4 sq ft Potato Tower

PLEASE READ the final post in the series on Potato Towers.  Results were NOT 100# – not even close – I got less than 4# from 3 towers. This technique is not a magic way to produce massive yields which is why none of the articles ever show pictures of the harvest.  I grow organic potatoes professionally, and in addition to my field crops I try trails plantings each year.  If you are looking for a sure fire way to produce record harvests try the Sheet Mulch Method I document here.  That method yielded 30#’s from 10 plants – which is an insane harvest!

A huge focus of this blog is finding creative, sustainable ways to eck more produce from small spaces.  I also love growing calorie crops, especially potatoes, and furthermore I really enjoy building things.  So when a friend recently recommended the use of potato towers, I was very interested.  So yesterday I was off to buy materials for several compost bin orders I have and wouldn’t ya know?  2×6 pine was on sale.

spud-empty-top3The theory is simple – solancea plants will root from any stalk that has ground contact – I’ve seen both peppers and tomatoes rooting from their stalks.  The important part with potatoes is that they will lay tubers any where between the original “seed” potato and the soil surface.  Every time the potato plant gets about 6″ above ground, add  more soil – this is why you mound potatoes in the field.  These towers just take the mounding to crazy logical conclusions- the tower is essentially a 3′ “mound”.  What I like most about this kind of tower is the ability to “sneak” potatoes as the season progresses by removing a lower strip of 2×6 and grubbing around.  As most suburbanites don’t have root cellars (yet!) this is a huge plus if you are growing 100#’s of spuds.  Also, as the sides are opaque, spud production will occur right up to the sides, maximizing space and using less water compared to wire mesh designs.  Also, the lumber avoids some concerns that may be present with using old tires.  Old garbage cans, etc would also work.

The only major change I did for mine was that I used 2×4’s for the uprights as I had 10′ of them laying around the garage and I also put a sheet of cardboard under it to thwart the quack.  Speaking of which, this could be considered a hyper productive way to sheet mulch – cardboard out next years beds, and build potato towers along them – one could get (in theory) 600#’s of spuds form one 20′ bed (6 towers with 18″ spacing) and when the towers come down you have a raised bed about 2′ deep with compost when you’re done.  Hmmmm…

Planting the tower is easy, spud-tower-topI took 4 medium seed potatoes (1lb exactly) and cut them in half.  In the spirit of science, I used one each of Kennebec, Purple Viking, Carola, and Yukon Gold to see which liked this method more.  The growing medium I used for the first layer is 2 year old leaf mould, to which I added some pelletized chicken manure for nitrogen as it looked a little “carbon-ey”.  Weather here is mild and rainy, so they should be sprouting in no time.  The only down side is that right after the photo shoot, our new adolescent dog decided that this was a fantastic play pen and tore into it with abandon – I think I found all eight seeds, but she may have eaten one or two.

spud-tower-front1The claim is that the towers will produce 100#’s of spuds with about 1# planted in 4 sq ft.  That is freakish considering a record yield for field sown spuds is about 14:1; I was very pleased with my 8.5:1 last year.  In typical culture, 100#’s would take at least 75 sq ft, but more likely 150.  I am stoked to see this work and will certainly keep you posted.  Other great advantages – you do not need any heavy equipment to grow these – and harvesting is super easy.  Just be sure to save the soil somewhere for next year – mixing it with fall leaves and grass clippings in a compost bin would be a fantastic way to rejuvenate the soil.

Couple of post scripts. This thing is crazy overbuilt – I would feel comfortable parking a car on it if it had a cross tie across the top!  I think the prime driver of the dimensions is cost.  In the irony of modern economics, 2x6x8′ lumber is cheaper than 1x6x8′ lumber.  Also, pine rots quickly, so using 2x lumber will buy you a few extra years -though by yr 4 I expect these to be falling apart.  If it works I will likely build the next one using cedar decking for the sides and 2×2 cedar for the uprights.  That should last a decade, but would cost about double.  Another advantage would be that it would weigh half as much – this thing is heavy when built!

To make it more fun, we will likely be painting the sides with the kids – I have the idea of making each side a different person, and then we can mix and match the parts each year to create silly combinations.  I would also like to enlist my wife (waaaaay more talented artist) to paint a picture of a potato plant with a “soil view” of roots on one side.

All in all the total cost was about $30 (8 2x6x8, screws, and 12′ of 2×2) and about an hour of time in the workshop -mostly becuase my kids were running the screw guns and they are 5 and 7.  If you can truly get 100#’s of spuds that is crazy cheap – down to literally a few cents per pound over the lifetime of the tower.  Combine that with the ability for literally every single homeowner to grow all their potatoes for a year in as little as 8 sq ft this could be huge!

