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Growing Potatoes in a Bucket

old purple potatoes

I wonder if these will grow?

I have read that it is very easy to grow potatoes in a 5 gallon bucket. In fact some sources seem to suggest this is the ideal way to grow potatoes. The accepted method for starting potatoes is to start with a seed potato. This is just a small potato with 'eyes' that when buried will sprout into a potato plant. As the plant grows it sends out roots and it's on the ends of some of these roots which potatoes form. I have seen shoots reach up a foot or more from old potatoes left too long in my kitchen cupboards and I figured if they can do that under the worst conditions, they must be really easy to grow in a self watering container.

I was digging through a kitchen cabinet one night where we keep our potatoes and came across three little shriveled purple potatoes. These came from an organic farmers market the previous fall and somehow got misplaced in the back of the cupboard. I had a couple of 5 gallon buckets available so I turned them into a self watering container and decided to see if I could make these potatoes grow.

The generally accepted way of growing potatoes in a bucket is to start with 1/3 soil in the bucket and just bury the potato. As it grows up out of the soil, cover the shoots and repeat this until the soil is at the top of the bucket. The plant will send out new shoots (called stolons) from along the main stem where it is burred. And from those shoots, new potatoes will form. By doing this you maximize the depth of the root structure, increase the number of stolons and increase the yield of the plant. In a garden you would hill up the dirt around the plant, essentially accomplishing the same thing.

starting potatoes

It didn't take long for one to sprout above the soil even with the chilly spring we had.

half way there

They grow fast and within a couple of weeks I had the bucket filled half way.

The best soil for growing potatoes in a bucket is something very rich with organic matter but I had to settle for a good potting mix with compost mixed in instead. So in late April I filled the bucket to 1/3, dropped in 2 of the old potatoes and covered them with an inch of potting soil. We had an unseasonable cool spring so it took some time for the first shoot to appear. By late May I had a single shoot with a few leaves on it. With the warmer weather the plants grow very fast. Within two weeks it was at the top of the bucket so I added more soil bringing it just over the half way mark. At this stage both potatoes had sent up a pair of shoots.

I read in a forum somewhere that some gardeners were concerned their bucket grown potato plants would not get enough sunlight while still too short to stick up over the top of the bucket. They were recommending the buckets be tilted to maximize sunlight exposure during this early stage of growth. But I found mine grew so fast that it wouldn't have mattered much.

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After three weeks I had soil up to the top of the bucket. I was filling the water reservoir every week. At this stage the plants were not overly thirsty but they were still growing fast. I added some support in the form of a tomato cage. I didn't want to poke the cage into the soil and risk disturbing the roots of the plants to I bent it around the bucket. With a few rounds of tape it would have been nice and stable but I didn't get around to doing that.

I started noticing flower buds early on but they did not bloom. I hit the plant with a good dose of organic fertilizer every now and then, thinking it was probably staving for nutrients. I also discovered aphids sucking on the leaves but they seemed to stay on the top of the leaves at the top of the plant and not in very large numbers. It didn't take much to squish them off. The plants were quite healthy so I wasn't overly concerned. And at this point the plants were tall enough that I didn't have to bend over to get at the aphids.

some support

The bucket is full and I added a tomato cage for support

potatoes with a view

Potatoes like as much sun as they can get so I put my plants at the front of the balcony on a stool to ensure they got as much sun as I could provide.

I eventually had to add a couple bamboo sticks to the tomato cage to keep the plants propped up. It didn't take much of a wind to topple it all over. I also noticed that the leaves and branches resting on or near the tomato cage got chewed up from being thrashed against the cage by the wind. The plants were considerably more delicate than the tomato plants I have grown. To maximize exposure to the sun I sat the bucket on a stool at the edge of the balcony so the plant could catch direct sunlight from around 1PM to sunset.

It never flowered. It would send out clusters of buds and they would just turn yellow and fall off. No matter - they're not needed for anything here. I'm not looking for seeds. I also noticed quite a few new shoots rising from the soil and some got quite long. By late July some of the leaves were starting to yellow, at first near the bottom of the plants and then further up. At one point I had stuck my hand into the soil looking for potatoes. I encountered lots of roots and a couple of tiny marble sized potatoes on the ends of a couple of them.

purple potato harvest

My purple potato harvest. They look good but I wish there had been a few more.

By the first week of August all of the leaves that were left on the plants were brown or yellow. Once again, I dug near the top for potatoes and came across one I had pulled up and checked on earlier. This time it was twice as big. Large enough to be considered a baby potato. So I figured it was time to tip the bucket and see what was inside.

And all I got was a handful of small and vibrantly purple potatoes. And I really mean a handful. I figure the largest one was no bigger than the one's I started with: an inch or two in diameter. There were a number of really tiny immature pea sized potatoes and perhaps if conditions had been better they might have grown much larger. Perhaps richer soil, more space and more sun. I could have waited longer but with the tops of the plants pretty much dead I believe all waiting would have done is toughen the potato skins. I'll likely try again next year with something different and perhaps a bigger container.

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