Potato Tower Month #2

So we are now 60% of the way to Potato Tower Harvest (average harvest date for spuds is 100 days) and things are progressing rather well.  With 60 days of growth in, I have added three more rungs, and the more vigorous plants are on rung 5.

Potato Tower Rung 4This really exemplifies the need, as “Walker” stated in the Month 1 comments, to place only one variety in each tower.  The vigorous variety (likely Yukon) would be on rung 6 if I had been able to push it with hilling.  The slower growing varieties are definitely struggling to keep up – actually  having their growth retarded somewhat due to the hilled soil washing over their top growth more than I would like (we’ve had some hum dinger rain events).  Still things are progressing nicely – other than some flea beetles they are disease and pest free right now.

Rung 4 TopThis is the tower after its latest hilling.  In a perfect world, the left plant would have received more hilling, and the right plant less.  The plant in the back is about right by my guess.  There are actually 5-6 plants that I have had to “train” into these three piles to facilitate hilling at 3 different levels in such a small space.

I just harvest my first (baby) spuds from my field sown plants.  They were Yukons and only producing across about 8″ of soil.  Even in this first attempt at Towering, I have potentially over 20″ of tuber production, perhaps doubling the yield or more when you factor in the TLC that such a small planting allow me to give it.  I have lavished water, the best compost, mycelium inoculation, and fish emulsion on this tower.  I can’t wait for Month 3.2 when I harvest!

As I have already gleaned many learnings from this, I wanted to put them into practice as early as possible so I have started 2 new towers – a Purple Viking and a Kennebec.  Main changes:

  • Single Variety per Tower
  • Hilling every 2 weeks leaving 3-4″ of Top Growth
  • Fencing to keep my crazy dog out.
  • Placing the towers where I want 12 cu feet of compost next year (edge of my permaculture guilds)

Even with the foibles of the First Attempt it is still going strong and I am very optimistic about the harvest.  Look for a recap towards the end of July!



24 Responses

  1. I’m impressed. I want one!

  2. I went ahead and made two towers, but I ended up using cut-up house shutters for the sides (I was in the process of adding insulating bat to the exterior of the house and then siding over that, so I had the shutters down anyway, and never liked fake shutters to start with, so . . . .). I can send you a photo or two if you want.

    The potatoes (Butte and All Blue, both from Wood Prairie Farm in Maine) have started off vigorously (I was very late getting them going because of all the house stuff I was doing).

    I also put a couple of my extra Butte seed potatoes in self-watering containers made from 5 gallon food buckets, just to see how that goes. They seem to like it in there so far.

  3. P.S. A friend told me of an interesting potato method: she said that an old guy she knew would save all his grass clippings in a big pile, and then he would put his seed potatoes on bare ground and cover them with 6″ of the composted seed clippings that had overwintered. Then he would build up the pile as the potatoes grew out the top of it. She said he was able to rob potatoes from the pile throughout the year with no digging needed.

    I have eliminated all my grass so this method is n/a for me, but it’s an interesting thing to try, kind of a “poor man’s potato tower.”

  4. Nice! And thanks for the update.

    I have six buckets seeded with one German Butterball apiece. The plants look great and I have already added as much soil to the buckets as I can. Initially I had about 5-6″ of soil in each one. The real test of course is going to be the actual yields. I know the total weight of the seed pieces for the buckets as a whole, and I recorded the individual weights of the seed pieces for two of the buckets. Other than adding a good deal of compost to the clay soil used to fill the buckets, I haven’t especially pampered these plants. I plan to harvest by simply emptying the buckets one at a time into the wheelbarrow. I hope by then that at least one of our coldframes will be built, in place, and ready for some fill. Easy harvest, easy coldframe filling.

    I look forward to seeing your harvest tallies from the towers.


  5. I’m 9/10ths convinced that this is how I am going to grow potatoes next year. I eagerly await your yield reports.

  6. This looks great! I used a trench method this year (my first growing potatoes). I dug a long shallow trench, planted the potatoes and have been slowly adding dirt until now I have a long, low hill. But my chickens have severely interfered with my potato success. Every time I put down new dirt they run over and scratch it all off the plants and wallow in it. I’ve laid a section of field fencing over my hill, but even this hasn’t been 100% effective. Looks like your potato tower would be pretty fully chicken-proof.

  7. Thanks everyone! Aimee that is essentially how I grow all my potatoes at the farm – I start with a trench 8″ deep in between two mounds of soil – the resulting hills on the rows I got to hill (I have 2000′ of row…) end up with about 16″ of hill.

