Opening the Garden with Potatoes and Onions

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The opening act for this year’s garden was to plant onion seed and seed potatoes.

The onion seed was harvested from some onions I allowed to go to seed last year. I did not plant in neat, orderly, well spaced rows this time. I scattered the seed liberally (I have plenty!) and will harvest many of the young plants as green onions to attain proper spacing for the mature onions.

The seed potatoes were kept from last year’s crop as well: those too small to do much else with. I put them in a box of dry wood chips (my surface planer makes small chips ideal for this). I closed up the box and tucked it away in a cool, dark spot for the winter.

When I opened it this week and sifted carefully through the chips for the spudlets, I found most of them had just started to sprout: perfect timing!

In the past, I planted potatoes in a deep raised bed in a more or less traditional manner. But to accomplish crop rotation that means moving add-on box sections and shuffling soil around – or (eventually) making all my garden boxes “deep” boxes. This year I decided to jump on board with the current fad in potato growing: wire bins.

There are videos popping up all over the place of people making bins out of wire fencing, lining it with straw and filling it with soil/compost/peat mixture. Taters like peat. Many do this to conserve space in their garden by growing vertically. Main-crop potatoes on the bottom, early varieties on the top. I’m going to use a variation on that theme.

I’m not pinched for space, but I did set up lasagna beds to compost over the winter. The lasagna is not done yet and I need to start planting. My solution is to cover the not-done compost with a layer of corrugated cardboard and build my potato bed on top of that. By the time the taters get going well and start to burrow through the now-broken down cardboard, the compost below should be in good shape.

I do need to make extra soil, so I bought bags of organic garden top soil, compost, and a bale of peat and mixed the components well in my garden wagon. I use PVC & poultry mesh fence boxes on all my raised beds to keep our dogs, wild rabbits and other pesky things out of the foodstuffs. I’ll use one of those as my “bin” and line it with straw to hold the soil in.

I set my main crop potatoes right down on the cardboard and cover them with 4 inches of soil. Then I lay in my early crop and cover those with another 2 to 3 inches. I space them so the early crop plants are not right above the main crop plants. As the potato plants grow up through the soil, I’ll layer in more soil instead of mounding like I would if I were planting in rows.

I water the whole thing well at each layer: getting water to penetrate soil with peat in it can be tricky. I can soak it down to where I’m sure it must be mud all the way through, but poke a finger in and it’s bone dry ½ inch under the surface.

My buddy, Alabama Mike, went with the fence wire bins, but added a unique twist to the construction. He cut the bottom out of a plastic planter (from a tree sapling), added a rope handle, and used that as a form while building the bin.

Tuck the straw between the form and the fencing, fill the form part way with soil, lay in potatoes around the edges, add soil. Pull the form up a bit and repeat until the bin is planted.

That sure saves a lot of wrestling with the straw while you shovel soil into the middle!

My beds are big enough (4 feet x 4 feet) that I can shovel soil into a mound in the middle and press it out to the sides to hold the straw up.

There you have it: two approaches for raising potatoes above ground. And when we’re done, the straw will mix into the soil to compost over the winter and be ready for another round of growing next year. What’s going on in your garden?