Hugelkultur Potatoes

Peruvian Purple Potatoes

Our harvest of purple fingerlings from one 5 gallon “grow bag”. Not too bad for our first try!

Two years ago I grew potatoes in one of those newfangled “grow bags”.  I was told that the bags enhance the potato’s natural inclination to grow upward.  You see, in a “normal” potato patch, soil is mounded around a potato plant as it grows taller, and potatoes will develop all along the stem of the plant.  However, it can be difficult to hill potatoes in this way as the hills don’t always stay put.  A strong rainstorm could break down the hill, and so could any number of critters. The taller the mound, the wider the hill has to be. That’s just physics. Supposedly the “grow bags” would eliminate these problems.  One simply added dirt in the bag as the plant grew and this hill would be neatly contained within the bag.  I had a moderately successful result.  But, then I read about another method called hugelkulture, and was intrigued enough to try it.

Hugelkulture is a method of vertically composting large woody material and other organic matter to create a  raised garden bed. All you have to do is layer branches from trimming trees, leaves, manure, cardboard, straw, wood chips, grass clippings, compost or any other biomass you have available, top with soil and plant your fruits and/or vegetables.  My research into hugelkulture revealed that potatoes do very well in vertical hugelkulture beds, and if you know me, you know I had to try it!

hugelkulture for potatoes

Here is one of three towers Ray built.

Dearest husband Ray was happy to build three hugelkulture towers in the garden/orchard space.  I wanted to get the potatoes planted around Saint Patrick’s Day, which is the traditional day to plant potatoes in our area, so we had to hurry.  We had lots of fence boards left over from our valley home, so these were used as the sides, with some “not-very-straight” landscape timbers purchased at our local box store serving as the framing.

Once the hugelkulture towers were built two fence boards high (each board is 6 inches wide, so the towers started out 1 foot deep), I placed a layer of pinecones in the bottom (mostly for aeration), some small branches, leaves, mulch and a layer of dirt.  Upon the dirt, three potatoes were placed in each tower. Then another layer of leaves, some pine needles, mulch and dirt.

growing potatoes with hugelculture

The potatoes were nestled down into a layer of compost and dirt, then more leaves, mulch, wood chips, etc. were added on top. You can see, if you click on the picture and zoom in, that the potatoes are already starting to grow!

Then, this happened:

hugelculture potatoes

A freak snowstorm hit us just after we planted the potatoes! Here in California, in the middle of a drought, in the middle of March… go figure!

You can see the towers in the orchard/garden area, covered with snow.  I wasn’t sure if the potato seedlings would be frozen, and since they had already started to sprout I thought it was a lost cause, but at that time frozen potatoes were the least of my problems!

Here they are, bright green and perky!  They survived the snowstorm and were growing quite well.

Here they are, bright green and perky! They survived the snowstorm and were growing quite well.

Sure enough, with a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, the potatoes grew.  As each plant grew taller, I layered in more leaves, mulch, small branches, compost and sometimes I threw in a little bit of our red clay dirt – just for good measure!

The potato plants grew even taller and I added more and more mulch/compost/leaves, so I had to add another layer of boards on the tower.

And then another layer!  This continued all spring and into the summer.  Finally, in June-ish, the plants stopped growing as quickly, so I stopped adding the mulch, compost and leafy stuff.  The towers ended up six boards or a little over three feet tall.

growing potatoes with hugelculture

You can see that I finally got up to six fence boards, which was a bit over three feet tall – and the potato plants were taller still!

how to grow potatoes

Beautiful flowers adorned the potato plants.

The potatoes developed some really pretty blossoms.  I never did see any of our honeybees on the flowers, but I did see some of the native pollinators flitting around them.

I had read that one fun feature of these hugelkulture potato towers is that you can sneak a few new potatoes from the very bottom without disturbing the entire plant. Of course, I had to try…

My result?  So cool – It works! I got enough potatoes for a meal and they were delicious.  All I did was wrap them in foil with butter and garlic salt.  About 20 minutes on the grill and they were fork tender and oh so tasty!

Stealing a few potatoes from the bottom was fun, but getting all that stuff back in and the board back on was a challenge!  :)

Stealing a few potatoes from the bottom was fun, but getting all that stuff back in and the board back on was a challenge! 🙂

Around the end of June the plants in one of the towers started to die back.  I wasn’t sure why, so I went online to do some more research about growing potatoes.  Well, I still couldn’t figure out what was going on!  Either I was watering too much, or too little.  Perhaps I had a virus or a blight or a bug or something, but apparently the only thing to do at that point was to harvest.  So I did.

The result?

growing potatoes with hugelculture

Well – I guess this isn’t too bad of a harvest. Nothing much to write home about, however!

Not much to get excited about.  I had put three fingerling potatoes into this tower and received back about 24 tubers, some larger and some smaller than the originals.  I guess in the grand scheme of things you might consider that I got back more than what I had planted, but this amount certainly wasn’t what I had in mind as a great harvest.

Heck – we harvested this many potatoes from the volunteer potato plants in our compost pile!

So, when the next group of potato plants started to die back a few days later, I assumed it was time to harvest this group also and got another disappointing harvest.  The second tower had even less than the first one did!

I decided to try watering the third and last tower just a bit more, to see if, indeed, it was too dry.  The three plants in this tower had not died back, as the others had, and when I gave it  more water, they stayed green and lush for another two or three weeks. So, I suppose the problem may have been my error of not watering them enough.

Today I harvested the last potato tower and got quite a surprise.  Not only were the potatoes bigger, but it looked like perhaps I may have harvested too soon!  There were itty bitty potatoes still developing on the roots of the potato plants. But then, when I got to the bottom of the hugelkulture tower I found a couple of potatoes that looked like they, themselves, were about to sprout into an entirely new plant!  Perhaps I harvested too late?

growing potatoes

Did I harvest too late, or too early? I have a lot to learn about growing potatoes!

At any rate, though the potatoes were a bit larger, there were no more in numbers than in the other two towers.

If our lives depended upon potatoes, we would come up short, indeed!

So, what did I learn?  Perhaps I need to water potatoes more often. Although the hugelkulture method is supposed to preserve water within the biomass, here in California everything has been dry, dry, dry.   Also, I did not feed the plants.  I am aware that as organic matter decomposes, it uses up nitrogen in the process.  Maybe next time I should add nitrogen in the form of aged chicken manure.  Further, the potatoes I used as seed were French fingerlings that I bought at an organic grocery market.  The last group of potatoes harvested were supposed to be purple fingerlings, but instead looked more like Norland Reds.  I think the next time I grow potatoes I will buy actual seed potatoes from an organic nursery. 🙂

Growing potatoes using hugelculture

Don’t these potatoes look like Norland Reds to you? They were supposed to be purple fingerlings! No problem, they were good anyway.

The hugelkulture method itself was a great success.  After only five months the leaves, wood chips and small branches were already starting to break down into a nice moist, black compost. There were also several earthworms in the mix. My plan is to add some more small branches, wood chips, and pine cones to the bottom of the tower, add back the moist compost followed with a little bit more dirt, then plant my fall crops.  Supposedly I can also add some almost fresh cow manure deep into the bottom layer, and the decomposition of the manure and the other organic matter will produce some warmth, which will extend the growing season by a few weeks.

We’ll see.

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