2010 Spud Season Begins – New Technique!

Last Friday I got a call that my seed potatoes were in.   This year I used one of the several organic farms in central WI that specialize in spuds to source my seed – I save a bundle in shipping, and they make a bit too.  Its all good.  But as this was an ad hoc deal,  communication was not ideal and some wires were crossed.  Apparently some of “Rose Finn Apple *OR* La Ratte; German Butterball *OR* Kennebec” got a lost in the shuffle and all those “or’s” got changed to “and’s”.  So I have an extra 150#’s of potatoes — not a huge deal, but its an extra 20% more space.  And were were already feeling the crunch on the farm as each of the tenant farms is looking to expand this year.  Might need to rethink some of my cover/compost crop experiments…

Running the math – 750#’s works out to just under 6000 row feet with 12″ spacing.  The Kennebecs and Yukons get more like 8″, but still, that is well over a mile of potatoes to hill, water, and harvest.  Good thing I have that extra day off!  With seed in hand and low tunnels up, it was time to get crackin on planting.  2010 is going to bring several changes.  First, I am growing even more varieties: Desiree (storage), Carola (melt in your mouth good), Purple Viking (al purpose and gorgeous), Kennebec (baking), Nicola (favorite of my Chef client), Yukon Gold (early/potato salad), German Butterball (storage), “Flaming” (no idea, it was a substitute for Red Gold), and 3 fingerling (La Ratte, Rose Finn Apple, and French).   Second I am planning the harvest more betterer since harvesting/selling 8000#’s of spuds in a part time one man gig is no mean feat.  And finally, I am getting much more intentional with my growing technique which is what I would like to get into in this post.

Last year I ran 2 experimental plots.  The first, the potato towers, were an unmitigated failure.  The second was using deep straw mulch over fertile soils was a spudtacular success –netting over 3# per plant.   If I could get the same yields in field production my harvest would be over 9 tons this year from 750#’s of seed (24:1) – or more importantly I could cut my seed order and acreage in 2011 by over half.  Doing more with less sounds great to me.

Here is the technique I have worked out and will be field trailing as much as time allows:

2 30" beds with a 1' center path to fit under the Low Tunnels hold 4 rows of spuds

You may have noticed that it is still March and I am planting potatoes – this is the bed under the first low tunnel I built this past Febuary.  The rye crop LOVED the cover and was 18″ tall by March 22! – I mowed and turned it under last Friday using the rotary plow and then formed this bed.  The bed design is taken straight our of 4 Season Harvest: 2 30″ beds divided by a 1′ middle path.  This allows it to snuggle under a low tunnel (hoops laying to the left, plastic to the right) allowing me to plant as early as the soil can be worked – in this case 3 weeks early due to having to till under the cover crop; 2011 I will be in March wk 2.

But I am not one to rest on anyones laurels, not even Eliot Coleman’s.  In Chapter 12 of Alcohol can be a Gas, David Blume talks through a really intriguing method of doing raised beds.  Essentially a contour swale is dug every few beds and then this swale is filled with compost material and wood chips.  In Blume’s idea, these mulch filled swales are then inoculated with red wigglers who munch away, merrily composting in place.  But Blume is a Grade A permaculturist so look how cool this gets:  these are contour swales – so they fill with water every good rain.  That alone is great as each raised bed is now sitting on top of a lens of sub soil water greatly reducing or eliminating irrigation.  But his swales are full of worm turd, which is water soluble and that lens of water is now super fertile.  Plus the worms can’t live in the swale during the flood so they high tail it into your raised beds and happly munch away in there while manuring and opening up air passages with their burrows.  Awesome.  But the swale function stacking ain’t done yet.  Blume doesn’t mention this, but being full of wood chips – they will act as nurseries for soil fungi.  The paths are never tilled, just added to, so the fungi lives on.  And on and on to recharge your beds with mycelium even after the disruptive potato harvest.  How cool is this?

It just so happens that the rotary plow is wicked good at building raised beds with 1′ deep swales on each side.  Oh, and I just bought a cool Italian chipper that eat 2″ trunks for breakfast.  AND I am planting coppice trees by the hundreds.  Look at the picture again, you see the start of the wood chip swale (not on contour in this plot) for my own little Chapter 12 experiment.   This week I will get another 20 yards of chips in BART (it will take about 90 yards to fill all the swales!!)  And this afternoon the farm owner and I staked out the contour lines of the new potato plot (65’x170′).  This week we will disc it to give the horses a workout, and then build the beds with the Grillo and the rotary plow: 6′ beds each surrounded by a 2′ wide swale.  On contour and full of mulch and worms.  Gods I love this plan!

Mulch rather than hilling: 1 bale every 40' of 30" bed.