Be the Change.


PS – As this post has been picked up by Stumble Upon and ranks high in most Google searches,  I would like to re-direct new readers to the conclusions of this experiment, and to also click the category “Potato Tower” for further reading.  Results with this system are proving very difficult despite the claims and I have yet to see the hype fulfilled in real life.

Blooming Where You’re Planted

new-house-029Several Years ago we moved into our current home saying “We’ll move to a rural home in a few years…”  

Our current home is on the freeway- literally: this picture was taken with me leaning on our back fence… which is owned by the D.O.T. Follow the link for the backstory on that.  Our land was a farm field before we moved in – so in every sense of the phrase: we are urban sprawl.  The rich Wisconsin topsoil was mined and replaced with quarry pilings as backfill.  In this dead denuded landscape I found the inspiration to Be The Change.  I intended to spend the years that we had in this home building the skills I needed to become a small scale farmer, and just maybe adding something meaningful to the growing body of knowledge on small scale agriculture and (sub)urban farming. tour-resizeBy the third season, we had taken our soil from the above apocalyptic scene where not even dandelions would grow, to gardens producing 500#’s of produce annually.  We had packed enough design and beauty into the landscape that we were literally holding tours.

We had always intended to move – in fact 2009 was the the planned exodus.  I have learned most of the skills that I need to start a small farm, but the economy is not playing ball.  Due to the fall of our home’s value and the simultaneous ratcheting up of loan requirements, it will be 2-3 more years until we have the down money for our Someday House.  There are certainly some bright spots – Matt commented that one of his friends sold his home on craigslist due primarily to his descriptions of their edible landscape.  That is certainly encouraging, but for now we need to hunker down and Bloom Where We’re Planted.

Goals for this year at the Home Garden:

  • Declare War on Quack – it will be pushed back into the lawn and methodically eradicated by oversowing Dutch White Clover which is the only thing I have found that will outcompete it.  I am spending too much time disturbing my permaculture beds rooting out rhizomes.  
  • Fertility – the fruit trees have lanquised in the poor soil.  Time for some serious uppening!  Major 2′ deep sheet mulching projects are planned .
  • Function – many of the guilds are haphazard right now.  I plan on revisiting them to stack in more functions to reduce our grocery bill and add to our produce sales.
  • Beauty – the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess of paths, half finished beds and conflicting design patterns as I have sought to try out the theories from whatever book I had just read.  It needs to be redesigned from a master plan level to repurpose current work and add direction to future efforts.  
  • Trees –  we have not planted many Apex Trees due to our planning on leaving soon.  I am not sure that will be an option if the bottom continues to drop out, so Hybrid Chestnuts and other fast growing yet functional trees are on the docket as well as more mid story trees like Black Locust and Cherry to begin to add a canopy.


While we loathe the freeway and still dream of acreage, the house is nice and the gardens a source of pride.   The work we are doing here is meaningful as we work to demonstrate the possibilities in the suburbs and with the partnerships we have formed I have access to all the additional land I need to satisfy my farming itch.  

This year is already incredibly busy and I have already bitten off more than I can chew, but the work is pleasant and needed; my problems are High Level.  The goal will be to continue to refine my ability to focus and define what  is most critical to increase my ability to do more with the resources I have at my disposal.  Growing 2000#’s of food sustainably in a suburban backyard is still a huge goal, and so is the Market Gardens and our side business of ecological landscaping.  Finding ways to accomplish my personal goals without sacrificing my family life or paying job will be an ongoing struggle as I fight burnout.  Taking time to look at those first pictures of the property and comparing them to the bounty we have now is always refreshing.  We have done many things well in a short time.

Be the Change.


Fields, Elysian – Market Garden 2009

The title is referring more to some lyrics in one of my favorite Clutch songs than to my favorite section of Hades, but regardless I am in Full Farm mode. Also, it is high time I put some meat back into the posts and stop navel gazing and essay writing.  There’s work being done and I need to write about it!   Finally, I find it fitting that this post celebrates the day when One Straw broke 100,000 page views.  Thanks everyone!

Last weekend I broke ground at the Market Garden and took some “before” pics.  It was great to get out into the soil again!  As I begin chronicling 2009’s leap into a more focused effort into gardening for profit, I though it may be best to take a monthly shot of the gardens.  Here is April Wk 2 first shot is taken facing South West, and works around counter clockwise from there:

April 2009 Market Garden, NE Corner

April 2009 Market Garden, NE Corner


North West Corner - rye/vetch mowed clean by geese!

