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No-dig potatoes?

 
Matthew Nistico
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Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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While I am sure that someone must have posed this question before, a quick search of this forum yielded no matches, so...

I'm in the early stages of planning/planting a suburban-scale, permaculture-inspired, whole-yard, ecological garden. I am implementing a no-till philosophy, so after a particular bed is first created I want to disturb the soil as minimally as possible in the future. I am also, of course, trying to achieve maximum integration of different species - woody and herbaceous, annual and perennial - together in close polycultures ...which further motivates one to minimize future soil disturbance, so as not to to damage the roots of trees and bushes. Finally, I am using hugelkulture in several different places in different forms ...which again argues for minimal soil disturbance, since trying to "dig" through buried tangled branches and trunks doesn't sound like much fun.

So, how does one integrate root vegetables into such a garden? I'm not worried about onions or beets or radishes; I can easily imagine dealing with those without too much trouble. I am worried about potatoes and sweet potatoes. In my past gardening experiences, I've found that sweet potato roots go EVERYWHERE and necessitate turning the entire bed upside down before all the potatoes are found. Is there a technique for cultivating these plants that keeps the tubers more centralized or closer to the surface? Do you just dig tentatively and accept that you will leave half of the tubers undiscovered to rot underground? Or do they not rot but instead grow next year's plants? In this regard, know that I live in zone 7 with cold winters.

I read once about a traditional Polynesian technique for growing tubers (probably yams) completely above ground, in small raised beds built atop undisturbed soil. These comprised stone rings - I'm thinking of using bricks, maybe 24" to 36" diameter by 18" tall - filled with particularly sandy soil. The roots are encouraged to grow large in the loose soil, and when harvest time comes the stone rings are disassembled to let the whole mess collapse and be easily sifted through. I thought this sounded very promising, yet in a way it's just dodging the question by keeping the potatoes and sweet potatoes segregated from the other growies in their own little "expendable" bits of soil. I.e., a little volume of soil inside the raised ring that I plan to go ahead and till, for all intents and purposes, and then reconstruct next season. I suppose I could plant these expendable potato rings with other species, too, to recreate a bit of polyculture, so long as I restricted them to shallow-rooted annuals and/or volunteer weeds that I didn't mind sacrificing at season's end.

Any other ideas?

And if Toby ends up reading this, your are the best! Gia's Garden was the first major permaculture manual I read and is still the blue-print for everything I'm striving to create. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experience with us here on permies : )

~ Matthew N., Southern transplant
 
Toby Hemenway
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Matthew, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. One thing to remember is that complex polycultures are not the only valid technique in permaculture. You have nicely pointed out the challenges in mixing potatoes into an otherwise no-dig system, and that suggests that (as you also noted) they might be better off in their own beds, where you can dig with abandon.

Permaculture's co-originator, David Holmgren, has shocked many by growing his veggies in rectangular raised beds, and in that area they are largely annuals. And his fruit trees are not really in guilds, but in a more orchard-like design (though laid out on contour). This was all done for ease of harvest and maintenance, at the cost of "naturalness" and maybe even some habitat. So we all need to remember to be flexible and let the crops and conditions, and our needs, dictate the design, instead of getting locked into "it always has to look like this."
 
Maggie Oliver
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This is a good (if lazy) way to keep the potatoes "no dig"... I plant them in the compost beds as I turn them... I have MS so sometimes I don't have lots of energy to do stuff the "right" way.
Put the new compost containment up... turn the top few inches of compost from the pile to be turned into the new bin... put some 'tatter eyes in there... put some more compost on top... and just keep adding as needed. Sweet potatoes and potatoes of any kind also do well grown in straw bails, which keeps them no dig and also gives a good compost starter.
 
                        
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g'day matthew,

take a look at our presentation, growing in drumes and cages didn't work for me, but this one did:

http://www.lensgarden.com.au/instant_potato_patch.htm

len
 
Matthew Nistico
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Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Toby - Thanks! I think that is excellent advice, not just for figuring out my tuber problem, but also generally to keep in mind as I construct my garden.

