Seed potatoes ready to get in the ground

Seed potatoes ready to get in the ground: All Blue and Yukon Gold

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?

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Potatoes in 5 gallon buckets - Chieftain and All Blue

Potatoes in 5 gallon buckets – Chieftain and All Blue

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:
Potato Breeding
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.

An All Blue potato sprouting

An All Blue potato sprouting

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.