North West Corner - rye/vetch mowed clean by geese!


South West Corner - this section was 3 Sisters last year

South West Corner - this section was 3 Sisters last year


South East Corner - Garlic in '08, stubble is winter kill cover crop.

South East Corner - Garlic in '08, stubble is winter kill cover crop.

The plot is roughly 90′ x 70′ of growing space including the 300 sq ft hoop house.  The soil is a sandy loam, rich in organic matter and had been rotationally grazed horse pasture for the past several years.  The only thing holding it back from being paradise is that it is 8 miles from my house.  

Weed pressure is typical – some perennial quack, sow thistle and a very aggressive  rhizomatous   sedge.  Last year the weeds won, but I hit them hard with cover crops in the fall to set them back, and know better what I am in for this year.   My biggest failure last year is that I tried to farm like I garden – tight spacing and bed planting.  This maximizes yields per sq ft, but I can’t hand weed 7000 sq ft!  This year I am planting in rows spaced wide enough for a wheel hoe to go in between.  

To that end, last weekend I dusted off the Grillo, threw the tiller on it and very lightly tilled in 2 beds for spinach.  The tiller can be set to till as lightly as 1″, and I did 2 quick passes at that depth to prepare the seedbed without disturbing the soil layering.  


Grillo 85D w/ Tiller, Earthway Seeder and a Rogue Hoe.  Ready to Rock!

Grillo 85D w/ Tiller, Earthway Seeder and a Rogue Hoe. Ready to Rock!

The Grillo kicks up a beautiful seedbed in no time. I then went back and scuffle hoed the path and a foot on each side of the beds to take down the early weeds.  Next the Earthway was loaded with spinach seeds (Space) and 2 rows were run down each 30″ bed.  Finally I put up some portable electric fence as a chicken deterrent until I can get my permanent fence built this weekend.


2000 spinach plants in and fenced in under 2 hours including drive time.  I love good tools!

2000 spinach plants in and fenced in under 2 hours including drive time. I love good tools!



Last year I designed a .1 acre sustainable market garden that I would like to dust off and begin to implent.  With the housing market in the tank, we won’t be moving any time soon, so I am sinking roots, literally, on this plot.  This year will be spent primarily in eradicating the perennial weeds, but I am definitely moving towards permanent 3′ beds running north south.  At the least the fence line will be planted to flowering perennials and I intended to bi-sect the plot with a west/east bed of perennial herbs and medicinals to provide a reserve of beneficial and a truly undisturbed soil ecosystem.  Sage and Rosemary transplants are started!

If the weather holds this weekend I intend to start sinking fence posts for a 40″ welded wire fence to keep out the landowner’s 100 free range chickens and 30 geese.  The 8 peacocks will laugh merrily at that fence (they roost on top of telephone poles…) but its better than nothing.  The fence will run about $400, but I am confident that we will be on this land for 5 years.  Given that we will earn about $1500 net a year off this plot, its worth it.  We could triple that if I spent more than 5-10 hours a week on site, but it is what it is.  We will also have 2 other plots on this property each about 2500 sq ft- one in potatoes and the second in a Sudan Grass cover for mulch and to begin breaking weed cycles.  Plus I really want to mow Sudan Grass with my scythe!

This year could be a banner year for organic farming -either the bottom will continue to drop out and we will all suddenly be very interested in sustainable food, or the Green Movement will continue to gain momentum and we will all suddenly be very interested in sustainable food.  Likely it will be a bit of both.  Regardless, I’ll be out in the fields working on my farmer’s tan.


Food as Revolution

I keep a sticker on my laptop that reads “Eat like you give a Damn.”  That sticker sums it all up succinctly for me: if you are willing to put it in your mouth, you better give it some thought.  We are, literally, what we eat after all.   Course yesterday at the table my 5 year old and I had this exchange: “Daddy?”  “Yes Dear?” “What does *damn* mean?”  As we don’t believe in Hell that was a fun conversation, but it ended well.

Today was the kickoff for the farming season for me.  I pulled the Grillo out of the storage center, was pleased it fired on the third pull, loaded it up in the trailer behind the Golf and headed North to the market garden with some hand tools and an ounce of Spinach seed from Fed-Co.   The weather was perfect – about 37 degrees, but bright and clear enough that I would be shedding my sweatshirt as soon as I got moving in the field.  I had the stereo on as I drove.  Music is important to me – I use it to mold, augment, or stifle my emotional state at most times; unless I am in for a Big Think I am typically listening to something.  One would think that heading into such a bucolic scene I would be listening to George Winston’s Spring or at least something introspective or calm like the Shins, Ben Harper or the Be Good Tanyas.  Nope.  I was deep into Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against with some FloBots thrown in for good measure.  I was Calm Like a Bomb and itching for a Fight.

