Soil prep for potatoes -- Martin's method

railroadrabbit(7b - Atlanta)August 18, 2006

In another thread, Martin posted:

They were 15 used Christmas trees in January. All of the boughs and

needles were run twice through an old 18" Toro rear-bagger mower.

They were then used as a tuber medium mix for over 100 hills of potatoes.

That is one of few ways that their nitrogen needs would NOT affect the

needs of the growing plants. In 3 1/2 months, they are entirely gone.

In zone 7, Im getting ready to plant potatoes for a winter harvest, so this sounds really interesting. Could you answer a few questions?

1. Have you used other methods to grow potatoes? How did production using this method compare to other?

2. Did you till the tree trimmings into the soil or just use them alone for hilling media?

3. What did you use to fertilize initially? When did you side dress and with what?

4. Did you do anything else to prepare the soil?

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paquebot(Z-4b WI)

1. I've been involved with growing potatoes since I was 4. That's when potato bug patrol became my responsibility. Not little 20-hill back yard plots but well over an acre while at Taliesin. Every method of growing potatoes involved planting them in the soil. That's where the potatoes must have their roots and find their NPK nutrients. Whatever is above that zone has little or no affect on the harvest. That zone may be pure sand, straw, sawdust, or pine needles. Doesn't matter as long as it is out of the daylight and sufficiently and evenly damp to promote stolon growth and tuber production.

2. The ground pine was used in the zone above the seed pieces and to the depth of 6 to 8 inches and then covered with approximately an inch of soil. The plants had to come up through that since there was going to be no hilling done.

3. Fertilizer was strictly a planting hole mix which consisted of my own 50% unfinished winter-batch tumbler compost, 37% dried and composted Eurasian pond milfoil, and 17% fresh horse manure. Two inches of that was spread at the bottom of the 5" trenches and covered with an inch of soil. No side-dressing needed.

4. The only previous soil preparation was fall plowing and spring disking and dragging. (It was a hayfield last year and had never been gardened.) Soil is alluvial clay and prairie silt which doesn't need much help to get as hard as a rock.

Use of the ground pine boughs and needles was two-fold. One was to give the stolons a soft medium in which to form the tubers. This was new ground and not my personal lovely home potato patch and not conducive to underground crops without a lot of help.

Second is for common scab protection. Since common scab is an annoying problem around here without using a lot of sulfur, the pine needles wood bit form a highly acidic buffer zone where the scab can't live. I had seen the results of those who grew potatoes in that complex last year and there was not a clean spud in the lot. There are now!

Two hills of Kennebecs were dug several days ago. There were some surprised looks on some friends faces for various reasons. One was the huge results and smooth tubers. Another is that the pine material has seemingly vanished. The long mounds still look almost as high as when they were first formed. Shrinkage was replaced by the growing tubers so it appeared to not have changed.

The above applies to 29 Kennebec and 22 Red Norland hills in a new community gardens plot. It also applied to 40 Red Norland, 15 Carola, and 10 Kennebec in my home patch. It does not apply to about 40' of German Fingerling. They got only horse manure and milfoil for their 2" of food. By then, no more pine left but lots of fine-shredded oak leaves. They got a full 8 inches since I figured that that would settle more than the pine. As with the pine, the shredded leaves were also covered with about an inch of soil. I haven't begun digging them but the mounds have not shrunk nearly as much as I had figured. From the looks of the monster vines, I know that there is going to be a tremendous harvest under those mounds.


    Bookmark   August 18, 2006 at 10:07PM
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paquebot(Z-4b WI)

I'm surprised! Nobody jumped on me for bad math! That's 33% Eurasian milfoil, not 37%! Plants just wish that it were even higher.

