Question about Growing Potatoes in Straw

kriswrite(zone 8)February 1, 2013

This year, I'm going to try growing potatoes in a tower:

I'm considering growing the potatoes in straw, instead of soil. Has anyone here ever done that? In "Lasagna Gardening" the author says this results in smaller spuds. What do you think?

Straw is definitely cheaper for me than using potting soil (I don't have enough decent garden soil to add it to my tower), but if it makes much of a difference in yield, I'd rather go with soil.

Thanks for your advice!


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Hi Kristina,
Towers don't work, you are going to get zero extra spuds for the amount of work you are going to put ;-(
Just plant the spud and keep it moist ,in the sun, and "hill it" a couple times with loose soil (or whatever you can scrounge up), and you will get just as many spuds with Zero extra work ;-)

Here is a link that might be useful: Hilling Potatoes

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 11:40PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Mulching them with straw is great. Growing them in straw is "fad gardening" and not great. Smaller potatoes and many less of them. Creates both nutrient and water issues for the plants that they don't have when using soil.


    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 9:11AM
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Growing them in straw won't work because there are no nutrients in the straw. The towers do work, but you need to use indeterminate potatoes. As the vines make upward growth with the indeterminates they will make nodes and roots all the way to the top, with good soil,constant addition, moisture and temperature. Most potatoes are determinate variety's bred to grow and die in a certain number of days. The Peruvian purple types, and other less domesticated variety's should do well.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 9:35AM
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One final note on indeterminate potatoes. They never die in a season. If you plant them in the spring they will grow until frost. They might not even set fruit until fall because they are daylight sensitive. Potatoes have there roots in Latin America, where seldom if ever is there more than 12 hours of daylight. So they are triggered into production in the fall. So with the potato towers, given proper paradigms and varietals they will work, but should not be harvested until October, or early November.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 9:41AM
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You're not going to get 100# from a 2x2 bin, no matter if you use soil or straw. Seed potatoes are typically planted about 12" apart. Crowding them reduces yield.

There seems to be some confusion over just what "growing in straw" means. The bin shown in your link has the seed potatoes placed in soil, not in straw. The straw is mounded on top of them. The potato vine gets nutrients from the soil, where its roots are, not the straw. It will set tubers along the vine above the soil, where the straw is covering them.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 9:54AM
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To be fair as shown in the article, it is not a 2x2 bin(4sq ft.) it is 2x2x3 or 12 sq. ft. It probably would be a good idea to make the dimensions larger 3x3 or 4x4 in order to have better soil temps and less fluctuation. Especially in zone 8 if you get real high summer temps. Also plan ahead since they will grow into the fall a good 30 or 40% shade cloth would be in order. I did a little research and someone documented 1.3 lbs per square foot. With this formula a 2x2x4 bin would produce about 16lbs of potatoes. It seems that the statement of 100 lbs to be produced seems to be urban myth. But it does seem to be a novel worthwhile garden experiment and not to be discouraged.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 11:12AM
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Masbustelo wrote: "But it does seem to be a novel worthwhile garden experiment and not to be discouraged."
YEAH....That was true for the first 10,000 gardeners,, we know is to be discouraged , because when it fails, it takes novices with it.....Yes ....some potatoes will continue to produce more tubers as the plant is "hilled" but they will not be as big as the "initial set" and they will not produce sufficiently to have any reasonable value.....Look, I'm not looking for an argument here, what I am saying is , with the same amount of work, you can get "boatloads" of potatoes, just by planting a succession of spuds every two weeks, they need 90 days to produce ,so as long as you have at least that many days until "first frost", plant and enjoy .

Here is a link that might be useful: Planting spuds

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 12:27PM
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Jon What variety did you use that failed for you?

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 1:23PM
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Masbustelo - a little math. 2x2x3 isn't 12 sq ft, it's 12 cubic feet. Actually, it's less than that, going by the dimensions shown.

