Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Havesting potatoes

So here it is November, and we finally have the results of our experiment of growing potatoes in potato bags.

We tried this our second summer in our new place, and the results were a disaster, largely because of poor placement and poor soil.

Tucked in this area behind a shed, the bags were simply too difficult to get to. Lesson learned: the bags need access from both sides. When one row was tucked against the shed wall, that row was too difficult to maintain (including topping with fresh soil as the potatoes grew). That experiment also failed because the soil was too clay-y.

So last summer, I transferred the bags to a different location, near the two original strawberry beds in the driveway. I arranged the bags on pallets and made an "H" pattern so they could be accessed from all sides. This worked much better.

I also used better soil: a combination of dirt, compost, and sand blended together, which made the growing medium much more friable.

The potatoes grew beautifully. I topped them off once, filling the bags to the top with dirt, to encourage the potatoes to sprout additional tubers. This is what the plants looked like in June.

By August, things had died back a little, but they were still growing well.

In late October, ahead of an imminent freeze, Don and I went ahead and harvested the bags.

All these months when the potatoes seemed to be growing so well, we had no idea what was happening out of sight below the dirt level. Would the bags be empty? Packed? We didn't know.

We pulled the dirt out shovel-ful by shovel-ful, dumping the dirt into the Gorilla cart and tossing the harvested potatoes into tubs.

Harvesting was much easier than we expected since the dirt was so lovely and friable. We emptied the bags until we could lift the half-empty bags into the cart and dump the rest of the dirt, then pawed around pulling the remainder of the potatoes out.

The dirt is valuable, but we didn't want to use it again for potatoes since there's a chance we could spread potato diseases. So every three bags or so, we dumped the dirt from the Gorilla cart into the tractor bucket...

...then Don drove around to the still-unfinished garden space and dumped the dirt into an empty bed. Waste not, want not.

Bag by bag, we dug up potatoes...

...making piles of the empty bags as we went. (We let these dry out for a few days before storing them for the winter.)

We also removed the pallets as we went.

The results? Mixed. We harvested about 100 lbs. of potatoes from 20 grow bags, or about five pounds of potatoes per bag.

On one hand, we were disappointed. The YouTube videos I watched on growing potatoes in grow bags made it sound like harvesting 20 lbs. of potatoes per bag was routine. Our measly five pounds was a bit disheartening.

On the other hand, 100 lbs. of potatoes is nothing to sneeze at!

Now we were tasked with finding a way to store the potatoes through the winter. The house is too warm, the barn is too cold. We compromised by storing the potatoes in the shed where the well is located, and in which we keep a small heater going in very cold weather. This keeps the shed no colder than 33F.

Because this shed gets a fair number of mice, Don built a wire box using hardware cloth, which has a mesh too small for mice to get through. We padded the bottom with a generous layer of straw.

We layered the potatoes with the straw, making sure the potatoes were only one layer deep.

Between each layer of potatoes, we put a generous layer of straw.

By the time we were done, the bin was filled pretty much to the top.

We packed the rest of the available space with straw...

...and then Don placed the custom-made lid onto the cage to keep the mice out.

So the Big Question is, will we use the grow bags again?

Yes and no. We have them, so we'll continue to use them. As I said, 100 lbs. of potatoes is nothing to sneeze at.

But we're also going to revert to growing in beds rather than towers. In our old garden, I never "mounded" my indeterminant potatoes; we simply planted and later harvested, and had no complaints about the return on our investment.

Interestingly, I came across a post on the internet entitled "Do Potato Towers Work?" questioning all the bountiful claims made about potato towers of various types (cages, stackable units, tires, etc.). As the writer (her name is Ananda) put it, there were lots of pretty pictures, but a curious silence about the harvests.

"We have all seen those potato towers with incredible promises like 'grow 100 pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet!'" she wrote. "But have you seen an ACTUAL example of a productive potato tower? No. We tried it. It failed to produce more potatoes than we planted. Every video, book, and blog articles we looked through ( a LOT ) all started with great enthusiasm and ended with no updates on harvest, or completely disappointing results admitted by a few brave souls."

So we'll continue to use the grow bags, which gave us a decent-if-not-spectacular harvest. Additionally, since we'll have our garden up and running next spring, we'll plant in trenches in the garden beds and call it good.


