I begrudge buying potatoes. Whether we’re talking about 5 lbd bags from the grocer or exotic purple potatoes from the market, I resent the very act of purchasing these stables. In my mind, potatoes are cheap sustenance. Which is not to detract from their deliciousness – there is nothing quite like fresh baby potatoes or fluffy mashed potatoes or perfectly roasted russets. I do like potatoes. I just don’t like buying them!
But I’ve also never grown them. Potatoes don’t have the luster of sweet tomatoes. They can’t be trained to climb like our nibble squash. They don’t demand the spotlight like peppers or corn. And so, despite my resentment, I have always bought potatoes. Until this year. It was with a light heart that I set about planting potatoes in tires this spring. I’d learned about the solution to my urban garden potato dilemma earlier in the year and with a renewed vigour for local eating, I happily set about stacking tires and shoveling dirt.
Ironically, or not, it was my mother-in-law who first suggested that I plant potatoes in tires. Ironically, because she doesn’t garden. Perhaps not so ironically because it seems more often that not the keys to sustainable living lie in knowledge of generations past. When my mother in law was a girl, tires were stacked, filled with dirt, and planted with seasonally appropriate varieties of potatoes. When the early potatoes were ready, they were harvested and the top tire was knocked to the ground, and so on. After a trip to the neighbourhood mechanic with a request for old tires, we spent an afternoon building our potato tower.
Now here is where things went not-as-well as they could have gone. We planted potatoes stacked in tires four high, with an early variety in the top two tiers and a later variety on the bottom two tiers. We planted all four layers at once, per my mother-in-laws instructions. I should have researched instead of following blindly! About six weeks later, the top layer of potatoes had flowered and was ready for harvest. Unfortunately the second layer of potatoes was sending shoots into the top layer, but hadn’t yet produced mature potatoes. It was nearly impossible to harvest layer one without damaging layer two. The harvest was somewhat tedious, and the yield not as substantial as it could have been. None the less, we’ve enjoyed a fabulous crop of home grown potatoes this year, and since they flourish in the cooler weather of the early fall, we will continue to do so for another couple months as we dive into the bottom rung.
A little research has revealed the proper tire-potato technique, which will surely help with smooth potato adventures next year:
1. pick a nice sunny spot.
2. lay couple inches of dirt in the bottom tire. place about 5 seed potatoes (of a late season variety) in the tire, with the “eyes” (buds) pointing up. These potatoes will benefit from chitting (storing them in a dark place for a week or two so that they start to sprout shoots), but they can do without since they are late season varieties. cover with dirt until it is level with the top of the tire.
3. when the shoots are about 8 inches tall, add a second tire and repeat the process, again using a late season variety.
4. repeat step 3 for the top two tires, using early or mid season varieties, which require chitting
5. water potatoes really well twice a week. potatoes don’t like to swim, but they do like a good drink all the way to the bottom of your tire stack. potatoes are very resilient and will grow in almost anything. that said, they prefer a slightly acid soil (ph 5.8-6.5) that is light and loose.
The tires act as a “heat sink”, which causes lateral roots to grow. What that means for you is more potatoes. It’s a good thing! Plus, the tires are saved from a truly sad fate in the landfill.
A final tip for good potatoes – dig around in the dirt with your hand and pull some of the baby potatoes to make room for the others to grow. I know you are supposed to let your potatoes dry out for a day or two before eating, but we’ve taken to boiling the baby potatoes for dinner the night they are pulled, and they are a thing of beauty with a little butter and a dash of salt.