Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Planting potatoes

Last year, I tried an experiment: planting potatoes in grow bags. It was an unmitigated disaster, but not for the reasons you'd think. Rather, I blame two things: a poor choice of location, and poor soil.

The location was a narrow strip of land behind our shed, between the shed and the pasture fence.

It seemed logical: fairly protected, close to water, and out of the way. What could possibly go wrong? After a LOT of hard work, I got the potatoes planted in the grow bags (these are twenty-gallon bags, by the way).

At first they grew well, but then several things happened. One, as spring advanced into summer and the weather grew drier and hotter, it quickly became apparent that the topsoil we'd used was more like "top clay." Even though I watered diligently, the poor potatoes were baked into hard clay and had a difficult time growing.

And two, clay is heavy. When I tried to "mound" the potatoes by topping off the grow bags with more dirt, I could barely heave the clay-soil into the bags. Since one side was blocked by the shed wall, I couldn't access the back bags. I ended up just dumping the clay-soil over the potato plants from a distance instead of carefully mounding, which just buried the poor things. Bottom line, they all died. It was very discouraging.

This year, I was determined to mend my mistakes. I'm still enamored with the grow bags and feel they are an excellent alternative to growing potatoes in the ground or in raised beds. This past week, here's what I did.

The first thing I did was removed the bags, emptied them, and relocated them to a better spot. At first I thought it would be a simple matter of using a hand truck to remove each grow bag, but that idea quickly went south. Those bags must have weighed 200 lbs. each (remember, twenty gallons of heavy wet clay!) and I couldn't so much as budge them.

Instead, I laboriously dug the clay-soil from each bag with a shovel, one at a time, and put the clay-soil into the gorilla cart. After fifteen or twenty shovel-fulls, the bag was low enough that I could lift it and dump the remaining soil into the cart.

In this, I had (ahem) lots of help from Mr. Darcy.

One by one, I removed the bags and revealed the pallets on which they'd rested. I removed the pallets and placed them in the front of the house, alongside the Nuclear Strawberry beds, because they would be easy to fence in.

This is a temporary spot, but that's okay. Pallets are easy to move.

Above all, I wanted to make sure I could access the grow bags from all sides for ease of filling. To this end, I made a sort of cloverleaf formation with the pallets.

The next step was to improve the clay-soil. Fortunately we have a mound of compost...

...and a mound of sand we purchased last fall for purposes of amending soil (sadly, far too late to help last year's potatoes).

To a grow bag's worth of clay-soil, I added ten shovels full of compost and five shovels full of sand. Note the dramatic color difference between the clay-soil (at left) and compost (at right).

Then I mixed it all together. I flippin' LOVE using sand to break up clay. It's wonderful stuff. Together with the compost, the result of these efforts was a lovely rich friable soil.

As I emptied the grow bags, I relocated them to their new spot and filled them with about four inches of this soil mixture. To aid in that, I used a cut-off bottomless old garbage can as a funnel, which holds the mouth of the grow bags open while I shovel dirt into them.


This whole process was slow and took place over several days, also factoring in some rainy weather.

Meanwhile, I had a lot of seed potatoes – probably too many.

I have twenty grow bags, so I divvied the potatoes into twenty piles.

Then, for each pile, I cut the larger potatoes into two or three pieces, and left the smaller potatoes intact, for a total of six pieces per pile. I had a lot of seed potatoes, so I could afford not to be parsimonious.

I let them dry for a day or two...

...until the cut side was toughened up a bit. This helps prevent potatoes from rotting in the dirt.

By the way, these are russet potatoes, an indeterminate variety.  This means they grow in multiple layers and benefit from being mounded. In lieu of mounding, they will be "buried" up to their necks twice during the growing season.

On planting day, I placed six pieces in each grow bag.

Then, using the garbage-can funnel, I covered the pieces with about four inches of that lovely friable soil mixture.

For the time being, that's all I have to do. We had rain the day after I planted, so they're thoroughly watered.

Sometimes the side of a grow bag wants to collapse inward... I'll prop it up with sticks.