@Maggie - Believe me, I appreciate your situation. I am paraplegic and must use a wheelchair, so you can imagine that the design parameters to which I've had to conform my garden are rather extreme! But then all of us experimenting with permaculture are deviating from "the right way," at least according to conventional wisdom. To avoid the need to turn compost piles at all, I am relying entirely on sheet mulching (i.e. composting in place) and on vermicomposting bins (though I have not actually set these up yet). And yes, I've learnt a little bit about straw bale gardening, and can imagine that it might be a good fit for growing potatoes. I haven't actually tried it. I will have to look into that some more!

@Len - Hey, do you guys have a YouTube video of your technique for potatoes?! I have seen a video that looks a lot like the photos on your link.

Thanks all,

~ Matthew N., Southern transplant
 
                            
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Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
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I'm in zone 6, southern Missouri Ozarks. I've grown potatoes (nearly) no-dig as a perennial and had the same patch last 5 or 6 years before it died of neglect after I moved. The ground had been plowed and tilled and then I dug out where I wanted paths and piled up where I wanted beds. I covered the dirt with cardboard and/or news paper and poked holes where I wanted to plant. I laid the potatoes over the holes and barely tucked them into the dirt. The whole area was then covered in a foot or so of old hay.

There were lots of weeds that sprouted in the hay, but if pulled before they get roots into the dirt, the aren't a problem.

Come harvest time, I pulled the mulch back and the potatoes were either on top of the soil, or within easy finger-digging range. I did not use a shovel at all. I then pulled the old mulch over the bed and left it for the winter. Before I could do anything with it the next spring, potatoes were volunteering throughout the patch. After I harvested that fall, I added a layer of fresh mulch. Ditto the next year. Then I moved to a different place a few miles away, but still own that garden. I harvested but did not remulch for several years before the weeds finally choked out the last of the spuds.

One tip I do have: don't cut your seed potatoes. Just use the small ones. Cutting lets bad fungi and bacteria in. Since all potatoes from the same plant have the same genetics, there is no need to worry about selecting for smaller spuds.

Hopefully I'll be back on my land next summer and get to start it all over again.

 
Travis Halverson
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I tried ruth stout's method last year. Placed seed potatoes on the ground and covered with straw. Late summer I pulled back what was left of the straw and gathered the potatoes lying there. My yield might've been lower than if mounding them up and digging them out but it was super easy. I imagine the yield will increase as my soil's fertility does too.

You Tube links to a two part tour of ruth stout's garden.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt-KHUITId8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyEQS0v75mc&feature=related

 
                        
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g'day matthew,

no we don't have a youtube presentation, this is something i began doing a long time ago dunno if i claim first but as far as i know i was first to present it in those potato question post.

can't say if the youtube presentation is that owners right? we have had stuff plagerised before, one big garden show over here did it, i didn't know because i stopped watching it as they seemed to be pinching ideas some then from my site but again i don't own them. the first i heard about the tv garden segment was when others began telling about it, so i watched a repat and sure as heck it varied little from my presentation they put prunings in the bottom like hgelkultur something that show has never done before.

worst bit is they give no recognition to where they stole the idea from. ah! but that's life, there has been many issued including authors doing the same.

len
 
Steven Devijver
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Have you seen this method from the UK (potato section starts at the 4:15 mark)?


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YjnMlSX1us&feature=youtube_gdata_player

It involves car tires and no digging.
 
David Miller
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Although I love the idea of growing potatoes with less work I cannot imagine growing my food in a cadmium laced rubber tire. Seriously!?
 
Leila Rich
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A bit OT, but I've been allowing my potatoes to volunteer willy-nilly with great yealds of healthy spuds for a few years until...
I got late blight.
I now realise why people keep their potatoes in their own beds, as getting the tubers out from everywhere is impossible.
I think Toby's advice is great. I try to be practical, rather than pedanticically permie. (I would've thought that was a contradiction in terms, but there ya go!
So when I grow spuds again, they'll have their own(ish) spot and they won't be allowed to run off and procreate under the comfrey, the raspberries, the apple trees...
 
