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.

| March/April 1972

  • growing potatoes vacant lot - planting2
    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.
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - planting
    We get best results by growing potatoes specifically cultivated as seed stock.
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - measuring
    The potatoes we planted March 15 stand 30 inches tall at flowering time, with spreading foliage that provides a moisture-preserving shade during dry spells. Rows in this photo are 30 inches apart and plants are spaced 18 inches between in the rows. Harvesting begins in early June.
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - thriving plants
    Our earliest-planted potatoes grow such vigorous vines that — by midsummer — the patch looks like a jungle as the foliage spreads to meet between the rows. Later plantings do not grow quite as luxuriantly, so we cover the ground around them with grass cuttings, leaves, and corn stalks. Both early and late plantings mature with only the moisture from spring rains. Nor do we use fertilizer or pesticides.
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins
  • BorrowedPotatoes3
    Potatoes prefer loose soil. Planting in wide rows will give you space to hoe without compacting the soil, and the potato plants will require less water and be more resistant to insect attacks.
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - in storage
    Do not store potatoes over winter in heated basements. Instead, use the landing and steps leading down. To exclude heated basement air, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs or, if there is no door, hang a tarp or rig up a similar arrangement. We store 20 to 40 pounds of produce in lug boxes and ventilated pans on each tread of our basement stairs and still find ample walking room beside the produce. The landing provides space for another couple hundred pounds of vegetables. We haven't needed it yet, but if we ever do, we'll build shelving along the stairwell wall for even more storage space. We really enjoy potatoes, like the ones shown here, at Christmas time! 
    Photo by Jack Roland Coggins

  • growing potatoes vacant lot - planting2
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - planting
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - measuring
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - thriving plants
  • BorrowedPotatoes3
  • growing potatoes vacant lot - in storage

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.






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