When I stopped out at the garden the other day, I was very excited to see my peas starting to flower. This variety is called Kent Blue – it’s an heirloom variety that traces back to Kent, England, and has been grown there for over 70 years. (Thanks to SSE member OR ST A, who sent me the seeds)! It has flowers that start as a purple color, then turn to blue as they mature. From the purple color on the leaf axils and flowers, it’s evident that this variety caries the A gene which allows the plant to synthesize the anthocyanin pigment, which allows it to produce purple, red, and blue colors. It may be interesting to cross breed this variety with some of my other peas. I’ll post more photos as they continue to grow.
Yikes! I’ve been slacking off with the blogging, even though there’s a lot going on in my garden right now. I’ve got peas, radishes, and salad greens coming up, and beans and cucumbers planted last week.
The seedlings that I started indoors are ready to be planted! I actually transplanted tomatoes and kale yesterday, and peppers will follow sometime next week. More pictures will follow, but above you can see some healthy tomato, pepper, and kale seedlings. AND, I finally found a good use for my atmospheric dynamics textbook…
Cashier at Lowe’s: You’re buying all these five gallon buckets, but no lids? [Funny look]
Me: Yup. I’m going to use them for container gardening.
Cashier: [Blank stare]
Me: I’m going to plant potatoes in them.
Cashier: [Blank stare]
True story. Apparently she didn’t know you could grow potatoes in containers!
Why grow potatoes in containers?
- It makes harvesting much easier. If you plant in the ground, you run the risk of puncturing some of your precious tubers when you harvest them. But if you plant in a container, harvesting is easy – just tip over the container, pour out the dirt, and pick out the potatoes. Simple!
- It may decrease your risk of garden pests and diseases. If you grow potatoes in a container (especially in compost that was produced from a hot pile), you should (at least theoretically) have a lower risk of disease than if you plant them in the ground. Some folks argue that pest problems are also less of an issue. From my own experience last year, I would argue that seems to be the case. Many community garden plots had infestations of Colorado potato beetles on their potato plants, but the plants I grew in a bucket were left untouched.
- Different varieties of potatoes do well in containers than those grown using conventional methods. Most commercial potatoes set tubers very low along the stem, but some heritage varieties produce potatoes much higher along the stem. This will give a higher yield when grown in a container. Some discussion of this can be found in this video, which is a documentary about the Kenosha potato project.
- Finally, it may be the only option if you want to grow potatoes in a small space or in an urban area. If you have room for a bucket or two in an area that gets good sunlight, you can grow potatoes! They’re an excellent choice for home gardeners, as potatoes are one of the most nutritional and highest yielding crops in terms of the space they require.
What kind of container should you use?
That’s up to you. I use 5 gallon buckets, but I’ve heard of people using trash cans, bushel baskets, wooden boxes, old tires*, or even specially made potato growing bags. (I thought these were pretty unique, until I saw potato growing bags for sale at my local Walmart and Wegman’s on the same day).
*NOTE: I personally would not be inclined to grow potatoes in old tires. While I’m not certain you’d have chemicals leaching out of the tire, why risk it with your food?
Being a grad student, I decided to go with the economical option, and purchased several 5 gallon buckets at Lowes. The awkward conversion above ensued.
How do you grow potatoes in containers?
To grow potatoes in containers, you first should make sure your container has proper drainage. I drilled maybe a dozen holes in the bottom of each bucket using a 5/32″ drill bit. Last year I also added gravel to the bottom of the bucket. This year I was feeling lazy, and didn’t want to go find gravel, so I did without.
Next, add about 6-8″ of soil to the bottom of your container, lay a few seed potatoes on top of that, and cover them with a few more inches of soil. If you can plant them in pure compost, this is even better, since it’s rich in organic matter and because potatoes don’t like heavy soil. These two buckets are on the patio at my apartment, so I used potting soil, which was all that I had on hand. But I’ll be planting a couple of similar buckets in my community garden plot using compost. As the potatoes grow, you’ll want to keep adding compost/soil to “hill” up over the potatoes, so you only leave 6-8″ of the stalks above the surface of the soil. Keep going until you reach the top of the container. But this isn’t the only option – some folks grow potatoes in straw.