    I am also trying a modified trench at home on some sheet mulched horse manure from 2008 – I scraped the mulch back tot he composted manure – laid the spuds down in a shallow trench – covered with compost, and then am adding straw as they grow.

    Kory – I will certainly give updates – should this go well I may convert to these as my primary spud tool with 100′ of towers next year at the farm instead of 1-3000 sq ft of plants. That would be SOOO much easier to maintain!

    Kate – let us know how the buckets come out – they are roughly 1 sq ft which is still an improvement over the 3-4 sq ft of field sown.

  8. Rob –

    Thanks for continuing to post updates. I’m just now harvesting my early potatoes and am getting ready to build my tower for my late planting. Since I live in Sacramento CA – it’s easy to get two (and possibly 3) full potato crops.

    Rather than a single variety – since I’m just in a backyard – I’m planting 3 early (Mountain Rose, Charlotte, and Bison) varieties. l’m hopeful that it will keep everything moving at the same pace.

    After buying the 2x6s – it really got me thinking about how this is overbuilt. I thought about ripping some pieces of plywood or OSB, but don’t like the idea of a lot of labor intensive cuts. Have you thought any more about this?

  9. A couple comments. My tower will be 3ft x 3ft x3 ft when its done. Considering my only source of soil is bags bought from the local hardware store and (I’ve heard)that soil used to grow potatoes shouldn’t be reused the following year, its just too much soil. Next year, if this year is a success, I’ll switch to 1x1x3. I am considering switching to peat, what do you think?

    My biggest flaw is my inability to thin. I know its the right thing to do, but I just can’t make myself do it. I followed your earlier photos and put in about 20 potato pieces. What I’ve ended up with is approx 12 plants. I suspect it will result in lower production, possibly smaller potatoes… all of the potato plant leaves have holes in them, possibly indirectly as a result of the crowding.

    Moral of the story: smaller tower, less seeds.

  10. Rob, The potato tower seems like a great idea – I guess you could really maximise the yield using this system and keep the chickens at bay.
    I’m growing potatoes for the first time just now using the hilling method but am still learning the ropes.
    Is the idea with either system, to just keep covering the leaves lower down on the stem or should they be cut off?
    Also I guess I would only use the tower if I could access second hand preservative free wood – otherwise it might be an expensive proposition to buy the wood with the risk of it rotting.
    Great blog!

  11. Tom – You’re welcome – I love trying out new ideas. I have come round on the 2×6 idea. OSB would never last with soil contact, and I have yet to see sustainably grown cedar (grows to slow for tree farming in most areas). The 2×6 dimension may be overbuilt from a structural outlook, but we are thinking in rot resistance – or rot duration more specifically. If you loose .3 inches per year you get 3-4 years out of if, and I suspect more, and potentially 150#’s of spuds

    Paul, a 3x3x3 bin will hold a full yard of soil – or more than twice the soil of a 2x2x3 bin. Volume adds up quick! The soil from your potatoes shouldn’t be used for spuds again, but it is certainly good for lots of other things – use it on your small fruits like raspberries, use it in a lettuce bed, or on some brassicas like brocolli – all are different enough plants that disease carry over is unlikely. Thinning potatoes is not common – you get so close to 100% “germination” from the potato “seeds” that you should only plant what you need. For your large 3×3 bin I thin 12 would be about right. 6 seems good for my 2×2. The holes in your potato leaves are likely due to flea beetles. They are a very common pest, but unlikely to hurt your vigorous plants unless you have an awful bad case. Most plants can take up to 30% defoliation without much yield loss. Keep experimenting!

    James, chickens can certainly be a problem until you hill the plants and then again when the spud set is close to harvest as they love the tubers. But in the mean time they are AWESOME to have in the plot – I have yet to find a SINGLE potato beetle in my 1000 plants despite planting in the exact same spot as last year (not recommended). Why? We ran 100 chickens through the plot all winter and they scratched the the ground down an inch or so -likely eating all overwintering larvae and eggs. Now in the season – peacocks are rooming the plot at will and eating bugs – the beetles don’t stand a chance! Gardening without poultry is a challenge too!
    I do not remove the leaves when I hill, just cover them up and there seems to be no ill effect. Solanacea love to root from stalk and are used to ground contact of the plant/vine.