Rather than melding my spirit with the rhythms of the Earth I had the very real feeling like I was preparing for a Revolution – the Carharts, boots and gloves I had donned were my uniform as a frontline insurgent in the Fight for the Future; my Grillo and DeWitt hoe the weapons of the New War.  This was not a communion – it was battle.  

Of course I was not at odds with Nature -She’s my greatest Ally and raison pour l’existence.  But each of the 2000 seeds I sowed this morning were a statement that I want tomorrow to be different than today.  With those seeds I palpably stated that I want to bring into existence 50#’s of sustainably grown food that would not have been there without my labors.  I planted those seeds because I Give a Damn, to sell and barter to people that Give a Damn.  

And it is a routine that I and thousands of others will repeat every weekend for keep-fightingthe next 24 weeks.  I will break it up with tours and workshops to help the Movement gain more momentum.  I will blog about it to help others learn and to keep the discussion going.  I will learn from others and refine my techniques so that we can reliably produce surpluses of food with little to no non local inputs and support local markets sustainably.  Together we will win.

As made famous in the Battle of Seattle:

Your fist is the size of your heart – keep loving, keep fighting.


Be the Change.


24 hours

Random snippets from the past 24 hours or so:

  • Upon visiting my home town after almost 15 years I actually said “Huh.  The trees look bigger…”
  • We took our kids to the only Lego Discovery Center in the country yesterday and it was awesome.
  • I shopped in the Uber Mall near where I grew up and left feeling that the Suburbs of Chicago have a long way to go before they “get it”.  My god the wanton consumption!
  • Carharts, beards, and practical shoes are not “In” (yet!) with Upper Middle Class Chicagoans.
  • Apparently I bought over 4 dozen different cultivars of veggies and herbs over the winter …and they all came yesterday.
  • My son (whose in 1st grade) momentarily halted the dinner conversation tonight with the random, but perfectly reasonable, question of “If Mammoths went extinct… how did they evolve into elephants?”
  • I came home to a giant mound of UPS boxes in my driveway that I can only assume are my 310#’s of potatoes as Fedco reuses boxes
  • I got my annual review today at my Real Job and feel guilty about my raise.
  • I am excited to be giving two presentations to the 4th Grade tomorrow on Composting and Water conservation for Earth Day.
  •  I voted for Change at a local level today
  • Thanks to the barrels I have sold in the past 2 weeks 40,000 gallons of rainwater will be saved annually for the next 10 years and all the above seeds and spuds are now paid for.

I have much to be thankful for, and too much going on to realize it on a daily basis.  

We probably all do.

Be the Change.


Specialist v. Generalists

The coming generation will be forced to accept change on a scale that the past generation would find unthinkable.  Or perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be to say that they will be confronted by more “negative” change than we can comprehend.  Think back to the changes in the past 100 years with the rise of the petroleum based economy.  In barely 100 years we went from inventing the bicycle, to walking on the moon.  And after the 1960’s apex in transportational marvels, things really took off from a social, communication, and information side -many of which haven’t “peaked” yet.  Peak phenomena typically display similar curves on the rise and fall sides of their peak, the difference is that no one complains on the rising end of a housing bubble , but are staggered at the rate of falling home prices on the down side despite the fact that the rate of price change is roughly similar.    This is nothing new, just more poignant in the here and now.

I have written before of my call for “generalists”.  Our current society favors specialization to the degree at which we have lost competency in almost everything outside of our trained fields. But speciality build efficiency  not  resiliency.    There are insects that are hyper specialized to feed on only one plant, and they are able to do so with specific skills and tools that place them at significant evolutionary advantage.  But should that plant die off or have a bad hair day – the insect suffers just as mightily in the Bad Times as it flourished during the good.  Compare that to a more generalist insect that is able to feed on a myriad of hosts, but not nearly as efficiently as the specialists.  It will almost never out compete the specialist, but should even several of its food sources suffer it may go a bit hungry, but will continue to plod along as it has a broad pallet of choices.  The generalist is resilient to change.

