Potato Tower Results – An End to the Hype?

Thanks everyone for waiting all season for the results!  I finally got to harvest the towers about 2 weeks ago – the last of the vines had been killed 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 dying for the results so I will not keep you waiting any longer.  While I learned alot, the harvest was no where near 100 lbs per tower – I got about 3 lbs for the 1 lbs planted in the main tower


Total Harvest for Tower #1 - about 3#'s

Now, way back in April I planted 4 different varieties into this tower, and the first month saw great 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 waterlogged the tower, killing 3 of the 4 plants completely and severely wounding the 4th – which turned out to be a Carola.  That little plant had continued to grow, and I was amazed the fact that it flowered a remarkable 5 times over the course of the summer.  At each hilling the flowers would die back, the plant would send up new shoots, and then those would flower, only to have them die back again after the next hilling.  Here is what I discovered when I pulled the rungs of the tower off in early October:


Spud set 18" above seed height (bottom level) - proof of the tower theory?

I even found a few more small potatoes above these. These potatoes were 18″ above seed potato depth – far higher in the soil than one would ever expect from conventionally grown potatoes whose potatoes are clustered within 6″ of the seed.  In fact the potatoes in the harvest basket above ALL came from this plant as it was the only one to survive the steep learning curve as I had to climb as I experimented with this new growing technique. Given that a Carola potato seed is about 3 oz. the 48 oz harvested equates to a respectable 16:1 yield.  Of note though is that spud size was small with only 3 of the potatoes being typical Carola size which is completely opposite what one would expect from the lavish attention these towers received: watering, weeding, compost growing medium, fish emulsion and compost tea foliar sprays – I babied this plant!

My strong suspicion, voiced as the towers grew, is that all the aggressive hilling perpetually knocks back the leaf growth and the plants never develop a lush canopy of sugar producing leaves to build the starch needed for a good harvest.  Perhaps this is an issue that can be worked around with better technique, but its a strong concern.

The other two towers were almost complete failures – the Purple Viking tower was knocked back with blight before tuber set, and  the Kennebec tower had its tubers rotting in the ground due to excessive moisture from my layered straw and a ground squirrel had eaten the rest.  Here is a very important picture from that tower which adds incontrovertible evidence to the theory that some cultivars will not root out from the buried stems at all:


Buried "Stem" had ZERO roots developed after 3 months beneath the soil

The bucket is placed solely to provide enough contrast to see the root-free “stem”.  This is completely the opposite of what the Carola’s did – that plant had roots filling the entire tower and spuds at levels from 2″ above seed depth to 18″ above.  Given that there are 300+ potato cultivars worldwide there is certainly room to further the research on this technique should people wish to continue the task.

Want to grow your own experimental tower next year?

My Recommendations:

  • Plant one cultivar per tower – varied growth rates between varieties makes hilling difficult
  • Ensure VERY good drainage – I lost 80% of the plants due to waterlogging.  Spacing the rungs 3/8″ to allow for swelling is a good start, placing the tower on a light soil (or a mat of 4-6″ of straw) is also a must.  Pop a rung off near the bottom to check moisture before watering – these towers hold water VERY well.
  • Kennebec apparently will not root from the buried stems – hilling Kennebec is critical in field plantings though as they green up within hours of sunlight exposure
  • Tower height need not be more than 24″, though this may depend on cultivar choice – fingerlings get TALL.
  • Give canopy sq ft allot of thought – if you want 10#’s of potatoes you need to have enough leaf cover making all that sugar
  • Add straw in a mix, not as a layer.  My layers of straw blocked moisture and were saturated.  Straw is still valuable – worm casings present in the vermicompost I added hatched and I found dozens of very happy red wigglers in the tower nibbling on the straw bits and adding plenty of fresh castings to the Carola plant.

Do Potato Towers work?  Maybe…  that is the best I can say now.

My concerns:

  • Technique is apparently paramount with the tower systems with alot of pitfalls for the gardener – it is far from idiot proof — and with all the variables Climate Change is throwing at us we need a less finicky system.
  • Cultivar selection seems critical, and there is almost no research out there as to which kinds work.  Carolas and Purple Viking seem to be a good choice – Kennebecs are not.
  • Expense – $25 a tower for what seems to be only 10-20#’s of potatoes –if you can bring them to harvest– is a stretch
  • The Hype – promising 100#’s from 4 sq ft is a joke.  It still may be possible -and I hope it is– but it is not easy, it is not guaranteed, and it needs alot more research and realism before anyone goes filling the internet with wild claims.

One of the main Pillars of Intent of this blog is to provide real, proven, and pragmatic solutions for growing healthy food in small spaces such as a suburban backyard.  Do Potato Towers fit that bill?  No.  They are definitely in the experimental camp still.  I intend to plant the tower again next year with what I have learned to see if I can eck out a full tower of harvest – even 20#’s from 4 sq ft would be a huge accomplishment.

