Monday, February 27, 2012

Trashcan Potatoes--beyond the bed gardening

For the past month or so I have been doing a lot of research on outside the box edible gardening methods.  After speaking to a few local gardening professionals and doing a little reading I have found a few techniques I plan to implement this year, and several to try in the coming years.  One of those techniques is growing potatoes in a garbage can. 

There are several reasons I am convinced this method is worth a try.  Christy Scerra of Serenity Garden Design in Tacoma explained how this was both a great method for the space compromised and families with children.  She suggested when it is time to harvest you just dump the can on a tarp and let the kids dig through the soil to find the potatoes.  Sounds like fun to me.  Then, I was speaking to the guys at GardenSphere in Tacoma and they further sold me on the idea.  Since you can’t plant potatoes in same place each year (disease and other issues) this is a shortcut method of crop rotation.  Another plus is the trashcan is portable (and heavy), as the summer sun moves so can your crop.  After several years of growing potatoes in our sun challenged garden we are running out of potato growing spots.

Below are directions I have compiled for growing potatoes in a trashcan.  I have combined my knowledge and tips with those of others to create what I think are a useful set of instructions for the novice:

1.       Seeds-Start with seed potatoes purchased at your local nursery or garden store (grocery store potatoes can carry disease).  Cut the potatoes into quarters, with two to three eyes each.  Let the quarters dry for at least 24 hours (I would let it dry for a few days in our damp climate).  This will help prevent rot; a rotten seed is not going to result in any fruit.  Honestly, you don’t need more than a few seed potatoes.  I suggest you plant 4-6 seeds (potato chunks), that’s 1-2 potatoes cut up.  More than that and your can will be overcrowded.
2.      The can-while your seeds are drying go find a 32 gallon trashcan. New or used it does not matter.  Dark colors are a great choice since they will provide extra heat for germination.  Drill or punch a few holes in the bottom of the can (you can even put some on the sides near the bottom).  You want to make sure you have good drainage, potatoes don’t swim.
3.      Soil-Fill the can with about ten inches of good soil to start.  On or after St Patrick’s Day plant the seed about four inches deep (Pacific Northwest timing).  If you prefer, you can fill with 6 inches of rock then four inches of soil  (some prefer this method to enhance drainage, but you will be picking rock out of your soil when you harvest).   
4.      Good Growing-When your potato plants are about six inches tall add another layer of soil (compost, potting mix, whatever) around the plant.  About a third of the plant (the leaves) should still be visible.  This is known as the hill method, hilling, or mounding.  You will do this several times over the summer.  You may even fill your can.
5.      Harvest timing-You have two options here
a.       For immediate consumption-Your yummy home grown potatoes are ready to harvest after the plants have flowered.  Go ahead and carefully grab a few of the ones near the top of the can to enjoy now.
b.      For storage and later use-If you want to store your potatoes for later use then you will need to wait for all the foliage to die back.  If life gets busy don’t fret you can leave them in the soil/can for a few weeks as long as the soil is not wet.  Just make sure you harvest before the first frost
6.      The Fun Harvest- When you are ready to harvest your potatoes grab a tarp and spread it out on your lawn, patio, porch etc. Call the kids and get ready for some fun.  Tip or dump your trashcan out on the tarp and let the kids have a treasure hunt looking for all the potatoes.  Remind the kids that you started with just a few pieces and have them estimate your yield. 
7.      Clean-up- Now you will need to clean up that mess you made harvesting the potatoes.  Collect the soil and add it to your garden or compost bin.  Simple enough?  Just don’t put the soil in any beds or containers you plan to use for tomatoes, peppers or eggplants next year because the soil likely harbors some insects or disease from this season's crop.  If you decided to line the bottom of your trashcan with rock (I told you it was not a good idea) you will want to remove as much rock as you can before spreading the soil in your garden.
8.      Final Step- Put your empty garbage can away for next year. Then Eat and enjoy your harvest!

Tips and Hints
·         Be sure to water your potatoes.  They like moist well drained soil.
·         Once harvested store your potatoes in a cool dark place.
·         Don’t put the lid on your trashcan during the growing season.  The plants need light.
·         If you plan to share this experience with children you may want to avoid the blue potatoes.  Kids don’t think they are as neat and appetizing as we do. I learned the hard way.


  1. Love it! We've been hemming and hawing over whether to do this this year, but I think you've sold me! There's an excellent chance that I'm going to ask you a ton of silly questions though. ;-)

    1. Sara, I am so glad you are going to give it a try. Let me know if you have any questions.

  2. Do you know how excited Cece Smith will be to attempt this gardening endeavor! I love that I dont have to use my soil from yard. I will let you know how the growth goes.

    1. If you would like to read more about gardening check out my articles on Parent Map

  3. Love this! Any tips on how to best store potatoes for later use after the harvest?!

  4. Staci, we store our potatoes in a cool dark spot. A basket in our basement worked well. You want them to air out, so directly on the ground will NOT work. Setting them on wooden slats is another option. Also, for potatoes you plan to store wait one week after the plants have died (sooner and they will not last) to harvest.

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