Followup: A hill of fingerlings was dug. There are lots of traces of the coarser parts of the shredded oak leaves visible. Since additional irrigation was via running water at ground level, the mounds only received rainfall after initial soaking. In the case of the shredded pine boughs and needles, the rain would have gone straight down. The shredded leaves would possibly have matted slightly and diverted the water to the sides and thus the core of the mound would not have been damp enough. Overall, it would appear that at least 95% of the shredded leaves have vanished or become so broken down as to look exactly like the surrounding soil. That's in about 3 months time. That was the basic system that I used at home for years but no trace of leaf bits after the night crawlers did their part.


    Bookmark   August 19, 2006 at 10:44PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

Do you have any pictures of that? I have never grown potatoes, but plan on making a go at it next year... I sit right next to the Mississippi River and my soil is a heavy sand/clay? mix ...its Heavy! so i'm not sure how spuds are going to like it...

    Bookmark   August 20, 2006 at 12:08AM
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paquebot(Z-4b WI)

Frank, "heavy sand/clay mix"? Near the Mississippi, you could be mistaking fine silt for clay but both have almost the same properties.

Planting potatoes is too simple for pictures. It would be only pictures of dirt! The Irish learned to grow potatoes in hard ground and so can you. In addition to my assigned adviser role in our community gardens, I'm also the strong back for those of slight stature, shorties! I was asked to help a 5'0" elementary school teacher dig her spuds today. Her plot is clay-silt and ugly. She wasn't heavy enough to get the shovel under the potato hills! But she had potatoes! She excavated holes and mixed in some Black Cow or something similar. For the tubers to grow in, she had purchased some bagged topsoil. Production wasn't what I'm getting but twice what she got last year when she didn't have a planting hole mix. I was still able to chide her by saying that some of my individual potatoes were equal to any of her hills!

Preparing hard or heavy ground for potatoes is simple. Give the roots access to food below the depth of where you plant the pieces. That means digging a trench, easier than digging individual holes. Trench needs be only slightly deeper than the planting depth and will depend upon what your source of nutrients is. If commercial fertilizer, then the depth needs only be an inch or so below the seed piece. If 2" of compost would be used, then the trench needs be 3" deeper. Using 2" of planting hole mix, my trenches start out about 6" deep and almost a foot wide. An inch of soil is spread over the fertilizer source and the seed pieces set in place. The seed pieces are then covered with another inch of soil.

At that point, the trench still isn't filled in and the non-soil material now comes into play, shredded pine or oak leaves. That is dumped so that it ends up with 6" above ground level and would mean close to 8" depth total. Leftover soil is then spread over that material and the rows will look like you spent hours dragging soil around to make long mounds. I give them one good soaking initially and after that the mounds are on their own. Since only the roots need water, any irrigation is at ground level.

Someone could ask about what the potato plant thinks of this method. Apparently they love it even though they are forced to grow up through at least 8" of material before being able to produce the first leaf. No problem since the shredded pine stuff is loose enough to not be any obstacle.

BUT, I'm not 100% certain about advising the use of 8" of fine shredded oak leaves. Previously I always used coarse maple, ash, and oak mix. Unlike the potatoes which got the pine material and came straight up, those under the shredded leaves came up at all angles. And, the leaves are not totally broken down as the pine material is.

Although this method has been discussed a number of times on the Vegetable Forum, it applies here since it involves using a lot of organic matter. Since not all of it is used in a single season, continued use of that system improves the long-term fertility of that soil. In theory, the harvest should then increase every year until one reaches the maximum for a given variety.


    Bookmark   August 20, 2006 at 11:17PM
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bertman_gw(5B West Conn)

Has anybody tried this method?
If so Any comments

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 8:37PM
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Yes,I've used a method very similar,with oak leaves.Results were much as Martin states,

"BUT, I'm not 100% certain about advising the use of 8" of fine shredded oak leaves. Previously I always used coarse maple, ash, and oak mix. Unlike the potatoes which got the pine material and came straight up, those under the shredded leaves came up at all angles. And, the leaves are not totally broken down as the pine material is."

I didn't have enough leaves for that much cover,but yield was good with no scab.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2007 at 6:49AM
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