Potatoes are a super fun food to grow. They’re easy to plant and keep alive, they taste good, and harvesting them is like digging for buried treasure. They embody the magical transmutation of dirt to food better than any other crop I’ve grown. Of course, like any other plant, potatoes are really made from air, water, and sunlight rather than dirt, but my imagination doesn’t need to know that.
In early May I had some fingerling potatoes in my cabinet that started sprouting, so rather than throwing them out, I set them on the windowsill for a few days so the sprouts would turn green and start photosynthesizing. It was a busy time of year, and the only garden bed I had prepped for planting was already filling up fast, so I decided to take a shortcut with the potato bed. I had some concrete wall blocks left over from rebuilding a retaining wall and a bag or two of compost, so I limited myself to those materials.
Over the course of two or three mornings before work, while tossing a frisbee for the dog, I laid out a 3′ x 3′ square border with the blocks on a bit of lawn that I didn’t mind killing, because it will eventually be covered up with raised beds. I tossed down a layer of compost about an inch deep in an attempt to cover the grass a bit, though there was actually still quite a bit of grass visible. I then cut up the finglering potatoes so that there were two or three sprouts per section, and laid them down on top of the compost. I covered each of these sections with enough compost that I couldn’t see the potatoes and waited.
About two weeks later I started noticing potato leaves poking up above the dirt. It was still quite rainy in Seattle at this point, so I didn’t water them at all the first month or two. I did add a bit of dirt once a month or so, sometimes from my home made compost, sometimes from a heap of topsoil I have sitting around. By the time I dug up the potatoes, I had about 5 inches of loose soil above the compacted layer of soil that had been there originally.
I also had lots of grass in my potato bed. If I were to do this process over again, I would put down newspaper or cardboard on top of the grass before planting the potatoes, or if I had a bit more time, I would dig up that little bit of lawn into blocks of turf and turn them over. I thought that the potatoes would need to send roots down into the soil beneath the grass, but it turned out that the soil was so compacted that the potato roots went sideways once they hit that layer. The grass grew right up through the layer of compost I put down, and provided a great place for slugs to hide during the day, so they could come out at night and feast on the above ground part of the potato plants.
I probably harvested my potatoes about two weeks early because I was eager to get my winter broccoli and cauliflower plants into the ground, but I still yielded about 7-10 times as much potato as I put in, which I consider a success. I’m adding potatoes to the list of edible plants that I’ll recommend to beginning gardeners. Once the dry season in Seattle started, I only watered my potatoes about once a week and didn’t encounter any pest or disease problems except for slugs. Several plants got repeatedly crushed by my dog marauding through the bed, and still bounced back. Some folks shun growing potatoes because they are relatively inexpensive to buy at a grocery store compared to the space it takes to grow them, but people underestimate the fun factor of growing such an easy, tasty crop.