This year I’m planting Chieftain, Yukon Gold, and All Blue – Red,
White Yellow, and Blue potatoes! I ordered the Yukon Gold and All Blue for this year. I grew the Chieftain last year, and forgot that I had a few potatoes left, until I found a few neglected tubers sprouting in the paper bag where they were being stored. Free seed potatoes!
Can you save potatoes from your crop for next year’s seed potatoes?
The simple answer is that if you couldn’t, no one would be eating potatoes right now! The more complicated answer is that it depends.
Many of the sources that say you can’t save your own seed potatoes are (not surprisingly) companies that want to sell you seed potatoes. If the customer saves seed each year, the company won’t make money. It’s a similar to how many companies sell F1 hybrids rather than open-pollinated varieties (which breed true to type), even when the OP varieties may be of equal or greater quality.
However, because potatoes are propagated vegetatively, if one generation develops a disease, it will be passed down to the offspring, then plant health and general vigor will decline steadily over time. For this reason, tissue culture is typically used to develop and maintain disease-free seed potatoes. In spite of this, some folks (e.g. in Seed Savers Exchange circles) save and share tubers to plant from year after year. I even know of one SSE member who is working with the USDA to perform tissue cultures in order to restore some rare heirlooms to health.
The interesting thing is that potatoes actually can and do produce seeds (often called true potato seed, or TPS to distinguish them from seed potatoes – the tubers saved to plant the following year). However, not all potatoes set seed, and not all of them do it consistently – this depends on the variety and the environmental conditions. You can plant TPS to grow a crop of small tubers the first year, which then can be saved as seed potatoes to grow full-sized tubers the following year. However, TPS will not necessarily give you potatoes that are true to type. This is because most (but not all) potato varieties are tetraploid (having four sets of chromosomes) rather than diploid (having two sets of chromosomes) as most vegetables are. The process of inheritance in tetraploid plants is something of a mess compared to diploids, so even if a potato is self-compatible and has the right environmental conditions to set seed, it still may not breed to type from TPS.
The point, however, is that growing potatoes from TPS circumvents many of the disease issues with saving tubers to plant. But the catch is that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get when you grow out the seed! This can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on your gardening goals. It also is a good way to get into vegetable breeding. I’m certainly no expert, and I’ve never tried breeding potatoes – that’s a project that will have to wait until I have a larger garden – but here are a couple of links to check out if you’re interested in learning more:
Growing Potatoes from True Seed
Saving your own potatoes for seed makes sense, unless you start seeing a decline and plant health and vigor, which may indicate your potatoes have a disease. Then it’s probably time to purchase new seed potatoes, if you’re growing a common variety. If this happens when you’re growing a rare heirloom, you may have to consider the possibility of propagation using tissue culture, or growing plants from true seed. However, tissue culture requires special equipment and skills, and potatoes grown from true seed may not be true to type. Still, better to propagate sick tubers than to lose heirloom varieties entirely.
Any other tips?
Well, not from me, since 2012 was my first time to grow potatoes in containers. However, an excellent resource to check out is the Kenosha potato project. They grow hundreds of different heritage varieties in 15 gallon growing bags, and have a number of cultivation tips on their website. They also are very involved with Seed Savers Exchange, so this is a great place to find rare potato varieties. They also have a page dedicated to growing potatoes from true seed.
Here’s one of the All Blue potatoes. Isn’t it cool looking?! I’ll be very interested to see if the plants have any of the blue color on the foliage, or if it’s confined to the tubers.
Spring must be here, because today was the opening day at the PSU Community Garden. We had an amazing turnout: about 75 people! That’s the most I’ve ever seen at a garden workday. After breakfast and orientation, we had put everyone to work. We put up birdhouses, cleaned up trash on site, rearranged our compost system into smaller bins that should be easier to turn, weeded garden paths and the perennial beds, woodchuck-proofed our fence, and got to listen to some live music while we worked. We had an awesome crew of workers. I’m super excited! If today was any indication, we’re in for a great season!