So the beds are made, but I want to take the learnings from my uber successful trial last year and scale them up.  The trial consisted of 3 things – shallow planting of the seed potatoes for easy harvest, then covering the seed in compost and a foot of straw.  the yeilds were insane and weeding and watering were almost eliminated.  So here we go: enter a crap ton of compost and straw and I am planting shallower to hopefully allow me to use the root digger for the Grillo (good thing with 6000′ of row to harvest!).  The photo at right shows me half way done with one of the 20 beds.  The spud seed is planted about 4″ deep, the soil raked flat and then I applied a .5″ layer of 3/4 finished compost and watered well.  Over this I added a 1-2″ layer of straw.   This works out to 1 bale every 40′ of 30″ bed.  As I expect to “hill” the potatoes again in about 4-5 weeks with another layer of mulch I expect each 6′ bed to take 8 bales total which works out to 160 bales for the entire plot.  Bales are about $2 each, but seeing as I sell my potatoes for $2/lb I fully expect to earn that back in harvest and the reduction in weeding, hilling and watering should more than make up for it regardless.

Here is where I get really excited about this plan.  First – there is 3 acres of prairie on the farm.  We burn an acre a year, and the farm owner has always dreamed of using the biomass (3-4″ of straw) off on of the others on the farm each year.  I’d rather not spend $300 on straw if I don’t have too, so we took a fork and a rake out to the blue stem prairie today for a look see and the straw came up fairly easy.  Next week we will drag a harrow across one of the prairie plots with the Draft Team to collect the straw to one side and then pile it up for future use as potato mulch.  Awesome.

I’ve been writing about the MASSIVE amounts of compost we will be making this year – 40 tons or so.  That is flippin awesome in and of itself, but it also takes ALOT of machinery and making the fuel for that machinery is alot of work.  Using the bed method above nature is doing much more of the work – Moving wheel barrow loads of mulch around ad forking it into the paths is pleasant work.  Chipping the coppice wood will still need fuel, but my chipper has a 5hp engine vs. the Bobcats 45hp one.  Also, this system can get very close to no till in a very big hurry.  Ruth Stout would be very pleased with all my mulching and I’d like to think that Fukuoka would be pleased with my letting the worms do my composting in place.  Its all coming together.

This system makes all kinds of sense so we are moving forward.  It will be a CRAP TON of work in the first year as I have to build 20, 80′ long raised beds from scratch, and then fill 1700′ of swale with 90 cu yards of wood chips.  But once the system is in place the work should drop off quickly as is to be expected in any permaculture design.  Stoked as all hell about this.

Be the Change.



22 Responses

  1. Dammit, I was just ready to log off and go do something else and you post this! Lucky it was worth the time to read :-).

    • Yeah… sorry about that, its 1500 words or so. Glad it was worth it!

      • It was awesome. Of course I have to scale things back to my one-family-sized plan, but it’s invaluable information.

        I love it that your seasons are 6 months offset to mine, so I can watch your success and then copy the bits that work, gaining all the benefits of your hindsight! 🙂

  2. Hi, I haven´t read the whole article (yet!) but as soon as i read about your watering thoughts, i thought you might be intrested to look into this solution!

    Its a great gardening book, lots and lots of usable ideas..
    look at page 57 “a capped gutter directs water into trenches to water several rows at once”


    So nice to read about your projects, you are a great inspirator!

  3. I loved reading your post. You get as excited as I do about planting. I have tilled part of my garden but after reading about your sheet mulching I got some old hay bales and used them to cover sod that I was planning to till but won’t now.

    I thought if you mulch so much with wood chips it takes nitrogen to break them down? Is that a non-issue for you because the chips are in the swales?

    Also, where are you located? (zone?) I’m near Wash.DC. -last year was so wet until June that I lost all my potatoes but I double dug rows for my sweet potatoes, planted them on raised beds. and they did well. This year looks to be equally wet so I think the only way I’ll get any potatoes is to plant them as you are doing.

    • Thanks Kate!

      Wood chips *can* “lock up”nitrogen, but only if they are fine with alot of surface area and if they are incorporated INTO the soil. My chips are next to the bed and ON the soil. Bacteria are the prime consumers of (and storage area for) nitrogen in the soil. If you mix alot of fine carbon into the soil (pine needles, sawdust, etc) the soil microbes go nuts trying to break it down and they breed fast and are better able to get the water soluble nitrogen than your plants. But bacteria can’t move so having the chip 18” away should not be an issue. Also, after the initial flush of decomposition things mellow out – meaning the bacteria start to die and free up the nitrogen that was in their cells. I have seen tree roots growing 3′ up into wood chip piles seeking out the water and nutrients.

      I am in South Central Wisconsin – Zone 5b (and warming).

  4. so happy for you ,been using this style of gardening for years, amazing how simple is usually best/easiest,follow natures lead. always tell my kids,take time out to look at what nature is doing and follow her .really enjoy reading your posts.