Here are some PROVEN techniques that will allow you to grow ALOT of calorie dense, nutritous heirloom potatoes in small spaces:


Kate over at Living the Frugal Life tried some of her own experiments this year and I was very impressed with her results.  Using the ubiquitous 5 gallon bucket Kate was able to eck out between 8 and 14:1 yeilds which is as good or better than most organic field grown potatoes.  Buckets allow you all the benefits of container gardening – they work on balconies, the corners of porches or allow you to grow in areas with tainted soils.  Harvest is a breeze (dump the buckets!) and I love Kate’s idea of stacking the buckets in a pyramid.  10-12#’s from 4 sq ft should be possible with 6 buckets in a 2 teir pryamid.  Simple, easy, effective. Try it!

potato buckets

Kate's Potato Buckets (lifted from her blog)

Sheet Mulch Spuds

Have a bit more space?  I tried another experiment this year on a sheet mulched old strawberry patch.  My harvest blew me away: 30#’s from barely 1.5#’s of seeds in 8 plants of Purple Vikings – yes that 20:1!!  Blight knocked the plants back early, so tuber size was low – 50#’s would have been possible had they gone to full weight!  The bed was about 40 sq ft, so yeilds were not as high as the bucket per sq ft, but spacing could be tightened.  This method IS idiot proof – no additional fertilizer, the mulch is a natural Potato Bug repellent and all that straw keeps the moisture up really improving tuber size.


These 8 plants = 30#'s of Spuds!

With winter around the bend it is a great time to try a sheet mulch bed for next year’s plantings.   Thanks for everyone’s contributions, thoughts, and comments in this expirement this year!!

Most of all, thanks for Being the Change!


22 Responses

  1. Thanks for the excellent summary! I was planning on trying the towers, but I think your summary has convinced me to experiment with buckets as well as the sheet mulching, provided I can get manure to prepare the bed in the coming weeks – I think I can get my hands on a few loads of composted horse manure for free – if I can, I’ll try both methods. I really like the ease of harvesting in both methods. I speared a few potatoes last year when harvesting (our first attempt … it was bound to happen) which pained me given our effort. They were still tasty – just roasted them that evening.

    One other question – with techniques like the tower or bucket would you reuse the soil? I was thinking you might be able to, but would want to give it a re-charge by adding some compost.

    Again – what a great and inspiring site!

    • Tim,

      I would reuse the soil, just not for potatoes again. I took the soil from our towers and spread it into my kids raised bed garden, and the rest on some of our kiwis. Especially with root/tuber crops I am concerned about soil pests building up. That said, Will Allen of Growing Power does ALOT of container planting in his greenhouses and he NEVER changes his soil (primarily greens and tomatoes) just top dressing with worm castings. It may be a practical compromise (he has like 10,000 containers – changing them would be near impossible), but he has few issues.


  2. Rob, thank you for putting in all this work and keeping such detailed records (i.e., doing hard-core research)! Ok, so who’s replicating this experiment and with what cultivars next year?🙂 Me, I’ve got space and to spare, so I’m planning on sheet mulching again next year. I need to weigh my seed potatoes next year; this year I planted a sack of egg-sized potatoes I estimate weighed 6-7 lb (certainly less than 10) and got 85 lb of potatoes in a total of 75 square feet.

  3. Well that’s interesting, if a little disapponting for you. I have copied your idea in a crate that came with some tiles and the sebago potatoes are doing very well so far. I am in Australia so will not expect to harvest until Christmas – hope my yield is a bit better than that. I do have traditionally grown ones though just in case.

  4. Nice write-up, Rob, and thanks for the nod. I’m definitely not through with the potato bucket experimentation. I’ve got two directions I’d like to try next year. I’m eager to try new things, but also grateful for and looking forward to the restful winter season first.

  5. thanks – i thought it was just me. i tried potato towers in chicken wire cages – i just got lots of stems and potatoes way down the bottom.

  6. Perhaps an alternative technique is to keep hilling your potato towers until a certain point in the season (either decided by date or by height of soil), and then to leave them alone to develop a full leaf area to set the maximum amount and weight of potatoes?

    It sounds like you need to leave enough time at the end of the season for the potato plants to really develop a good leaf cover, and continually hilling them sets them back in this regard.

  7. I tried potato towers (made of chicken wire, so good drainage) this year. Sadly I used Kennebecs. About a fifth of the potatoes set some tubers above the initial planting level, but not very many. It really wasn’t worth the work of filling the tower. I’ll stick with trench planted potatoes in the future with a lot of mulch.

  8. Thanks for the great summary. I tried a tower this year myself. I unwittingly used Kennebecs also, and met with similar results:


    I read your blog regularly and appreciate your detailed explanations. Looking forward to growing some potatoes next year. I will try the tower again as an experiment. But more likely looking at a traditional hilling method, or straw.

    Thanks again!