In the last few days, the never-ending winter weather has finally started to break. (Punxatawney Phil gets an F in meteorology this year!) With the warmer weather, I’ve been thinking a lot more about my garden. Two days ago, I was able to get out and plant seeds in my cold frame. I’m going to try to get an early start on Beets (Crapaudine), Carrots (Dragon), Lettuce (Spotted Aleppo), Radishes (Saxa 2), and Arugula. This is the first time I’ve planted in a cold frame, so I’m still learning. The last several nights we’ve had nighttime lows in the upper-20s, and daytime highs in the mid-50s with plenty of sun, so I’ve been stopping at the garden twice a day to open and close the cold frame, to keep it warm enough at night, but to make sure the germinating seeds don’t cook during the day.
The seeds that I started indoors (6 days ago now) are germinating! Here’s a couple of little tomato seedlings coming to life! These are Opalka tomatoes, which are supposed to be a very good processing variety. I’ve never grown them before. I’m hoping it’s a good year for tomatoes this year, and we don’t have problems again with late blight.
My Kale seedlings germinated within 4 days – super quick! Here are the Dwarf Curled Blue Scotch, and Lacinato kales. I was in the Home Depot today, and I was amazed to see that they were offering Lacinato transplants. Two years ago, I couldn’t find transplants anywhere. Last year, I found them in limited supply at a local nursery/CSA. It’s cool to see some of the heirloom varieties start to become more accessible, especially as more people plant gardens. The Dwarf Curled Blue Scotch is supposed to be hardy enough overwinter in Zones 4-5, so I’m hoping it will survive the winter here in Zone 6a. I’ve started to become more interested lately in season extension. I think this year I’ll try to get a late fall/early winter harvest of lettuce and green using my cold frame, and anything I can be harvesting in the winter is worth trying to grow.
I put up a rabbit fence today around my community garden plot, and I also planted peas. Here’s what I’m growing this year: Desiree Dwarf Blauwschokkers – a blue shelling pea, Sugar Snap, and Kent Blue – an English heirloom with beautiful blue flowers (grown as either a snow or a shelling pea). I’m going to do some crossbreeding between these varieties to see what I get.
This year I decided to grow all of my tomatoes and peppers from seed. We have a number of local sources to buy transplants here in Central PA, and some of them have a pretty impressive selection of heirloom tomatoes, but heirloom peppers are hard to find. Also, I absolutely love Lacinato kale, and it’s not always easy to find transplants.
I also want to start saving more seeds from my garden, so I decided it was time to make some improvements to my seed starting setup. I’ve had a rough time with starting seeds indoors the last few years. I only have North-facing windows in my apartment, so there isn’t enough natural light to start seeds. Last year I used a small fluorescent “plant light” that apparently wasn’t bright enough, because my seedlings got very spindly.
This year, I’m starting my seeds under a 48″ fluorescent shop light. I built a simple stand for it out of 1″ pvc pipe. Unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to take pictures during the assembly process, but here’s a look at the finished product:
To build something similar, you’ll need:
- 1 x 52″ length of 1″ pvc pipe
- 2 x 18″ lengths of 1″ pvc pipe
- 4 x 8″ lengths of 1″ pvc pipe
- 2 x 1″ pvc elbow joints
- 2 x 1″ pvc T-joints
- 4 x 1″ pvc end caps
In total, it adds up to a 10′ length of pvc pipe, which is pretty cheap. The 52″ section makes the crossbeam, and the 18″ pieces are used for the vertical legs. The 8″ sections are used to make the feet. Here’s a link to something similar, although I didn’t make the stand with an adjustable height; I adjust the level of the light just by raising or lowering the chain. The total cost was probably not much more than $40 for the stand, shop light, and fluorescent bulbs.
I also purchased a seedling heat mat, since peppers like warm temperatures for germination, and usually keep my apartment relatively cool. Here’s a list of what I’m starting indoors this year:
I’ve heard that it’s generally a good idea to let it sit in the garden a few days before planting to give the soil a chance to warm up, and since we’ve still got a nice trough hanging out over the Eastern part of the country giving us a healthy dose of frigid Canadian air (thanks, eh?), it sounded like a good idea.