But the point is, there's only 4 sq feet [or less] of soil for the seed potatoes to take root in. Potatoes don't root above the seed piece, so that's the crucial figure to determine potential yield. In a 2x2 ft square, you really only have room for 6 seed potatoes. The illustration shows 9, but they're planted too close to the edges.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 1:54PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

You might be interested in a thread I started about potato towers using straw to hill the potatoes. My experience with straw was not good because it was so hard to get the straw around the stems without breaking them. One contributor to the discussion, Edweather, did have good results growing russets in potato towers, and there are photos showing how spuds grew along the stem. Although I gave up on straw, I haven't completely given up on the tower idea for long season (indeterminant) potatoes, like russets.

Here is a link that might be useful: Tale of two potato bins, with photos

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 2:07PM
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Hi Masbustelo ,
I am not saying that anything failed for me, as a matter of fact, for a couple of years, I was a big proponent of "growing up the vine" and showing pics and video's of my potatoes doing just that.....don't get me wrong, they will grow up the vine (some varieties), it just doesn't have reasonable value for the time and labor necessary to accomplish what turns out to be insufficient harvest.You can get wayyyyyyyyy more spuds, with conventional,succession planting.

Here is a link that might be useful: Picking spuds ;-)

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 2:24PM
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Ohiofem Thanks for sharing the other thread which shows the success that can be had with this system. Itilton you are right, cubic feet not square feet, however this wouldn't affect my yield estimate. The following statement is half correct on your part ...there is only 4 square feet of soil for the seed potatoes to take root in. Potatoes don't root above the seed piece,... This is true regarding determinate potatoes and untrue regarding indeterminate potatoes. As Ohiofem has written ... I have read that only a few late season varieties will grow stolons with tubers all along the buried stem, which is what you want in a potato tower. Potatoes are like tomatoes in that some are indeterminate and some are determinate. Determinate potatoes flower once and produce one layer of potatoes and die, so they are not suitable for a tower. Lots of people read these threads for years to come, so it is important to be accurate. I suspect that Jonhughes failure had to do with variety. We shall see if he can provide us with this information.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 2:29PM
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This is the myth that won't die. Go to Youtube and search 'potato tower.' This is what you'll get > failure. There's one woman who talks about the huge production she gets in her plastic rubbish barrels. She shows you the potatoes growing in the barrels, but not the harvest. There's another woman who claims great success. She knocks over a continer, shows a few spuds in the soil, and then cuts to a couple of pails full of spuds. But she never actually shows herself pulling the potatoes out of the barrel.

The rest of the videos either tell you 'how to' and are just planting videos with no harvest reveal, of show failures. Now - if someone had success growing a barrel full of spuds, don't you think that at least ONE of them would show a real-time reveal?

I read up on this last winter. What I found was a claim - reflected in a comment above - that you need late-season, indeterminate varieties to make towers work. So I used russet seed potatoes, which are late season. I cared for the barrel like it was a baby, gradually filling it in, keeping it watered but not wet, etc. What did I get? A couple of very small spuds high up in the barrel (but a good eight-ten inches below the surface) and the rest right at the bottom, exactly where you'd expect them.

The question isn't whether it's possible to produce SOME spud above the standard planting depth. The question is, do the results support the claims - like 40 lbs of spuds for a single barrel?

Here's another way to think of it. Potatoes are hilled in conventional farming to prevent the growing spuds from being exposed to sunlight. If hilling up around the stalks caused the plant to put out more tubers higher up on the stalk, then farmers would have to hill up over and over again to keep up with them, right? It doesn't happen. So the experiment has already been done by farmers for a few hundred years. Hilling DOES NOT cause new production in any reliable way.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 3:23PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I basically agree with Jonfrum. I spent hours on Gardenweb and on the Internet researching this question. I didnt find anyone who showed the results. I even read the blog by Sinfonian that is referred to in the article the OP linked to. Sinfonian was a GW member and concluded that potato towers were a failure for him. Edweather was the only person I found who showed that his potatoes grew at several levels. But notice that those potatoes were much smaller than those at the bottom of the tower.

