Potato Towers Month 4!

Yeah, you got that right.  Month FOUR.  Potatoes are supposed to be half dead, wretched looking things at much past 90 days, but tower #1 went  in Apil 27 and is still vibrant and strong.  The spuds I field planted at the same time have only wispy desiccated brown leaves left – some are already decomposed.  Here is Tower 1:

Tower #1 Month 4With almost 3′ of root zone, This tower could be very productive if the theory holds.  Flowering for the 4th or 5th time – the repeated deep hilling as levels are added to the tower is acting like a “reset button” for the life cycle of the plant: each time it will stop flowering, and put more energy into growth and converting the former stalk to root.  My one concern is when to let the top growth go – I figure it will take a syck amount of leaf area to produce enough sugars to grow 25-50#’s of potatoes.  The main reason the plants die back is that they are pulling all their sugar into the tubers and there is no where near enough leaf are to do that now – will the longer season have offset that?  This may be the last rung on this tower and I have hit it with Fish Emulsion to give it some boost.  Still very little pest or disease pressure – though the University Extension just sent out a Late Blight (of Potato Famine Fame) bulletin – it’s in Wisconsin and stiking terror into all us organic potato growers – it can wipe out a field in as little as a week.

Towers 2/3, which went in 2 months later, are doing fine with one variety – I believe its the Purple Viking- having about 6″ more growth (1 rung).


Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone.  These guys are vigorous!

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone. These guys are vigorous!


Tower 2.  Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

Tower 2. Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

At the same time I put in Towers 2/3 I also planted a double row of Purple Viking in a Straw mulch.  Initial Results were very solid, but the limits of this system are becoming apparrent.


Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling".  5 Gallon bucket for scale.

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling". 5 Gallon bucket for scale.

The issue I am having now is that the bed is getting freaky wide- the straw keep sloughing off to the sides as I try to add height. this is about the limit I think I can reach without adding an insane amount of straw to the outside of the bales- I have already lost 2/3’s the path on each side.  If yields are good, next year I can see “fencing” the bed with full bales to give it some structure, “hilling” with loose straw inside, and post harvest turning the whole thing into a giant sheet mulch or fungus bed.  Again, this could be a VERY productive way to de-lawn a hundred square feet of your lawn over 18 months.

On a final note, here is a shot of what the yeilds of the towers will be up against:


Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

This is the best yield for one plant (3 sq ft) so far.  At this rate, a tower will beat field spuds in yield per sq. ft at bout 5#’s per tower.  Expecting the bar to go up as I harvest the higher yielding cultivars like Kennebec and Purple Viking.  Still, this was a GREAT yeild for one Yukon plant.  My challenge in the field is to figure out how to ge this much (about 2.25x normal) from each plant!

Weather remains crazy mild – we have yet to break 90 ?! — and extraordinarily dry.  My sunchokes and Cupplant are withered and dropping leaves – these are hardy native perennials.  Even the week with 1″ of rain only bought a brief reprieve – the soil is dry down several feet and will likely not recharge until winter.  That said, the humus rich soil at the market gardens are doing much better.  The yukon yield above is from an unirrigated plot.  Yet another reason I like to plant spuds early to take advantages of the June rains.  The Late Plantings will likely suffer significantly in tuber weight due to the low rain.  On the flip side – tomato flavor is UNREAL since the fruits are not nearly as watery.

  While the shoulder injury has been a pain, it has really forced me to SLOW DOWN which has had the benifit of increasing that most important farming / permaculture skill of observation.  If I am only harvesting at 50#’s an hour v. 100#’s I spend more time looking at pest damage, tracking soil moisture and tilth, and just plain thinking which is making me a better person.  A time to reap, and a time to sow…

Be the Change!!


12 Responses

  1. Still looking forward to your results, Rob. Though 3.5# from one plant is impressive enough already. One of my varieties (La Ratte) got hit with blight on Tuesday, though the spuds I dug yesterday from that variety look good. Still, this will skew my results. So much about this year has been abnormal and bad for the garden. I feel almost worse about my inability to properly assess some of the experiments I tried this year than I do about my very low yields. This year’s harvest was just supposed to feed us over the next year. The results were supposed to help me make good decisions for years to come.

    So far, no blight on the tomatoes or the other three spud varieties I planted. But I suspect this is only because we’ve had nothing more than a few drops of rain this week. I expect to find blight on my other potatoes after the next rain. But every day they survive unscathed is a day they can continue building tubers.

  2. I have encountered a problem — when I did the last tier of my tower, three quarters of my “allblue” potatoes died, or at least disappeared. Apparently I buried them too aggressively (except for one very hardy plant). The “Butte” variety seems to love the exact same treatment like crazy though — they are more than chest high (I’m 6′ tall), after having started at 6″. (Same for the Butte’s in a double six-gallon bucket self-watering container — they LOVE the constant moisture wicking up through the soil). I’ve never grown spuds before so I’m going to leave them all in the planters until the tops die off for sure and then harvest them all at once so I can see what’s possible. Next year maybe I’ll be more confident and can start reaching in and robbing some potatoes as I go.

  3. Kate – Sorry to hear about the blight and other issues – that is heartrending after all your work! So far it appears that mycorrhizal / beneficial fungus seems to be essential to massive yields in my potato patches. The only anecdotal thing I can find tying the very high producing plants together is that the soil near them is stitched with mycelium – and they high yielders are often in groups. There is enough smoke to make me begin planning for a side by side with an deliberately fungus inoculated bed.