  5. Rob,
    Great use of the best ideas available combined should produce tremendous results. Only thing that remains would be the addition of 1/2″ biochar added to the soil mixture to retain nutrients, provide porous environment soil organisms, prevent leeching, and be carbon negative (long term sponge carbon effect – 100’s of years). A portion of your wood chips could be made into biochar. YOU ARE THE CHANGE AND INSPIRE US ALL!

    • Monte,

      Couldn’t agree with you more! We make our own biochar using our biomass gasifiers and are in the process of planting hundreds of coppice trees for a sustainable fuel/char system. At this point I do not have enough bio char to cover the beds (I would need almost 15 yards of it), but am mixing it into all my potting mixes for my transplants. We will be making some biochar pits this year to clean up some junk wood around the farm, but prefer to use the wood for more than one use in our gasifiers while we make biochar: heating water for ethanol, powering the workshop, etc.

  6. Congrats on having on-site straw!

    I bet you could get a little higher nitrogen content in the prairie residue next year, if you wanted to.

  7. I forgot to mention: is vole-predator habitat part of the plan? I think the right sort of snake would fit in to your system pretty well. Maybe a pile of rock or of brush every so often would help.

    Or I could imagine throwing a carefully-sized hunk of dry ice under the plastic, if there’s a very bad infestation.

    • Lots of owls on farm and I have a Jack Russel terrier with me whenever I am on farm and he is turning into a decent “ratter”. Goodly amount of garter snakes on farm as is. We are in river silt so not many rocks on farm to play with. We have mature tree line every 100′ so there are alot of perches for raptors

      That dry ice plan gave me chills.

  8. Rob,
    A few words of caution about your mulching. I have been growing potatoes here in NC on flat beds w/mulch for years. I can plant Feb.15, last frost is 4/15. If I mulch them with leaves or straw, that will insulate the soil and keep it much colder than if you don’t mulch initially. If you plant 5″ deep and don’t mulch at all then an intensively planted bed usually doesn’t have to be mulched to protect from the sun and greening. The plants canopy will do most of that and depending on the vigor of the vines, they may need some support from flopping over (stakes and twine). You need the sun light to get to the soil to build warmth, even under the tunnels. I learned the hard way, losing 1000 sq.ft tunnels worth one year that was mulched on two successive nights of 20 degrees. The same potatoes made it the following year under 1.25 oz Typar fabric with out mulch! Tunnel freeze protection is predicated on stored soil warmth and humidity.
    Just trying to help…..don’t want you to get hurt!

    • Good thoughts. this bed I had covered with the tunnels for a month prior to planting and soil temps were in the 50’s. I then wet the soil after planting, wet the compost, and then a final spray to mat down the mulch. I think Humidity will be high, actually concerned about it being too high. Spuds are tucked in/under 3-4″ of 50 degree soil with another 3-4″ of mulch on top. Next year getting in earlier it is definitely something to think about. Thanks for the heads up!

      • I’d be careful about that 3-4″ of mulch, as your soil temps will go down and the stored heat will not be allowed to radiate up to protect the plants on cold nights, much like your earlier posts about the seedlings you put in your straw bale cold frames.

  9. Very Emilia Hazelip. See from 6:00 minutes on.

  10. Thanks for dissuading me from the potato tower. I was hovering between that and sheet mulch this year. Also, I like your combination of Blume/Coleman. No one author can have all the right answers. (Eliot Coleman comes pretty close, though, huh?)

  11. “But the swale function stacking ain’t done yet. ”

    I just noticed two more functions: the mulched swales & low tunnel will also exchange warmth and gasses. The mulch will help insulate the beds from the cold ground just outside the tunnel, and be an active source of warmth in the colder seasons.

    Plus the mulch’s carbon dioxide emissions will probably help the potatoes, especially in the summer if the canopy reaches over the path (which is when CO2 would be a limit to growth). And this last thing will probably be very minor, but I bet the worms & fungi will both appreciate the small boost of O2 from the leaves.

  12. […] irrigation inputs.  But the garden was still flat and that bothered me.  So at the market garden I tried a new technique that I want to explore Whole Hog in 2011.  Essentially it is based on a side bar blurb in Chapter […]

  13. Okay, that’s it. I’m giving up on the potato tower method. 2 years running and it’s pretty much a waste of time and effort.

    Here’s how it went for me this year:


    I like what you’re doing. I’m going for it next year.



    • Sorry its not working out – but I agree that the technique is either too difficult to be feasible or just doesn’t work. Either way the result is the same. Good luck on your 2011 plantings! I am almost certainly not going to farm this coming year, meaning that my 40#’s of seed will need to go very much further — I would love to get over 750#s from 200 row feet!

      Fertility and moisture levels seem to be the biggest factors, and I have significant amounts of anecdotal evidence that symbiotic fungi are a huge factor in large yields due to their help with both.

      MUCH to learn as we get better and better about pushing the limits of small scale agriculture!

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