    Buying wood for a tower cost about $24. If I can get 50#’s a year, and the wood last 4 years I have 200#’s of potatoes for 5 pounds of seed. 200#’s field grown would need 30#’s of seed and potato seed costs about $2/lb. If I can save 25#’s of seed I am a bit better than breaking even and I have saved several hours of weeding and watering. Its a win on that front even if it costs a bit more.

    Thanks everyone!


  12. Great – thanks Rob for you response. I will give the tower a go next year and just cover up the leaves on my existing hilled crop as you suggest. James

  13. Plants in this tower are drooping very badly with wilted leaves. No splotches or pest damage and research on the inter-web and my home library is coming up blank, so I initially though that they needed water, but the soil in the top 4 ” seemed fine. I formed the theory that the water was not getting down to the roots in the bottom of the tower so I added another 3 gallons. Only 15 minutes later did I have the brilliant idea to pop off a rung near the bottom to check. Looks like I have the opposite problem: to *MUCH* water. Tomorrow I will remove several boards to see if I can dry it out some.

  14. Thanks for the update. I hope they make it. Your tower had no bottom, right? Just cardboard underneath, iirc.

  15. You bet Kate.

    Right – no bottom other than cardboard which is pretty rotted by now. 2 issues compounded the soil moisture issue:

    -my lawn soil is VERY dense with a high clay content and with 250#’s of soil pushing on the tower, it seals pretty tight to the ground.
    -by my stacking the rungs flush on the rung below it, they swell so much that they have to be pryed out with a barforming a watertight seal like a whiskey barrel. Next towers I will leave 1/4″-1/2″ between rungs to allow for swelling and allow some drainage.

    One of the 3 remaining plants is perking up – fingers crossed.


  16. If I remember right – the OP in the Seattle Times said that watering this thing was the key. According to the guy, even watering was essential.

    I’m wondering if a less dense, but still nutritious medium would get your water to the base more efficiently. If you think about the so-called mulch method of potato growing – you don’t need 250# of compost to feed to potato plants. If you place the seeds in a good nutrious bed you could probably get away with a 2:1 mix of straw and compost which would give you more drainage – you’d just have to add more as the straw decomposed.

    Last issue – do you think it might be worth it to build it on a skid with a throw-away base sheet of plywood / OSB with some holes in it? Kind of like my half wine barrels?

  17. And in a final breath of innovation – I’m wondering if you couldn’t embed a drip system into the base layer to provide constant and consistent water to the seed piece, while still delivering some moisture to the top as well.

    A small hole cut in lowest rung of 2x6s with some simple hardward cloth stapled in might give you irrigation access to the base.

  18. Whoa – I found a really interesting link here:


    This person apparently built the tower last year and experienced poor yields. For this reason:

    “Greg from Irish-Eyes Garden City Seeds let me know that Yukon Golds, and all early varieties set fruit once and do not do well in towers. You only get potatoes in the bottom 6 inches, which is what I got. Late season alternatives to yukon gold are Yellow Fin and Binjte.”

    That would account for some peoples’ complaint across the internet that towers may or may not be productive.

  19. Thanks for all the comments Tom. That is the second time cautions against early potatoes have come up. I have earlies, mids and lates planted so we should have good data in less than 3 months.

    I think rather than adding additional complexity I will simply leave a bit of space between the side rungs for drainage, this will also make checking soil moisture a breeze by simply removing a plank to touch the soil. Also, I do not like to garden out of contact with the large soil ecosystem – I want the tower’s base to share microbes and nutrients with the large soil ecosystems which also allows the potato to send feeder roots down to mine nutrients I may be lacking in the tower.

    I do like the straw idea – I am growing about 2#’s of Purple Viking seedin a straw bed right now to see how they do. I had always wanted to try and found the seed laying in the garage a week after I planted -they must have fallen out of the bag. They are on a nest of composted horse manure, and I will try half in pure straw and half in a compost/straw mix. I see lots of upside to this option – thanks!


  20. I might have gotten a little carried away with the comments…..

    Good point on the soil microbes…. a necessary component for sure.

  21. One of the reasons I used household decorative shutters is the aeration they provide — if I were to overwater, it would come out the sides all around.

    I just put my second level (of three) on my towers. No harvesting yet — I’m psyched to wait and see if I can’t pull them out all winter.

  22. I plant has survived the over watering, 1 is dead for sure, 1 is still undecided…

    Luckily the other 2 towers are progressing nicely.

  23. Now THAT is really cool!

  24. […] growth as I expected from planting in such a rich compost medium.  However in comments on the Month 2 updates I reported that disaster had struck  almost exactly 60 days after the planting- heavy rains had […]

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