    Walker – I try to leave at least 6-8″ of top growth and a bit more the higher I get in the tower to give the plant a chance to move enough water (leaf area to root mass). Unfortunately we are all finding the correct methods through trial and error – but it is great to be on the cutting edge! That is a freaky tall tower you got going there btw! If your results are strong with Butte I may use them next year, though I am not a huge fan of the russet types – though Butte’s numerous other qualities -high vitamin C and protein- speak very highly for it.


  4. Rob,
    I admire your work, but my post I left initially did not receive a response….seems as though you didn’t believe what I told you about adventitious root formation. I grew taters like this in cages with leaf mulch years ago, and it didn’t change the yield as plant physiology is what it is. A discussion ensued about 6 years ago about this topic on Davesgarden.com or gardenweb.com with people using old tires. Unfortunately, the results were the same. Timing of water is the key issue, not how much stem you bury. Check in your compost, you probably are seeing these adventitious roots, but no stolons like down by the seed piece.
    Good luck, growing potatoes up north is sure easier than in the south….

  5. Tom,

    Thank you for your comments. I backtracked to your initial comment in April, and I apologize for not responding. While I try to respond to most comments, the Tower Series is generating an average of 18 comments per post and I am missing some.

    I am still having a very difficult time finding evidence on Potato Towers, tire methods, straw mulch, or other “deep hilling” techniques. There is alot of hype, but no data. The only two comments I have had to offset the euphoric hype of the initial tower articles I had referenced are yours and several claiming that “early” cultivars like Yukon’s do not work. The lack of data / pictures to back up the initial hyperbolic claims of “100+#’s” from a tower was a main driver to start 3 towers myself in a semi-control environment that I am documenting here.

    My questions to you would be if you can provide links to any online resources or titles of resources available in hardcopy for library reference. Do the reports you reference refer to only commercially grown potatoes (set to produce all their tubers at once for ease of harvest) or do they also include heirloom varieties. With several hundred known potato cultivars there is an incredible variety within the plant genre. When the last “flare up” of comments that your referred to happened what cultivars where used?

    The ability to grow large amounts of calories in so little space is attractive enough that I am willing to spend $100 and a bit of the back yard to test whether it is a will-o-wisp, overblown, or legit. I appreciate your comments and thoughts – a month or so more and we will have the first results from this year to add to the data pool.


  6. Rob,
    The original article I read was an extension publication from the University of Georgia. I went back to find it online and it was not the same as the one I have that I printed out initially many years ago. I will look at it and get back to you. The other was a commercial potato publication called “Spudman”, which had a columnist discussing the 4 types of roots that form off of the tuber/stem. Although they didn’t discuss heirlooms vs. modern cultivars, I suspect there is no difference in physiology. I have deeply mulched all blue, all red, carola, etc. and no differences in yield or physiology were apparent. The only thing that grows from the buried stem higher up are adventitious roots that aid in taking up nutrients from the mulch/compost. The mulch’s main benefit is really to cool the soil and keep moisture constant, 2 things which I have trouble with here in the south vs. Upstate NY where I’m originally from (climate there is similar to yours—I have a cousin in Waterford).
    I will try to find both articles and figure a way to get them to you…..however, if deep mulching were real, there would be plenty of old time books describing the monster yields that some claim and every backyard gardener would be doing it. It wouldn’t be much of a secret if it were legit.

  7. Thanks for looking into it Tom. Since yesterday I have stumbled up on a caption under a photo of a Chicago Permaculture work day that shows a picture of one of these and claims to have gotten 25#’s from one. Again, no listing of cultivar, technique, or pictures of harvest. I have contacts in the group, but do not recognize anyone in the picture – I will see what I can dig up.

    The 100#’s is hard to believe – the spuds would displace 50% of the soil in one of these towers. 25#’s from 5 seeds would be about what I would expect from 5 seeds in a field run with a high yielding variety under ideal conditions. That may be the secret rather than the deep mulch. The towers allow for utmost care in moisture, fertilizer, pest prevention and soil tilth. The deep mulching may do more to guarantee near record yields (18:1) with the extra root zone ensuring high nutrient uptake.

    I am not as skeptical as you about it not being more prevalent today. In my limited experience – inertia is a more powerful force than innovative techniques and many old time growers had lots of land and would have had little incentive to put this much effort into maxing out yield per sq ft and tower materials such as lumber, fencing, etc would have been much more proportionally expensive. time will tell.

    Again, I appreciate the discussion and your efforts in researching the technique.

  8. This is where I first heard about it. Note they list good varieties.

  9. It would be fun to keep a group of carefully-spaced trees on the north side of a garden for a method like this. Rungs could be laid inside as needed, and held in place by mounding. The tops could be inosculated together for strength, and pollarded (with the knobby ends leaning way north) to mimimize shading of spuds and slow down trunk growth. With the right legume species, adventitious roots along the inside might even grow nodules, which I bet the potatoes would like.

  10. One more thought: A pile of mulch can have sheer sides, if some of it is coarse enough.

    For example, you could put in 3 or 4 corn stalks on each new level, rotating 90 degrees each time. Or you could mix in fine tree branches.

  11. I harvested the Butttes grown in one of my self-watering container gardens (two 5 gallon buckets nested etc. per Urban Homesteading Handbook) — 3 lbs 12 oz of nice looking potatoes! 3 or 4 big ones, a handful of medium smalls and another handful of tiny “new” potatoes.

    I didn’t do the “forcing tall” trick on these — I forgot!, so I planted them a few inches down in a self-watering container that was already full of soil. Next year I’ll try starting them in the self-watering cans with only 6″ of soil and then force them up to see if I can boost the yield.

  12. Any harvesting yet from the towers, Rob? I harvested my German Butterballs planted in the buckets this past weekend. I wrote about the results here:


    Keep us posted!

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