Potatoes require less water than most plants in a typical garden. You really need to make sure that you don’t rot the potatoes or cause fungus on the plants. I like keeping the watering down to about once per week. However, doing so when planted with water hungry plants is nearly impossible.
My solution is growing potatoes in tall sturdy buckets. Potato buckets allow complete control over water, sun and weather. And, repurposing buckets as potato buckets is a great use for old pales left over from grinding wheat into flour.
Unfortunately, just sticking dirt in buckets and throwing a potato in is not enough. Potatoes need good drainage. Water that works its way down to the bottom of the bucket must have somewhere to go. Otherwise, the potatoes will rot before harvest, the plants will likely die.
First, drill a few holes in the bottom of the buckets for water to drain out of. Second, place a few inches of coarse gravel in the buckets. Third, cover the gravel with a porous cloth such as you can find at garden centers. Finally, place a few inches of rich garden soil on top of the cloth.
The potato buckets are ready for use. You can get the buckets ready in the fall for use in the spring. But, considering they are just going to have dirt and rocks in them until the first potato is placed in them, you can prepare them any time of the year, or even years before they get used. I happened to have mine sit in the garage for a few years before I had the time to use them.
Potato plants don’t like freezing or near freezing temperatures. However, potatoes seem determined to sprout as early in the winter as possible. Always try to keep your potatoes in cool, dry, dark places to discourage them from sprouting too early. I usually keep my potatoes in a closed cardboard box in my basement.
Potatoes sprout from their eyes. The sprouts are not considered safe to eat. They also use the potato for their nourishment, so are undesirable in potatoes you want to eat. Also, if the potato sprouts get too big, too early in the winter or spring, your plant will die before the weather becomes warm enough to sustain potato plants.
You can slow down potato sprouting by simply breaking off the sprouts where they contact the potato. According to some older farming books I’ve seen, you can get away with this trick up to three times before the potato is planted.
To start your potato bucket, place the sprouting potato on the dirt in your bucket. Technically, you only need one sprout per bucket. So, a lot of people slice the potato so that a potato chunk with one sprout is placed in each bucket.
Once placed on the dirt in your bucket, cover up the potato (or slice of potato) with several inches of dirt. The sprout should be completely covered. There is no need to water your potato at this point. Put a lid on your bucket and place your potato bucket in a cool dark place and check it every week. Do not let your bucket freeze by leaving it outside. I leave mine at the back of my garage where it won’t freeze.
When the sprouts make it to the surface of the dirt in the bucket, cover them with a few more inches of dirt. Keep performing this trick, until your dirt is at the top of the bucket.
Now that’s all good in theory, but in reality you might forget about your potatoes for a few weeks like I did. The sprouts actually managed to push the lid off one of my buckets. Luckily, they were in my dark garage so they did not go all leafy or green on me.
In my case, I covered the stems with dirt, very gently. The stems will break if you’re not gently. I managed to break only one stem. If it is early in the year as it was for me, the soil you use may be frozen into chunks. Try to use soil that is thawed, even if it is cold. On cold days, leaving your soil in the sun will often thaw it out, even if the shade has snow.
Once you have the potato sprouts above the edge of the buckets, they need sun. However, keep them out of the frost. I always move my potato buckets into my garage on cold nights or even cold days.
Remember, the potato plants are a lot more forgiving of no light than of freezing temperatures. A day or two without light won’t kill them, but one good frost or freezing rain will kill them. My general rule is: keep the plants inside unless it is 44-degrees Fahrenheit or above outdoors.
Once the potatoes are growing leaves, I try to water them once per week, or more if the weather demands it. Give them plenty of sun, and don’t over water them.
When the plants die off, harvest the potatoes by dumping them out. It will be the easiest potato harvest you’ve ever had. A good sized pale can provide 40 or more pounds of potatoes.
Also, if you are gentle, you can dig around in the soil and harvest young potatoes for eating during the growing season. Remember to be gentle. The plants will often grow new potatoes to replace the ones you harvested early.
The nicest part about growing potatoes in buckets is that you can start growing and start harvesting potatoes earlier than in a traditional garden.
If you forget to move your plants inside and they get killed back, don’t give up. The plants I grew this year were accidentally exposed to a frost and died back to the stems, but as you can see from the photo above, the leaves grew back after careful pampering.
I am looking forward to a nice potato harvest this year. Good luck with yours!