  1. And, I was going to grow potatoes in a garbage can!

  2. Thanks for letting us know the results. If you don't try, you don't find out. Did using the grow bags make it physically easier to maintain and harvest the crop? If someone is looking to grow smaller amounts, that might make it worthwhile for them.

  3. typical wisdom says that you can expect a return on potatoes of between 3 and 10 pounds per pound planted. so your 100 pounds output would be good if you planted less than 10 pounds.
    the wide range is to account for soil and moisture levels during the growing season. taters are thirsty critters. try increasing the watering, especially after the plants bloom. just be careful to not over water or you will get softball sized taters (YEA!!!) which are hollow(aww shucks).

  4. I had similar results to yours when I used the bags. My take is the bags might heat up too much. I do think they are valuable if you are growing specialty potatoes like the purple ones or fingerlings. Next year, I might try leeks in them.

  5. I've made the potato tower a few times to save garden space. The first time I didn't water one side to well since the hose didn't reach so of course that side didn't produce well. The next time a mouse decided to take up residence in it. I think the next time we will do in a raised bed or in the ground.
    Debbie in MA

  6. I've tried bags (burlap), tires, chicken wire 3' towers, straw bales, and in the ground (with and without mounding). In the ground beats everything every time. Some years the straw bales have been good, too... I just throw the potatoes under the bales, and then I plant the usual tomatoes or cubes or whatever on top of the bales, so it's a nice space saver. FWIW, the bags and the wire towers got too dry too fast, the tires were no easier to harvest and produced less, and straw bales aren't free... so for the last 4 years, I've just done potatoes in the ground, and I think that's the way I'll keep doing them. (We only grow the purple potatoes - the large ones not the little ones, because they keep well in our basement thru to spring planting). I love hearing about your garden, Patrice. Please write about how well the storage area works for your potatoes, too!

  7. I like that storage bin. I want something similar but with steel mesh screening No matter how hard I try bugs seem to find their way into things . Either they or their eggs must come in with the veggies. Food that can live in jars gets frozen in case of larvae, then jarred. Grains have to go in mylar with O2 absorbers.

    Unfortunately, animal feed has also been infected. I can't count the times when I've gotten home with feed and found it with clumps of moldy food inside, or just whitish which is also mold, or weevils. When there's a lot of rain I think moisture seeps in through the seams of the bags because that's where the moldy chuncks usually are. Those trips aren't cheap and I Hate going back for refunds/replacements.

    Long ago, people had screened cabinet doors on their kitchen cabinets. Punched tin panels were also popular. Decorative and allowed for air flow but kept pests out. I'm wondering how long before these features make it back into country homes.

  8. I have also tried numerous methods, raised beds do work well especially if you have rocks held together by clay as your soil. However, every spring I end up with more potatoes that volunteer and they end up everywhere. Since I got the bags I will try again next year, there is only 2 of us so a smaller amount is OK with me. I will however water more. I just hope they will grow larger, I always end up with a bunch of small ones along with some larger ones.

  9. Heh. I thought that there was something wrong with me for having really bad results with the grow bags for just about everything. There's probably a niche where they work well; it just do well for me in northeast Florida. Now, some people have claimed that growing them in styrofoam boxes is helpful to keep the heat gain away longer, but I don't know.

    I have had "volunteer" Idaho potatoes that sprouted so I tossed them in the compost "piles" under the oak trees'. (Hey, might as well have the compost piles right where the leaves fall!) They actually grew through the summer, only dying back when the "feels like" temp reached nearly 120 outside (real temps 100-ish). Sadly, we came down with COVID during that time and rodents tunneled up underneath our compost bins (wire cylinders) and harvested them for us. (D'oh!) It was all I could do to keep the livestock fed/watered and our pastured poultry moved. Apparently some potatoes were missed, because potatoes are growing in them again. But, growing potatoes and tomatoes here are just an exercise in futility. Yams and other subtropical veggies grow happily.

  10. Tried grow bags two years, no luck either time. Use different dirt, different this and different that, nothing worked. Maybe the excess heat is the problem, no idea.
    Have grown them for over fifty years in the ground, and 9 out of 10 years been happy. Between red and white potato seed of about 15 lbs, usually harvest near 150 lbs. Share some with son and daughter in law, but we eat potatoes at least one meal a day. Nothing beats a big baked spud and a cube of butter.
    Glad to learn other folks have not had a luck n the bags.