Ute Chook
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I placed my no-dig potatoes on former chicken ground last year (let chickens clear the ground, then moved their electric netting to exclude them from the area). I put some nice compost on the row, not much, I think it was 2 buckets on a 3 m row, covered the bed with paper feed sacks, spaced out the potatoes, cuts slits in the paper bags, placed the potatoes on the slits and covered the row with waste hay from the goat yard (containing some goat pee+poo) , about 3 inches. After that I did nothing at all but harvest the potatoes in late summer.
Incidentally I did a bit of a trial in that right beside this bed I dug a so-called "lazy bed", the customary method here in Ireland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridge_and_furrow), same length, same compost application, same seed potatoes (same variety and quantity). There was no discernible difference in yield and there is nothing lazy about "lazy beds", it's bloody hard work, did in my already dodgy knee with the digging, and the soil underneath the mulch bed at the end of the season was a lot nicer - dark, crumbly and full of life whereas the lazy bed soil was brown and dirt-like.
No-dig it is for me this year. Same yield, less work, better soil.
 
                        
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way to go with the no-dig hey?

can't understand the tillers who want to rule dominion over nature.

no-dig the natural way

len
 
Gary Abshire
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Location: Western Utah (Zone 5b) (Soil order: Aridisols)
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The area where I live there is a strong homesteading culture. I love getting advise from the old timers they were permaculture when permaculture wasn't. The way I have seen quite a few of them growing potatoes is they will start the 5 or so plants around the outside of the inside of an old tire. As the plants grow they stack another old tire on top and fill with dirt. They leave the stack of tires out all winter long, so the stack of tires acts as a planter and a place to store them. When they need some potatoes they just pull one of the tires off. The tubers like to collect inside of the tire so when it us pull off you take up most of the tubers with it.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I would not grow food in old tires. http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/are-tire-planters-safe.aspx

Some old-timer knowledge is appropriate, some, unfortunately, isn't. Old-timers around here pretty much kill anything that moves and most things that don't, unless it's grass or cows. They spray herbicide on important native plants and burn their brush and trash in big piles. It's hard to think of anything old-timers do in my region which is a good idea.....

 
                        
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no old tyres for us either the EPA consider them as a toxic problem, once on your property you may find it hard to dispose of them refuse tips won't take them, and keep in mind naturally tyre shops will gladly let you take as many as you want, when the old tyre was traded in so to speak the customer who bought new ones paid a disposal fee, which the tyre place then pays to a recycler to take them away. so you take them for free the tyre shops get to keep the disposal fee, simple hey.

they must leech chemicals as they perish in the sun

one reason i went to throw the spuds on the lawn and cover them up system as cages did not work for me.

notice there are so few truck tyres traded in? by the time the new truck tyre wears its tread out and gets retreaded 3 times in its life, they mostly simply blow out on the highway leaving lots of environmental hazzard along the sides of the highways.

len
 
Ute Chook
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len gardener wrote:way to go with the no-dig hey?

can't understand the tillers who want to rule dominion over nature.

no-dig the natural way

len


Hi Len (good to see you here),

I'd done it before but had never done a side-by-side trial to see how the 2 systems actually compare in terms of yield. It was also the first time I used an area cleared by the chickens. One problem with mulch in this sodden wet country is slugs. But since the chickens had cleared (and manured) the spot for the beds and a good area around it I thought it was worth trying. And it was

 
Dale Hodgins
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I once constructed a compost pile inside a big wire cage made of stucco wire. Leaves, sticks and kitchen waste were piled two feet high. The stuff was covered with 6 inches of soil and planted with potatoes. In the fall l took the wire off and got lots of potatoes along with semi finished compost. The wire contained the sprawling tendency of potato tops.
 