But all that taken into consideration. it doesn't mean that it isn't fun to try. Home grown potatoes taste great. Just don't count on them to bring you bountiful harvests.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 4:33PM
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Masbutelo - yes, potatoes can sprout stolons and tubers along the stem. But stolons aren't roots. Stolons don't take up nutrients from the soil, only roots do that, and there is only 4 sq ft for roots no matter how high the vines grow.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 6:09PM
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this link at organic garden mag that tested 7 different potato growing methods

Here is a link that might be useful: 7 potato growing methods tested

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 6:45PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

Thanks, thegreatcob. Unlike many online discussions of growing potatoes, this one focuses on the results. It sounds like your best bet, if you have good soil and enough space, is to grow hilled in rows in the ground. Raised beds and grow bags sound like close seconds, especially if your soil isn't rich and loose.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 7:05PM
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ohiofem thanks i have lots info on results and other growing practices over 500k pages of info.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 7:53PM
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kriswrite(zone 8)

Thanks, everyone for all the thoughts and links. When I saw "grow in straw," I do mean their roots are in soil, but instead of hilling with soil, you hill with straw.

I know many people feel towers don't work, but I had wonderful results last year from a grow bag - and the principle is similar. Can anyone tell me why it would be better than a wood tower?

I don't expect 100 lbs. of potatoes from a tower (I think that's ridiculous), but I also don't have room to grow potatoes traditionally.

I've read (I wish I remembered where) that when the potato plant "bumps into" a hard surface (like the sides of a grow bag or the wood from a tower), it branches out, creating more chance for potatoes to grow. Also, in my research I found that many failures were due to using early variety potato...and many others didn't mention what type of potato they used.

My thought was to continue with the grow bags, but to try a tower, too.

But getting back to my original question: Is there any good reason not to use straw for hilling? (It's just as easy, in my experience, to break stems with soil as it is with hay.)

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 4:57PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I think many people have liked using straw for hilling, and it's a fine choice. In my case, I think my plants became overcrowded quickly, and getting the stiff pieces of straw down into the pot and compressed enough to hold moisture became difficult. So I ended up buying a "fluffy" potting mix to finish up. (My tower was 3 feet high and more than 3 feet in diameter, so it took half a bale of hay and almost 2 cubic feet of potting mix to hill the plants. And then, I ended up with a few tiny spuds.)

I do remember one other poster on this subject who said she found at seasons end, when she dumped her tower hilled in straw, that the straw and soil where the roots were was all dried out, and there were only a couple small potatoes. She said that when watering, she was apparently only making the top layer wet and not soaking the soil beneath all that straw.

Please come back and tell us how your tower works out. If you search Garden Web for "potato tower" you will find very few who tell us the results of their efforts.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 5:20PM
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kriswrite(zone 8)

Ohiofem, thanks; that helps. I think I will stick with soil. I may or may not do towers. I almost hate to mess with the success of my grow bags. But I do wonder why there would be a difference between growing in grow bags and growing in wood towers. If I do go with a tower, I will be sure to post a follow up!

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 7:47PM
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Ohio - that surprises me. One of the great advantages I've found to straw has been the way it holds in moisture and keeps the ground level from drying out.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 9:59PM
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How does one know,at the end of the day, if all that was demonstrated is that Russet Potatoes don't work in potato towers?

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 9:21AM
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I believe potato towers will work quite well. The trick to them is that you fill them up with soil at the start and put your seed potato near the top, and let them grow down the way nature intended. The advantage is that you can then take the sides off for an easy harvest.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 11:45AM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

It's really interesting to search Garden Web for information. I just found this discussion about problems with mulching potatoes with straw. Some folks had good experiences (well, at least one said he did) while others experienced disappointment. The original poster was very disappointed in her tiny yield, and one of the responses she got was: I would suspect insufficient moisture, because loose straw is very poor at retaining moisture, and potatoes don't produce much if they don't get a minimum amount. Dirt is much better on that score. If you aren't going to be irrigating, it's probably best to avoid the straw/hay method entirely. Ditto if you have a very dry climate.
You can read the whole thread at the link below.

Here is a link that might be useful: Straw potato disappointment

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 1:01PM
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I did potato bags last year with adirondak blue potatoes (indeterminate as far as I know), and what I discovered was that while I did pile the soil up as it grew, the results were not remarkable at all. All of the potatoes produced were in the lower half of the bag, and all I really had was really long stems in the top half.

Plenty of potatoes, don't get me wrong, but the mounding up did nothing as far as increasing the amount of potatoes that I could see.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 1:13PM
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