The following is an excerpt from The City Homesteader by Scott Meyer (Running Press, 2011). This book is a basic guide to greener living filled with easy-to-follow instructions and step-by-stepy tips for creating a sustainable lifestyle in any size home. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “Growing Your Own.”
Start in spring. Potatoes take all season to fully mature, so begin this project around your average last frost date (which you can find out from your county extension agent).
Select the spuds. They grow from chunks of last year’s crop — chunks with an “eye,” or rootlet, are referred to as “seed potatoes.” Each “eye” produces a cluster of new tubers. You can find countless potato varieties in nurseries and online, and you can use any one you want, but small to medium-size ones work best in a barrel. Be sure to get certified disease-free seed potatoes, because they can suffer from nasty problems like scab.
Pick a barrel. Plain or fancy, it’s your call. Gardening catalogs and Web sites offer barrels specifically designed for growing potatoes. But they are mostly about being more attractive — not functionally better — than one you make at home out of a whiskey barrel or a common trash can. If your container has been used before, be sure to scrub it out well to get rid of fungi that might cause your potatoes to rot before you harvest them.
Drill for drainage. If the barrel doesn’t already have holes in it where excess water can drain out quickly, drill a few in the bottom and in the sides close to the bottom. Quarter- to half-inch holes are big enough.
Give it a lift. Set the barrel in a sunny spot and get it up on blocks or bricks so it sits a few inches above the ground and air can circulate around it.
Add the soil mix. Make up a soil mix by blending three parts of compost with two parts of peat moss. Fill the bottom of your barrel six inches deep with the mix. Dampen the mix.
Plant your spuds. Place the seed potatoes a couple inches apart in the soil mix. Keep the mix moist but never soggy (which can cause the potatoes to rot).
Cover after sprouting. In a week or so the seed potatoes will have sprouts about six to eight inches tall. Add more soil mix to cover them up to their bottom leaves. Again, keep the mix moist, but not soggy. Repeat the process of allowing the sprouts to grow, adding more soil to cover the sprouts and moistening the soil until the barrel is filled to the top.
Keep the moisture constant. Remember to keep the soil damp but not wet. Feed the plants with liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer (available at nurseries and home centers) weekly or biweekly until you see little white or yellow flowers on the vines, which indicate that the new potatoes have begun forming.
Dig for buried treasure. At the end of the growing season, the vines turn yellow and die back. The potatoes are fully grown. Carefully tip the barrel over, and sift through the soil for the potatoes. Brush the dirt off them (don’t wash them until you’re ready to cook them), and store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
Reprinted with permission from The City Homesteader, published by Running Press, 2011.