Matthew Nistico
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@Travis Halverson - OMG! Thank you so much for sharing the links to the Ruth Stout videos. I'd never heard of her before, but I enjoyed those vids soooo much. I wish I were a woman so that I could be just like her when I grow old, LOL! Yet another example of someone practicing permaculture years before the word was even coined. Okay, what she did may not have been permaculture exactly, but there were sure a whole hell of a lot of similarities: totally organic, no-till, heavy mulches, irreverent of conventional techniques, rooted in observation rather than dogma, optimized inputs:yield ratio, etc.

@Homesteadpaul - Thanks for the hot tip about not cutting one's seed potatoes. Makes perfect sense. I'd always used whole seed potatoes before, but hadn't ever really thought about why I was doing so.

One question for the peeps to answer, please: I understand the advantages of using hay as mulch compared to straw (better carbon:nitrogen ratio positively affects composting, etc.), but do people find more problems with introducing weed seeds via hay? Seems to me like that would be more problematic than with straw...?

@Leila Rich - Very interesting, but please favor a noob like myself with a bit of explanation: are you implying that allowing potatoes to go perennial by leaving unharvested spuds in the ground to re-sprout year after year actually encourages potato blight? I am not educated on the topic at all...

@Chook-in-Eire - An intriguing experiment. It was good that you tried the two techniques side by side so that you can report the results here. I'd not heard of lazy beds, but after reading on Wiki I can see what you mean about them being anything but "lazy." I'm not surprised that the end result of you untilled bed was healthier looking soil at season's end. But you didn't address the one point that is central to my starting this thread: how did you go about harvesting them? Or I should rephrase: what was it about your total methods of planting and harvesting that allowed less disturbance of the soil in the no-dig beds?

@Tyler Ludens - Thanks for sharing info on the danger of soil contamination from tire containers. I hadn't known, but I'm hardly surprised.

@Dale Hodgins - Based on all of the advice that has accumulated here, and on all of the different techniques I've observed via YouTube, I think I'm zeroing in on my preferred method, and I think it's going to look a lot like what you described. Temporary "expendable" raised beds in the tradition of the Polynesian technique I referenced above, except a round wire cage sounds easier than using stones or bricks. I think I'll stick with hardware cloth - I've more than enough experience with stucco lath and the bloody scratches it brings to want any in my garden, and chicken wire is just a headache waiting to happen. At season's start, I'll fill the cage half full of homemade potting mix - I'm guessing a little bit of my native (clay) soil, a little bit of course sand, a good bit of compost from my worm bins, and a good bit of straw and/or shredded leaves ...probably the latter since its free and I can be sure it isn't laced with herbicides. And maybe a little perlite for good measure. Then lay some whole seed potatoes on top, then a few inches more mix. I'll probably plant a few radishes and herbs, or other shallow root, quick-harvest crops along with. As the potatoes grow and I harvest the companion crops, I'll keep adding more layers of mix on top. I prefer Yukon Golds, which are short season spuds, so by early- to mid-summer I will declare the potato season finished, open up the wire cages, and sift through the collapsed beds to harvest all of the spuds. Then I can reconstruct the wire cage beds, refill with my potting mix, and start the whole process over again with sweet potatoes for a fall harvest. This can all happen next to, but still apart from, my other in-the-ground no-till beds.

What do people think? Suggestions? Constructive criticism?
 
                        
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never got growths out of spoilt hay, get lots of growth out of wheat straw, not that it matters it never matures and can easily be pulled and tucked under for extra nutrient.

len
 
Dale Hodgins
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Ute Chook
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Matthew Nistico wrote:
@Chook-in-Eire - An intriguing experiment. It was good that you tried the two techniques side by side so that you can report the results here. I'd not heard of lazy beds, but after reading on Wiki I can see what you mean about them being anything but "lazy." I'm not surprised that the end result of you untilled bed was healthier looking soil at season's end. But you didn't address the one point that is central to my starting this thread: how did you go about harvesting them? Or I should rephrase: what was it about your total methods of planting and harvesting that allowed less disturbance of the soil in the no-dig beds?