The cold frame was free, actually. I went to the Pennsylvania Organic Farm Fest in the fall, and one of the exhibitors had the cold frame on their table with a sign that said Free! on it. They told me the first person who carried it away got to keep it, so I did. We’ll see how it works. I’m hoping to plant later this week. I’m planning to plant lettuce (Spotted Aleppo and either Bronze Arrowhead or Red Velvet), arugula, radishes (French Breakfast and Saxa II), carrots (Dragon), and beets (Crapaudine). I hope they do well, because I’m ready for a fresh salad.
As you can see, there isn’t much growing yet, apart from my cover crop. But my garlic and shallots are starting to peek above the ground, so spring is should be on its way.
I also started some peppers, tomatoes, kale, and basil indoors over the weekend. More on seed starting in a future post…
Here’s a nice writeup of our community garden from Penn State’s quarterly Agricultural Science magazine. I think the article is a great reflection of the reasons our members belong to the community garden – for educational reasons, to grow culturally favorite foods that might be difficult to find otherwise, and to have a first-hand experience in our food system, something that has been lost in our modern age of commercialized agriculture. Here’s the link from Penn State AgSci:
Ugh. March. Definitely not my favorite time of year. In Central PA, March means that there’s not enough snow for skiing (actually there wasn’t all winter), but it’s still too cold for most other outdoor activities. Plus, it’s still a bit too early to start working in the garden.
Fortunately, it’s the time of year when my seed orders start coming in the mail! This year I spent probably a bit more than I should have on seeds (okay, that actually happens every year). I ordered seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and from Seed Savers Exchange, in addition ordering seeds offered by SSE members in the yearbook. This was my first year ordering from Baker Creek. The owner Jere Gettle is a huge proponent of the open-pollinated and heirloom seed movement, and their catalog offers over 1450 rare varieties. I’m trying to move toward saving more seeds from my garden. While I won’t try to save seed from everything I plant, since biennials like carrots, beets, and brassicas are tricky, I’m going to try to do as much as possible in 150 square feet! This also will be the first year I will have grown strictly open-pollinated varieties. Here are some of the highlights for this year’s garden:
I’ve grown Chioggia beets for about the last 3 years. They’re awesome – very sweet, and they’re great on the grill. This year I’m also growing Crapaudine beets. They’re a rare French heirloom (besides Baker Creek, I couldn’t find many other sources for seeds). They’re a highly sought-after gourmet variety, and supposedly one of the oldest beets in existence.
I thought I’d have some fun this year with trying to cross-breed some peas. I read Carol Deppe’s excellent book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in seed saving and/or plant breeding), and thought I’d give it a shot. I’m growing Desiree Dwarf Blauwschokkers – a purple-podded shelling pea from Holland, and sugar snap peas. The goal will be to develop an edible-podded purple pea. Wish me luck!
Black cherry tomatoes. Don’t they look delicious?
Mmmm…squash! One of my favorite things to grow and to eat. For winter squash, I’m going to try growing Seminole pumpkins (C. moschata). These are the wild squash that grow down in the Florida Everglades. Since they’re wild, they’re supposed to have pretty great disease resistance, which is something I need badly. I have yearly battles with the cucumber beetles and squash bugs, and I am losing badly. I’ve read that C. moschata varieties (i.e. butternut squash and its relatives) have better disease resistance in general than C. maxima (e.g. most pumpkins and Hubbard squashes). I’ll also be growing Kikuza, a Japanese heirloom squash (also C. moschata). The Lemon squash will be my summer squash. Again, I’ve read that they’re supposed to have good disease resistance. Time will tell…
Chinese Five Color Peppers. Aren’t they cool? I’ll probably grow a few in pots on my patio besides whatever goes into my community garden plot.
Poona Kheera cucumber – I’ve read that this variety has pretty good pest and disease resistance. I actually haven’t grown cucumbers for several years because I got so frustrated – they would start out great, then they’d be struck by a plague of cucumber beetles, get wilt, and die. This year I’ll be trialing the Poona Kheera cukes, along with the ‘Mideast Peace’ variety that I’m requesting from a Seedsavers Exchange member, to see for myself how good the claims of disease resistance are.
I’m still waiting on the orders from the Seedsavers catalog, as well as orders that I’ve placed from individual SSE members. More on that in a future post…