you will get it from arises.  I get mine from beneath a big dead tree, of which I have plenty within wheelbarrowing distance.  Because it has 100+ years of fallen leaves and bark rotted into it, it tends to be lighter than regular topsoil. And this barrel is going to be HEAVY when it's full. At year end, I'll work it into the gardens or the mulch pile.
*** Someday I'll tell the story of the last time my parents made my brothers and I eat rutabagas. It was a gas, gas, gas.


  1. I have seen this. Have you actually done this successfully or is this the first year? I am concerned about length of growing season and the size of potatoes that you get. Seems like they are a little smaller.

    I guess I should just try it and see. I also need to build one of doomfinger's strawberry racks.

  2. First year myself.

    I'm not concerned with the growing season here as much as I am with them getting too hot. For that, I have placed them where they'll get morning and noon sun but be in the shade in the afternoon, so we'll see how that works out.

    Pics all year as it happens.

  3. Pics all year as it happens.

    Awesome. I'm thinking I'll try it too. I might try to counter the shorter season here by planting them early. It might freeze but I should be able to throw a blanket over the barrel. Ground is frozen so I'd have to start with potting soil, or wait another couple weeks.

  4. Funny you posted this, as I just acquired a bunch of 55 gallon barrels. I'm interested in trying this. We used tires and just plain ole mounds for the last few years. I think the barrel will be a big success.

    There is a useful potato planting tool you can make to speed up the ole mound planting process. If I get a chance I'll post pics.

  5. Do you have a blog, Doomfinger? Sounds like you know your way around a few things. And with a name like that, who wouldn't want to at least investigate. Or... maybe that's just me. :)

  6. So how did this turn out?

  7. I have never successfully grown potatoes in a barrel. I tried for the third time. Emptied the barrels today and got 7 tiny potatoes. I used a combination of soil and not completely composted compost. The plants grew fine, and I put holes in the bottom of the barrels for drainage, and placed them on cinder blocks. They were on the south side of my garden, so got plenty of light. What am I doing wrong???

  8. Unfortunately for all involved, this is the end of the experiment. I have gone back to planting them in the ground like a normal person.

    Live and learn, I guess.