By Laura Damron
Last year, I saw an ad for some gorgeous, modular wooden potato-growing bins. I don’t remember where I saw it, or who made them – but I do remember that they were nearly $100 each. You could have knocked me over with a feather. A hundred bucks? For wood boxes?? That I was going to fill with dirt???
No, thanks. I mean, I love the idea, but I know how much wood actually costs. I also know how to use a saw and a screwdriver (or a pneumatic brad nailer, in this case) so there was no possible way I could justify spending that kind of money for those bins, regardless of how nice they looked.
The concept had me curious, though: Instead of hilling up row after row of potatoes, the bins would supposedly yield more potatoes in less space. I certainly can’t argue with efficiency, so I set out to give it a try. (Not that I have rows of potatoes,per se – it’s more of a random assembly of clumps. But still …)
I sourced the wood online – turns out there’s a cedar fence company nearby that sells its “B” grade wood at a much lower price than the local lumber yard. It was still really nice wood, just not “fence worthy” – having some knots and small imperfections – but otherwise perfect for my application. I chose cedar because of its rot and insect resistance, and the fence board dimensions (1-inch-by-6-inch-by-8-foot) were the perfect sizes: tall enough to be worthwhile, and not too heavy for me to stack and unstack.
I built about 20 of the (roughly) 2-foot-square boxes, and stacked them nicely near where I’d planned to put the potatoes; just on the other side of the garden fence, under some trees. It’s a nice spot, with mostly full sun, but the soil tends to be on the dry side. In hindsight, this was an oversight that cost me a good potato harvest last year.
Another factor leading to the less-than-stellar results of my first year with the bins was that I opted for filling them with straw, instead of lugging dirt over (and doing the job right). I’d read somewhere that people have success hilling with straw, but it certainly didn’t work for me. The potatoes I did get weren’t formed up the stem, like they do when you hill them – they sort of spread out in the dirt, below the bins. I think that if the soil had been better to start with, straw would probably work just fine, but the combination here just wasn’t conducive to growing them well.
After digging up the pitiful potatoes at the end of last season, I was determined to do better this year and started preparing right away. Once the bins were empty and stacked up for the winter, I moved on to other chores, taking the litter from both the rabbit run and chicken coop and piling it up where the bins would go this year, along with the leftover straw mulch. I use wood shavings primarily, so I was counting on whatever didn’t break down over the winter to help retain some moisture in the soil going forward.
I turned the pile maybe twice over the course of the winter; with all of the manure in it, things were pretty hot and broke down quickly. The chickens helped fluff it up by scratching around for worms, which were plentiful. By the time spring rolled around this year, it was 90 percent broken down into gorgeous, black compost … not the dry, reddish soil that was there last year.
I planted my potatoes a little late this year, due to the rain. However, because I took the time to improve the soil, the plants caught up in no time and the bins are full to overflowing. I’ve been filling the bins with the compost, which is a little fiddly compared to just hilling up the plants, but it’s not awful. The best part? The plants are already easily a foot taller than they were at this time, last year. That’s a really good sign.
So, there you have it: I’m looking forward to a much better yield this year, and I definitely recommend giving a bin or two a try. Even though my first year wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped, I realize that the fail point was me – I took for granted that potatoes pop up all over my garden, not thinking about how completely different the soil is between the two locations. Chalk another one up to valuable lessons learned!
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