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.

23 Responses

  1. Right…wheres my screwdriver, saw and the spare wood. I want me a few of these.

  2. The hard part, for me, is finding a supply of soil to fill the darn thing. And it can’t be the same soil year after year either, for fear of blight, and I have to move this year’s cubic yard of soil to another garden bed, also not destined for solanaceae in the next 3 years…

  3. Emily, we’ve talked about this, thou needs more compost material! It is only .3 yards per tower…

    Get yourself a nice 13′ wide 4 bin system and some coffee shops to give you their grounds and you’re in business. 😉

    I plan on taking the soil out, and composting it again so it is only out for 1 year.

    Point taken though – I forget that not everyone has access to almost unlimited compost.


  4. Verrrry interesting. I plan to try growing some potatoes in buckets this year, just because we have a lot to grow and only so much garden space. I’m looking forward to seeing how they do. I have to admit, I’m pretty skeptical of the 100# of yield from 1# of seed claim. That’s rather a stretch, I suspect. But hey, if you get even a quarter of that, it would be remarkable.

    So, you don’t have all four sides on in these pictures. Is that just for illustrative purposes? Do you assemble them all at once, or add on as you fill the tower with soil? For short people, not having to lift the fill any higher than needed might be a good thing!

  5. Hey Kate,

    You fill them as the vines grow. So for starters there is just one row of sides (5.5″ of height) meaning that the seed potatoes are covered by about 3″ of soil. In a week or so the vines will sprout and begin to grow leaves.

    As the vines get about 8″ tall I will add another row of sides and fill back with soil, burying 70% of the stem. That buried stem will then become a root, and the root (former vine) will begin to send out new tubers to grow into potatoes.

    In typical potato growing you get about 1′ of space between the seed and the soil surface – the growing space for new potatoes. The tower takes the 1′ of space and quadruples it. That 400% increase in tuber growing area combined with the lavish attention that one can give to such a small space (no weeds, perfect soil moisture and fertility) should add up to significant gains. 1:10 is a great harvest in the field, If I can get 1:30 or even 50 I will be ecstatic.


  6. I’m guessing your Yukon Gold won’t produce any more than it would in the ground. Supposedly (no experience here, but so I’ve been told) the early potatoes don’t work. They set their potatoes once and won’t set anymore along the stem after that. The late season potatoes are what you want. They will continue to set potatoes up the stem as the stem gets buried.

    I’m doing a bin that is made out of tree saplings from my woods and chicken wire to hold in the dirt. It is so not over engineered (but free since I’ve had chicken wire sitting around for years). I’m really hoping it isn’t under engineered or it will spill into my paths. It is only two feet high so probably won’t be too horrible if there is a failure.

  7. […] described his interest in growing potatoes this way. And our friend Rob at One Straw also has been busy building a […]

  8. this is awesome, and to solve the rotation issue, make 3 bins, and have potatoes and two other things. Say for instance sweet potatoes and peanuts as the other two items in rotation. But instead of using the upright posts to wall in more soil, use them to support clear plastic so they stay hot and humid. I dont know much about growing either of those two and I’m sure the yield would not be magnified in the same way as the potatoes, but it would allow you to rotate and keep the soil in production so long as it got some kind of ammendments.

  9. Hi Rob

    My Father try that technic a few years ago to allow my nephew ho were living in a town home with no real garden to grow some few potatoes …

    That indeed work but he never achieve the 1/100 ratio, more likely 1/25 which is already huge. He find out the second year that by allowing some stem to get out of the bin while they grow was giving some how a slightly better yield. and drainage.

    You say in one of your reply that not everyone have access to unlimited compost ….

    Well for once I have to disagree with you, we can almost all have access to a lot of compost, right now craigslist is full of free horse manure compost, more more cities have compost leaf free to be pick up and best of all, my father and I were doing that every fall, gather your neighborhood leaf and compost them, it is easy to pick up the one that have already be pile, and for the one that have not been piled, well start your lawn mower and bag those leave by doing so you will even get the process going faster, in a year you’ll have a good usable compost to grow veggie, in two year you’ll have an amazing starting mix almost free of weed ….

  10. Thanks everyone! This post set an all time record at 1 Straw for traffic – looks like small scale ag is catching on!

    Daphne – It will certainly be interesting to see how the different varieties compare. My only concern is that I may not be able to tell a Kennebec from a Carola when they are dirty 😉 Your bin sounds great! packing the chicken wire with leaves, straw or something to block the sun and retain moisture may make it even better.

