5 Potato Box Mistakes You’re Making

Avoid these errors to ensure bountiful spuds at harvest time.

April 9, 2015
Potato Box Garden
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DRGRIMMESBETTERWAYS.COM

Two potatoes: That’s how many I harvested from my potato boxes last year. It was my second attempt. The first rewarded me with dozens of spuds perfect for roasting, so where did I go wrong? All summer, the plants appeared to be doing just fine. But unlike raising tomatoes, you don’t get to see the fruits of your labor until the very end, when you dig through the dirt searching for your hard-earned prize and (if you’re like me) discover there’s barely enough for a meal.

Planting potatoes was definitely a trial and error process for us,” says Ellie Grimme, maker of Dr. Grimme’s Tater Tower, the cedar stacking boxes I used in my backyard. “You have good seasons, or you try new things that don’t work out at all.” In preparation for planting time, she helped me troubleshoot my mistakes.

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1. Generic Seeds
I had planned to pore over seed catalogs and pick just the right variety, but like so many other tasks, that one never made it off my to-do list. Instead, convenience won. I grabbed a bag of generic seed potatoes at a home-improvement store while I was running errands. A quick call to my cooperative extension office or local gardening store would have ensured a better start. “Find out what’s been cultivated in your region for a long time,” Grimme advises. “Chances are, you’ll have more success with that.” For vertical growing, tall mid- to late-season varieties with heavy sets work best.

2. A Late Start
By the time I put my seeds into the ground, spring was well underway. Better late than never, right? Actually, no: “Most potatoes won’t produce—or will yield less—if it’s not getting down to 60 or 65 degrees at night,” Grimme says. “In a warmer climate, you want to start around March,” or once the soil reaches 40 degrees. It actually might have been smarter for me to delay until late summer and then sow a crop for autumn.

3. Not Enough Dirt
The concept of hilling couldn’t have been more foreign my first year. I knew I had to keep adding soil around the stems so new sets of tubers would develop, but I worried I’d drown my plants in dirt. Turns out, I should have been more aggressive. For her own towers, Grimme aims to hill every two to four inches of plant growth—“but I don’t go out there with a measuring stick,” she adds.

 

4. Random Soil
The second year, when the plants started adding inches like crazy, I knew I had to start hilling, and fast. I piled on what I had leftover from my vegetable bed—unfortunately, it wasn’t the slightly acidic, well-drained mix potatoes crave. “We use soil with a lot of vermiculite,” says Grimme. “It’s light and fluffy, so as the plants expand, it can shift and accommodate that growth instead of boxing them in.”

5. Summer Break
Drooping stalks greeted me when I returned from a weekend away. While a little stress isn’t the end of the world, absence didn’t make my potatoes grow...at all. “If your plants are brown and miserable because you went on vacation for a week, they’re probably done,” Grimme says. This year, I’ll ask my neighbors to potato-sit because provided I get more than two, I’ll be happy to share.

Read More:
7 Ways to Grow Potatoes

Tags: How-To
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