This won't be an issue later in the season as I "mound" more soil in the grow bags.

In the next couple of weeks, we'll bring in more horse panels and widen the fencing to encompass both the strawberry beds and the potato grow bags, to prevent the deer from munching the plants.

I'm confident the potatoes will grow better this year. For one thing, they're in much better soil. For another thing, I can "mound" the soil more carefully around the plants since I can access them from all sides, instead of trying to dump clay-soil from a distance. Time will tell.

It feels good to take a step toward growing things, even if the proper garden isn't built yet.


  1. Don't they always say to grow what you can wherever you are.
    Debbie in MA

  2. Some lessons are dearly bought. I hope this year will be a good one for potatoes.

  3. Which grow bags are you using?

  4. Positive sides of grow bag potatoes in my humble opinion-easy to harvest and no little sneakers left behind to interfere with other things when rotating crops. The difficulty is I think the black bags overheat in the hottest part of summer resulting in a smaller harvest of smaller spuds. I think the answer may be to create a huge raised bed and place the bags inside and surround with dirt to insulate.

    1. The black fabric causes the soil to get much hotter than light colored containers would. So the contents cook. The roots probably get stunted. This is why those black sheets of mulch warms up the ground temp so well helping earlier plantings.
      People are having a lot of luck planting potatoes in cardboard boxes. One post showed the boxes and the plan was to turn that spot into a grow bed after harvesting the potatoes, leaving the cardboard there to compost in.
      I think a plus of grow bags is that they are a breathable fabric. And the heat retention is a plus until it gets too hot, at which point something needs to cover the black. Burlap could work. Maybe hay or something to mulch around it. Whatever you can find. Those lightweight floating row covers that are white are cheap, they last, light gets through, and though they're used for frost protection, I think they would work for deflecting heat as well. I got mine at Tractor Supply and they've even gone through the wash a few times.

  5. I appreciate you sharing your experience. We're trying potatoes in grow bags for the first time this year, mainly to thwart the wireworms and fire ants. Lord, I hope our deer aren't hungry enough to eat the potatoes!

    1. I too am having a big problem with fire ants. Also, fleas in the yard. I've never had to treat the yard before, but I'm bathing the dog twice a week with Dawn already and he gets them right back. Plus, horror of horrors, piles of baby lubbers everywhere for the last couple of weeks. Shouldn't be seeing them until mid May.
      So I googled what to treat the great outdoors with, and kept seeing a product called First Saturday. I'm going to try this. It's supposed to kill all the ground pests so we'll see. It's not poison and won't harm animals which is what sold me. The DE hasn't done its job with all the wet weather.

    2. My neighbor told me that deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough. I had potatoes next to a welded wire fencing, and anything that stuck out they ate. This was after research on the internet stating that deer do not like potatoes. I will go with what the neighbor said.

  6. We have not had good luck with potatoes here in north Texas. Sweet potatoes however do great, so that is what we grow. Glad to see you restarting your garden adventures!

  7. Sorry to hear about your experience with the potatoes. I saw your post last year about the grow bags and I thought what a great idea. My experience previously was when it came time to harvest, I always managed to slice into the potato with the turning fork. I had wonderful luck with the grow bags. I had an abundant harvest. When it was time to harvest, I simply turned the bag over and shook upside down and picked the potatoes out of the soil.

  8. I have been thinking about how I can grow potatoes in bag like you have but without any additional expensive and I think I figured it out. I feed the birds and I buy the seed in 40-50 pound bags. The bags are a plastic woven material that is quite heavy. I have made several tote/firewood bags with handles from the birdseed bags, but I always see to have an excess of the bird seed bags. I think I am going to take some and cut the bottom off close to the stitching then re-sew it with some wide gussets and try to use them to grow potatoes. Do you see any issues with this idea?

    1. I think this is a wonderful idea. I'm keeping birdseed bags for the same idea, though I haven't tried them yet as grow bags. As long as the bag drains, I can't see why it wouldn't work. Try it and report in how it goes, so the rest of us can profit by your experience!

      - Patrice