    Kory – I am really not to concerned about the rotation. It will only be about 2-3 wheel barrow loads of soil – and I can always throw that amount somewhere -even just as top dressing in the lawn. But, I think I will use most as filler in whatever compost bin is newest, which should also cleanse the blight. Multiple bins would solve it too, but I think I will just use fresh soil each time.

    Xavier – 1:25 does sound good, but I am pulling for 1:50 – like Daphne said, it will likely have alot to do with varieties. Yukons are not know for yield even in the field. Purple Vikings are a better bet, I’ve pulled several pounds off one hill before in our home gardens. It is also likely that moisture and fertility will come into play, and I am sure there is some skill needed as to when to cover the vines and how much.
    -Good thoughts on the compost. Our village’s pile is as big as a house!


  11. what a great idea! It’s the first year I try to grow potatoes in containers and this idea is fantastic!

  12. Rob and Kory – Thanks for the ideas about compost and rotation. I have more access to manure than compost, and raw manure isn’t good for potatoes – but if I can get compost and rotate it through with other crops (I love the peanuts idea…), that gets a whole lot easier.

    *keeps pondering*

  13. […] 30, 2009 The One Straw blog has a post about making a four square foot potato tower. It seems akin to the one I posted […]

  14. These are so awesome! Do you know if you could use straw to build up around the spuds like you can on the ground? I know they can be grown soilless that way but I’m not sure how high up you can pile it and they’ll still grow. It’s just a lot easier for me to come by than extra soil or compost…..

    Thanks for the inspiration….I’m making at least one of these babies to try out!

  15. Rob,
    Interesting post, however, the University of GA, or GA extension has a commercial potato production guide that I came across about 5 years ago. I thought pretty much the same thing you were thinking, so I began mulching my taters in leaf mulch a foot deep. The potatoes will not yield as you think b/c the publication says that although they will send out more roots along the main stem, the actual tips of the stolons that the new potatoes form on will not continue to come out of the stem. They are limited to the area around the stem/seed tuber junction. Rather, there are 4 types of roots that form from the seed spud/stem and the others are more to be “adventitious” so to speak and take up nutrients/water. I also subscribe to “spudman”, a commercial potato industry production magazine that had a similar article years ago discussing these types of roots. The real advantage to deep mulching here in NC (I’m originally from Upstate NY where they grow ALOT of commercial taters) where I live now is to keep the soil cooler and cut down on irrigation and CPB pressure in addition to stealing some early taters. Our soils get so hot here in July when we dig potatoes that they dont like it and sometimes in wet years will actually resprout in the ground if they are in there too long.
    Good luck with your experiment. We find out biggest yields come from proper greensprouting and well timed irrigation.

  16. I have grown potatoes in a ‘barrel’ that is actually a black circular plastic thing, about 36″ high and at least that great diameter, that is sold as a composter. There are some holes cut out on the sides for aerating the compost I guess, and some tomato branches find their way out, but lots of potatoes grow as I keep adding last year’s autumn leaves which do break down over the course of the summer. Since I use leaves instead of soil for the mounds/hills, watering is essential. I am interested that you started on cardboard and compost. I’ve always dug out so the potatoes are on soil, but I think I will give this a trial.

  17. Thanks CW – the carboard is to prevent the my ever present quack grass from also enjoying the mounding technique along with the spuds. Open soil would be preferred, I think.

    Two plants are up, I love how rewarding growing potatoes can be!


  18. […] info about the BCS tractor i really want) … i strolled across this great small farmer blog, One Straw: Be The Change which ultimately let to the Seattle Times and plans for a 4ft high potato tower. so off to lowes […]

  19. […] and we’re going to try building a potato bin, as shown here. It looks like it should be pretty easy to build, and I love the idea of using the boxes as massive […]

  20. […] Tower, Month 1 Posted on May 25, 2009 by onestraw Last month I built my first potato tower, filled it with 6″ of compost, and planted it with a variety of spuds.  Now 4 weeks in, 2 of […]

  21. […] on 10/10 when we had a very severe freeze of 23 degrees.  Considering we put the towers in the last week of April – this was a VERY long season for a 100 day potato like Carola.  I know that everyone is […]

  22. […] harvest of spuds.  The amount you can grow in less space is almost exponential. At the blog  One Straw , they get close to a hundred pounds of spuds per tower.  I hope I can get results like that.  In […]

  23. […] per sq ft due to the space constraints.  Last year I tried two separate experiments with potatoes: Potato Towers and Straw Mulch Potatoes.  The towers were an unmitigated failure, as they have been for virtually […]

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