I am seemingly hard wired as a generalist -so take that in mind with these recommendations.  In high school I dropped AP Chem to take auto and wood shop (my counselor was fit to be tied) since I figured I’d need those skills too. At the time I had little idea what I would need them for, but as they were important to generations past, it seemed a good idea to my young mind.  Even then I was fighting the specialization – the “career” track education of AP Calc/Physics/English seemed to be too onesidedly intellectual.  I had begun to read some philosophy in HS as well, and Aristotle’s Golden Mean resonated as did the inherent rebellion of Descartes “I think therefor I am”.  So while I learned to calculate force vectors in Physics, I applied them by swapping suspensions in my truck in auto shop.  In college I eschewed specialized degrees for a major in Philosophy and History;  I like to say I got a B.A. in “thinking”.  While studying I also worked in general construction to keep myself balanced.  Mon/Wed/Fri I would study Neitszche and the Russian kozaks, Tue/Thurs I was learning to frame, roof, side and wallboard homes.  The weekends were often for exploration – I put thousands of miles on my motorcycle on solo camping trips to the Black Hills where I taught myself to track elk and learned a Deep Love of the Land. The Hills are still my favorite place on Earth and where I hear Gaia clearest.

In the past 5 years, I have placed Re-Skilling high on my list.  I started with agriculture, and  I have learned much on growing food, building soil, and preserving the harvest.  In the past several years my reading about Peak Oil and a deeper understanding of how effed up our economic system is has sent me back into the mechanical side.  I am now actively giving myself an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering as I learn to work steel and copper with many of the same skills I learned in carpentry.  Welding, soldering, and lathe work are now vying for space in my free time with composting, wood working, and time in the fields.  That is one of the problems with generalization – one can’t do everything -but more on that later.

In many ways I am working towards fulfilling what I think I was semi consciously striving for all those years ago in High School – to become the gentleman Farmer; that Ideal from Plutarch to Jefferson of the thoughtful and self reliant agrarian citizen.  I think often of my Grandfathers – Wisconsin farmers who could weld, repair trucks, raise animals as well as barns, and reap surpluses from the soil with little technological help.   They were assets to their community and thrived or failed on their own pluck and knowhow. 

But enough with the navel gazing.  While I extol the virtues of generalism for its ability to weather a Storm.  There are certainly still causes for specialization; there will always be cause for us to follow our yearnings to do something well. Our little Community Supported Energy (CSE) club is a good example.  We have an electriconics specialist, we have the systems thinker/welder, and I have become the “farmer”.  On workdays, we can each run the grinder or saber saw, drill out sheet steel, or cut threads into rod.  We each understand the process enough to hold forth for 15 minutes with any visitor that arrives.  But when a focused task comes up – wiring the circuit for our automated auger, welding the Bio Char whisker in place, or someone asks a question on where the wood chips will come from we shift them to our “specialist”.   When we need to test the tar we produced to see how icky it is, we need to send it to someone with specialized equipment.  

There is certainly a place for specialists.  But I like to think of them as “spheres of influence (or interest)”.  My grandfather was a farmer, but he specialized in running a sawmill.  It was something that he was able to do better than his neighbors and he found a deep satisfaction in it.  This allowed him to have something to offer them – one of whom was a blacksmith, another whose wife was a seamstress.  The main difference between this idealized agrarian picture or even my CSE group and our current society is that each of us is generalized enough that we could do the job of the others, just not nearly as well or as efficiently.  Economies work on the basics of specialization – I can grow potatoes better than most of my friends, one of whom is a better mechanic than I am.  Because of our specialization it makes sense for us to trade services – I offer him potatoes for his time to put new brakes on my car.  Even more than the economic sense there is the fact that I would rather be picking potatoes than working on brakes.  And even if the services are of equal value (we were each equally proficient), this disparity of interest would be motive enough for some degree of specialization. 

With the coming of Power Down I truly believe we all need to increase our skill set – to find useful things that we enjoy doing and then to learn them well, but to also find useful things that we have no idea how to do and at least get competent with those skills too.  This is my vision of specialized generalists (say that 10x fast!), where we all know many of the skills needed in today’s world – from computer  programming to composting to bread baking to tomato growing to auto repair to monetary system design.  But more so, that we all have the pride of learning that we can do some of those things well enough to be considered proficient.  

I am idealistic enough to honestly believe that we each have something that we are able to do better than most other people.  For many, we may not have even found that thing yet.  But the coming Change will force our hand in becoming more resilient -more generalized- in many aspects of our lives.  I challenge each of us to honestly consider taking some time to learn new skills; to follow our yearnings and learn a skill that we can then use to the benefit of our families and neighbors when its needed.

Be the Change


Lost Generation

Be the Change

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