Growing Potatoes in a Vacant Lot

The story of how one Nebraska family without land obtained the use of a vacant lot and fed itself by growing potatoes.
By Jack Roland Coggins
March/April 1972
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The owner of this formerly weed-infested vacant lot is happy to let us use it without charge because growing potatoes the organic way both keeps the weeds under control and helps build the fertility of the property's soil.
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For many years, nothing but weeds grew on a vacant lot near our home, so we finally called the owner of the property and asked permission to garden there in return for our care of the land. It wasn't as hard to persuade him as we had thought it might be, which left us with the problem of deciding what to plant.

We soon concluded growing potatoes would give our family of six a maximum return on a minimum investment of time, money, and energy. That free land now provides us with big, creamy, delicious potatoes which—properly stored—last almost year-round.

Here's how we did it:

Getting the Land

The free use of land is readily available for natural gardening in and around almost every village, town, and city in this country. All you have to do is ask. Property owners are usually quite pleased to find someone willing to relieve them of the costly burden of controlling weeds on their vacant lots, and many appreciate the contribution that organic culture can make to the soil. Once you point out that your activities will be building, not depleting or polluting, the land and actually increasing the lot's value, you're usually home free.

I now garden on several "borrowed" lots and I never enter into a formal agreement for the privilege. I find it sufficient to simply check with the property owners each spring before I plant. At season's end, I inform my "landlords" that I'm through with the plot for the year but that I'm interested in using it again the following spring. Once you've shown the property owners that you really do care for a lot, you're almost automatically assured free use of that piece of land year after year.

Do not agree to "sharecrop" or share a portion of the produce. It's not necessary and only sets the stage for potential squabbles later when the harvest is divided. It is a good idea, however, to take small amounts of fresh produce to the land owner periodically as it ripens. Explain that the vegetables taste better and are more healthful to eat because they were grown on the lot without the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides. This is only sensible public relations and helps promote the concept of natural gardening.

Preparing the Ground

Knowing that weeds would be the big problem that first spring in our new potato patch, we spaced the rows about four feet apart (slightly farther apart than normal) to make light cultivation with a tiller easy and fast. Whenever weed seeds germinated, we let them grow about an inch tall and then tilled them under (long before they produced seeds). This provided "green manure" which built the soil and left the garden plot virtually weed free after that initial season.

We tilled the lot quite deep — 12 to 14 inches — after harvesting our potato crop that fall. This in-depth churning of the soil dug up some of the subsurface minerals in the earth (which, it is claimed, help make healthier plants) and thoroughly mixed them with the organic debris of our green manure. The following spring, this autumn-tilled soil was ready for planting three to four weeks earlier than nearby spring-tilled gardens, an important aspect, we learned, in growing the finest potatoes with minimal effort.

Plant Quality, Get Quality

J. B. Sieczka, extension specialist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York has many good ideas about buying and handling potatoes for planting and, for the most part, we follow his suggestions. It is very important, for instance, to purchase seed potatoes grown specifically for that purpose. Spuds taken from supermarket produce counters just won't give the same good results.

We buy our seed potatoes very early in the spring so that we're sure to get the freshest stock. This seed stock is then stored until planting time in a non-heated room at approximately 40° F. Then, when we're ready to plant, we allow the room temperature to rise to between 50 and 60 degrees, the best handling temperature, according to Sieczka.

Three days to a week before actual planting, we separate the potatoes into two piles. One heap contains the tubers (those weighing about two ounces each) which we will plant whole, and the second stack is made up of the larger potatoes which must be cut into planting size pieces of, again, about two ounces each. (Whole potatoes weighing more than two ounces tend to produce too many plants per hill for maximum yield, and cut pieces smaller than that size are often not sufficiently vigorous.) The cut sections are placed in well-ventilated plastic clothes baskets until their wet surfaces are dry to the touch. Ideally, each of these pieces should have two or three short sprouts prior to planting.

Plant Early

Potatoes do best during very cool spring weather and they require a consistent and generous supply of moisture. Here in southeastern Nebraska, our best and least worrisome crop comes from plantings made in the middle of March, but we often do plant until mid-April. The actual planting date in any one year, of course, depends on seasonal weather and soil conditions, but the main idea is to get those seed potatoes into the ground early enough to take advantage of all or most of the early spring moisture. Try to have your main crop mature before the hot, dry, buggy days of midsummer.

Don't plant too shallow. We like to bury our seed potatoes about six inches deep to put their roots down where the moisture is and to keep 'em cool when the days begin to warm.

Crowding can be another problem. It increases moisture requirements and promotes insect infestation, so don't set your hills too close together in the rows. A spacing of 18 inches is better than 12, and those rows should ordinarily be at least 30 inches apart.

Expanding spuds like loose earth and, with a distance of 30 inches between rows, you should have enough room to walk down the center of the space when cultivating without packing the soil around the plants.

We mulch most of our garden crops with organic debris to conserve moisture and reduce ground cracking. The foliage of our very early potatoes, however, spreads until it meets between the rows and shades the ground in the middle. In other words, the plants are self-mulching. Later potatoes are not so luxuriant so we cover the ground around them with grass cuttings, dead leaves and corn stalks.

Crop and Pest Management

Fertilizer? Our approach is controversial. We don't use it. We just keep tilling under organic debris and kitchen garbage. Our crops get better each year, so the soil must be improving. Of course, the borrowed lot was organically rich to begin with, so we had a head start!

Insecticides? We don't use them either. The children pick off what potato bugs we have and squash them on the ground. It's primitive, to be sure, but one of the major benefits of growing your own is the knowledge that there isn't even the risk of chemical contamination (unless the yo-yo across the fence, the power company or some government agency decides to fog the areaEd.).

The Harvest

Dig your home-grown tubers as soon as the foliage dies on the potato plants. The one year we made the mistake of leaving ours in the ground through late summer, bugs and rot and sun scald robbed us of about a third of the harvest.

Curing Potatoes

Prepare your potatoes for storage by taking them to a shady, airy place and spreading them in single layers on canvas or newspapers to cure for a day or two. Bring the potatoes inside or cover them in case of rain.

Storing Potatoes

Although many people seem to have trouble keeping garden-grown potatoes through the winter, the principles are quite simple: You must control the temperature, the humidity, and the air circulation (ventilation) of your storage area.

Commercial potato processors like to hold their tubers at 45° F and 95% humidity with an air circulation capacity of 10 cubic feet per minute per ton of produce. This is virtually impossible to duplicate in home storage but, luckily, potatoes will keep quite well under conditions nowhere near this ideal. Well-ventilated cellars, pits, unheated basements, and spare rooms are generally satisfactory for the winter storage of potatoes if the tubers are placed close to the floor where the coolest air and best circulation are usually found.

Our basement is heated, so we keep the potatoes we raise on the landing and stairs leading down into it. We place a small lug of potatoes on half of each step (leaving the other half to walk on) and draw a large canvas tarp across the entrance at the base of the stairs to prevent the heated basement air from reaching the spuds. Stored in this manner, our potatoes retain their creamy garden-fresh flavor for months. It's really something to eat them at Thanksgiving and Christmas, knowing they're chemical free as well as (practically) cash free!


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