  9. I posted my results over at frugal gardener, so I won’t repeat here. Suffice it to say that I won’t be doing more towers — I’ll reuse the two I made for other things in a rotation, and I’ll probably include nightshades in that rotation, but I’ll just fill the soil to a comfortable depth and plant in them and forget trying to force them tall.

    With the time I save I’ll be building more self-watering containers out of 5 gallon buckets — easy care, high yield, small footprint.

  10. Thanks everyone!

    @Emily – great yields! If anyone want to compare cultivars Moose Tubers has GREAT chart to help with that:
    Supposedly late varieties do better in towers – so look for Late, High Yeilding varities like Burbank Russet, Bintje, Romanze, Desiree, etc. I will be putting 3 of them into towers next year and will firm up my cultivar choice when I order in January.

    @Kate – you bet! I am also looking forward to Winter’s time for reflection and learning. I still have about 150#’s in the ground – hopefully none by the end of today🙂 – and need to mulch / cover crop about 2000sq ft but things are winding down for sure.

    @Eric – Your potatoes looked great -no scab or anything- but I agree they are really undersize for Kennebecs. Something the towers will need to work around. Like Darren said, we’ll likely need to stop hilling at 60 days or so – that should give a late variety like Burbank another 2 months to grow a thick canopy. Good luck!

    -Good luck everyone!

  11. While I’m sorry to see your potato growing experiment didn’t pan out, it’s nice to know someone else has had the same poor results I did. From 3 lbs of Inca Gold, from Ronnigers Seed Co, I ended up with 1.5 lbs of potatoes. When I opened the box I found a root structure a lot like yours – a 15″ root with a small cluster of potatoes, topped by more vine with no potatoes.


    Thanks for posting a recap. I found your recommendations to be helpful, still not sure if I’m going to try growing potatoes in a tower next year.

  12. thanks for the great summay. my potatoes do really well grown traditionally so i’ll stick to that.
    around here thick straw mulch wouldn’t be idiot proof – the rodents would love it!

  13. […] them again (previous soil has blight), and I’m not so sure anymore if the tower system works (One Straw has his doubts too). I could get a community garden plot just for potatoes, but also our community […]

  14. I second (third?) the results. I got about 1# of reds from one bed, marble sized yukon golds, and none at all from the other 3 towers which held blues, fingerlings, and more reds.

    I plan to check out Kate’s site regarding bucket plantings and try that; some of my issues with the towers were also drainage — two of them did have potatoes but they were so water logged they were rotted.

    I planted yams very late in the season and just harvested as we had our first frost; I got about a pound of smallish yams (from one slip) but it was considerably better than the potato harvest! Plus, the plants tolerated the heat much better than the potatoes did.

  15. […] 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 […]

  16. […] we were planing on trying something called “potato towers.” However, given some of the results that I’ve read, we might want to try the bucket method or the blanket mulch method. In […]

  17. […] Maybe! As I was researching potato towers this morning, an article (and ensuing comments) on One Straw made me think that potato towers might not be the way to go. Rob (at One Straw) had a very similar […]

  18. I experimented with a potato tower in 2009 with similar results. Great potatoes on the bottom, but no potatoes grew above the first level of the tower. I’ve documented the whole adventure over at Mud Songs.

    I’ve been poking around online looking for evidence that the potato tower actually works (100 pound yields, etc.), but so far, no dice. I did, however, find someone who managed to grow 25 pounds of Yukon Golds and I think she may have turned me on to a trick that might make potato towers worth all the effort.

    You can check out the details at Mud Songs if you like, but I think it all comes down to very careful hilling of the plants as they grow. If the lower leaves and stalks are exposed to sunlight, they harden and the roots will not develop under the new soil. If you let your plants grow into a jungle before you add more soil around them, then it’s game over. The stalks need to be covered immediately while they’re still soft.

    That’s my best guess anyway. Good luck.

  19. The article at this link http://www.denverpost.com/grow/ci_14839542 lists five steps to growing potatoes successfully – it seems that someone grew 124 pounds in four square feet – it does not say how many pounds they planted – the guy who talked about the method got 84 pounds, but doesn’t mention how many pounds were planted. One of the steps they say is to plant in each layer as you go up, which means many more plants, and pounds of seed potato. So perhaps getting 25 pounds for one pound of seed is an outstanding feat. This article recommends adding soil every time there is twelve inches of growth. Funny how many different ideas there are on how to maximize yield – there is still so much we don’t know about how plants grow! Keep working on it!

  20. Try using scrubbed and disenfected truck tires – Learned this from an older Jamaican- Use a mix heavy in organics, and can stack 2 high, leaving spacers between the tires. Paint outsides white only if must. Best to ‘mulch’ with leaves/grass clippings… Workrd for me with several root crops, including cassava, sweet potatoe, and bonito. Got good harvests.

  21. @Alice: I’d recommend against using tires. I’ve heard they can leach heavy metals into the soil.

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