Yardening: Spectacular Spuds

One of the core themes on One Straw is growing Real Food in Real Spaces – namely suburban yards.  To that end we are focusing more and more on Yardening.  And in small scale agriculture (by that I mean something between gardening and farming) the focus is often on yield per plant, or yield 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 everyone that I know of that has tried that method.  The sheet mulch potatoes blew me away.  30# of spuds from 8 plants in about 60 sq ft – with a yield over 30:1.  Very, very impressive considering a 10:1 yield is considered a pretty good yield.  I am very pleased to say that our household has crushed that record!

9lbs, 13.5 ounces from one 2.5 ounce seed. DANG sucka!

Last year I built a raised bed for our 2 children.  Its 3×5 and a full foot high.  To guarantee them success, I filled it with the best soil I knew of – the 10 year old farm soil at a friends place where I farm. This soil was made – 10 years ago it was a 2000 sq ft of leaves stacked 4′ thick.  Chickens were run on these leaves for several years, then as the composted down, 2 hogs were run over it for several years.  Then it was left fallow for 3 years to mellow.  3 years ago we shaped up the compost into a very large bed with a skid steer and I began growing there.  Essentially it is the richest, deepest humus layer I have ever seen – 24+” of compost.  Its insane.   That soil, and the desire to recreate it at our home, is why I make 5-15 yards of compost a year.

The kids had a great garden last year, but this year my son asked if he could grow a potato.  I was for it, and together we planted one Red Pontiac seed.  Over the past 3-4 months, we have watched in amazement as this potato plant grew to immense proportions.  It got so large that we needed to cage it to allow him to grow his kohlrabi.   This plant flowered for over 5 weeks in 3 different blooms – very strange.  Now I can’t say if this is typical of Red Pontiacs, as this is the first year I have grow them, or if this plant had gone rogue.  But the end results were incredibly impressive:

  • 26 total potatoes
  • 3 spuds over 1# each
  • 9 pounds, 13.5 ounces total
  • Yield of 63:1 !!

One plant! 9.8#'s. I am still stunned.

The kicker is that we really didn’t do anything special with it – no crazy mulching, no special manures, no drip irrigation.  It has been a mild summer, with lots of rain.  This was an issue in the field so much that I lost 50% of my market crop, but the raised beds apparently loved it.  the only conclusion I have so far is that RICH SOILS equate to RICH HARVEST.  My yields from this field at the farm are always the best, but never like this since the potato was under our attention 7 days a week for weeding and TLC.  But even then, it wasn’t babied -I think my son watered it 2 or 3 times.  I hit it with some chicken manure in March as I incorporated the 3″ of straw that I mulched the bed with over the winter.  It also got some lawn clippings around the tomatoes, but nothing crazy.  No other inputs, but OMG the harvest!

3x5x1 = 200# of Produce?

I really like these little 3×5 beds.  We have access to a salvage yard that has hundreds of these 3x12x16′ Douglas Fir boards from an old warehouse.  They are full of nails and are half falling apart, but are only $18 each.  With an hour pulling nails and sanding them you have a super solid bed – they are also the boards I built my Compost Bin of Dreams from.   After this little feat that my son pulled off, I am tempted to try to run 1 or 2 beds for a year to see what I can do in them in a 12 month period – they also fit perfect under my Low Tunnels. Spinach->Beets -> Potatoes (with Lettuce growing until they pop up) -> Carrots sounds like a plan to me.  I bet I can break 200#’s of produce in one of these in 12 months.

Who’s with me?

Be the Change!


11 Responses

  1. Yardening… for a moment I thought you had turned Swedish Rob. Conyats on all those spuds! I need to find a perennial crop that can produce as many calories per square foot without the work of composting, planting, and nurturing when the weather gets rough. Who’s got a dwarf chestnut tree?

    • Sunchokes are the only thing that comes close, but its nothing like this. You can’t beat annuals for fecundity. Yardening comes from the book that turned me onto compost – Yardening by Jeff Ball, also my goal to start viewing the entire yard as part of our gardens – an human designed and maintained ecosystem that needs to support us rather than our dousing it with chemicals and mindless labor.

  2. That yield is ridiculous! Awesome work.

  3. Like you, I skipped the potato towers this year — I had high hopes, but they were just average when I was all done. Oh well, nothing ventured.

    The self-watering containers, on the other hand — now THEY worked great. Probably not as well as your straw mulch, but how many people can do straw mulch on an apartment patio?

  4. >It has been a mild summer, with lots of rain. This was an issue in the field so much that I lost 50% of my market crop

    My condolences! But I imagine your stewardship of soil will eventually make that market plot resemble the raised bed from this article. I’m excited by the possibilities from those trenches full of wood chips.

  5. Wow! Now that is a happy and inspired child. Amazing. And what a testament to the power of great soil–I can’t wait to see what mine’s like in a few years! We have to do most of our veg in raised 12″ deep boxes on top of a no-soil part of our yard, and I’ve been moaning about that limitation. But no more! If the soil is great, the productivity will not be limited by the size of my bins! Thanks for the great pics!

  6. I forgot to ask in my response to your post, did you hill the potatoes with soil from the raised bed, or add more soil to the beds?

  7. I’m considering trying a similar technique to the Straw Mulch Potatoes this coming spring with Rabbit Mulch. Basically using my two pet rabbits’ litterbox remains as the mulch which consist of rabbit droppings, hay, rabbit urine, and recycled paper pellets (Yesterday’s News is the brand). I just wanted to know your thoughts on this technique and if you thought that would be enough by itself or should I add something else to the mulch? Leave out anything? thanks!

    • Jenn, my only concern would be that off putting uncomposted manure so close to an edible crop. I know that rabbit manure is “cold” and will not burn due to its low nitrogen, and is often used to side dress in gardens. However, I have only seen this on fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc. My fears my be groundless, but it may pay to dig if you are not sure either.

      From a nutrient standpoint I think it would be brilliant – tons of nitrogen and organic matter + bacteria from the rabbit guts. The bedding would act as a great mulch similar to the straw, but I would spray it with a hose a bit after you applied it to ensure it is moist enough.

      I would have zero concerns with using it as a substitue for my horse manure layer, by putting it on the winter prior. Organic standards, which I often use as a baseline, typically call for 3+ months of time before a manured field is considered “Safe”, and they count vermicompost as manure last I checked -though that is a bit extreme for me.

      Good luck.

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