I just started feeling around for the first ones in mid-late August, took out some big ones for dinners and moved the mulch back. Eventually I harvested the lot by taking away the mulch and removing the potatoes. Some had grown downwards rather than just at the soil/mulch interface and needed a bit of rooting around but it could all be done by hand.

Re disturbance: It's quite simple really. The lazy bed was dug. Sods were turned upside down. The mulch bed involved very little disturbance of the soil, only at harvest, and nothing was turned upside down. There are a couple photos in this album (10th row from the top).
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.110988028998284.17917.100002612630740&type=1&l=b0120d4f0c
 
P Thickens
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What about a temporary raised bed done in cardboard? Dismantable as per potatoes required -- just untie the holdfasts, pull up a flap and steal a spud. No digging required!
 
Matthew Nistico
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@Chook-in-Eire - Thanks! Altogether lovely photos. And thanks for your description as well. So, the idea is that the potatoes naturally tend to form where the top of the soil and the bottom of the mulch layer meet? Or at least most of them? How interesting. And yes, if the end result was potatoes that could totally be dug with just your fingers, even the ones trying to grow down into the soil, then I can see how your method equals very little soil disturbance. I agree: I think that would be compatible with a no-till approach in a larger garden bed.
 
P Thickens
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Matthew Nistico wrote:@Chook-in-Eire - Thanks! Altogether lovely photos. And thanks for your description as well. So, the idea is that the potatoes naturally tend to form where the top of the soil and the bottom of the mulch layer meet? Or at least most of them? How interesting. And yes, if the end result was potatoes that could totally be dug with just your fingers, even the ones trying to grow down into the soil, then I can see how your method equals very little soil disturbance. I agree: I think that would be compatible with a no-till approach in a larger garden bed.


Potatoes hilled in mulch don't produce as well and are vermin vulnerable. Experiment, results and comparison: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/7-ways-plant-potatoes

 
Matthew Nistico
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@P Thickens - ...so, the plot thickens. Pun intended! : ) I will take this into consideration. To anyone and everyone reading this thread: check out the link provided by P Thickens above. EXCELLENT, CONCISE, COMPARATIVE, PRACTICAL, OBJECTIVE INFO HERE!

I note that the article includes a system very similar to one that I have envisioned (above) and reports that it performed poorly, speculating that the principle problem was that it dries out too quickly. This sounds very reasonable. I think if one were to use a similar system one would simply have to be prepared for regular watering if one lives in a drier climate. Another idea: one could also help the situation by placing several inches of already-well-rotted wood chunks beneath the first layers of soil mix when building the cage bed in order to achieve a little bit of instant hugelkulture ...?
 
                            
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I've never had a problem with bringing seeds in with hay, but I keep an eye on things and pull anything that sprouts. I do have a friend that claimed that was how Johnson grass got started in her garden, but she admits it went to seed before she noticed it. Considering how long it would take to go to seed, I don't blame the hay.

Potatoes under mulch and not hilled will yield less per square foot of garden and less per pound of seed, but more per hour of labor. Take your pick on how you measure efficiency. I prefer to save labor.

 
Ute Chook
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I'm with Paul on this one, I prefer to save labour too. And digging is out for me anyway - knee is f'd. The link above with the different methods is great. I think one has to bear in mind that, as so often, different situations and climates call for different solutions.
The suggested cardboard box method may work in a dry climate while the wire cage may not. Here in Ireland, where it rains a lot and often, cardboad would 'melt' within days while the wire cage would do anything but dry out.
And if have you lots of space your yield/area ratio is not as important as when you have only a small backyard. Incidentally, I got about 25 kg (55 pounds) of potatoes out of my 2 little beds (2 x 15 medium-sized seed potatoes) and invested about 3 hrs of time in preparing the beds and planting. More than half of that time went into the 'lazy bed'.
 
alex Keenan
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Put potato in bottom of burlap coffee bag. Fill bag with compost and place where ever you want. Roots grow through bottom of bag stems grow up into bag. As potato grows add more compost to bag.
To harvest remove bag, extract potato, compost goes back into special compost area and bag is either composted or reused.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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