Tag Archives: Smart Pots

Growing Potatoes the Easy Way: Containers on the Deck

dandelionThis year I was given two types of seed potatoes: Harvest Blend and White Superior. I have grown potatoes before in my Virginia garden and they were very tasty. This year, I am going to grow these potatoes in fabric containers called Smart Pots. Any fabric container or even a plastic container with holes for drainage will do, I just happen to have a few large Smart Pots.

Potatoes are in the same family as tomatoes and eggplants but gardeners start growing them in the spring, as opposed to their warm-season cousins.  Although you hear that potatoes are started on St. Patrick’s Day, that might only be true for the Irish. It does not always work for gardeners in the Washington DC area. We just had snow so I waited until this past weekend when I was closer to my last average frost date. I have read that the time to plant potatoes is when dandelions are blooming; sure enough, my dandelions were blooming this past weekend.

Some of the independent garden centers will sell a few varieties of potatoes but you get a much wider selection if you contact mail order companies. In fact, there is tremendous diversification of the tuber itself:  there are white, blue, red, purple or gold colored tubers–round, gnarly, slender, large or small.  In terms of cooking, tubers can be mealy like a Russet (good for baking but disintegrates in a stew) versus waxy like a Yukon Gold (holds its shape). The tubers vary in maturation days, there are early, mid, and late season varieties, thus extending the harvest from June to August. Interestingly, the foliage, that is, the above ground part, does not vary. The plant grows to a few feet tall, flowers, and dies, signaling the time to dig up and harvest the mature tubers.

Planting

To grow potatoes, purchase “seed potatoes,” which are not true seeds but the “starter” tubers one plants in the soil. It is best to start with seed potatoes that are certified as disease-free, instead of planting a grocery store potato. The shoots arise from the “eyes” and additional tubers appear along these shoots as they grow. Seed potatoes should be the size of an egg with at least two eyes. If the seed potato is this size already then plant the whole thing, eyes up. If the tuber is large, can cut into sections, each with at least two eyes. I have read differing opinions about whether you should let the cut end callous (to prevent disease); it seems some people cut and plant while other cut, callous, and then plant.

I planted my potatoes in two Smart Pots, which are ventilated fabric containers (no need to poke holes in the bottom). This is a great way to grow potatoes if you do not have a lot of land, if your garden soil is too compacted, or if you want to encourage kids to get involved. For potatoes, use at least a 20-gallon size Smart Pot with at least a 15-inch height.  Estimate 4 plants in this size and more in larger sizes.  I spaced mine about 6 inches part so I planted four Harvest Blends in the medium container (foreground in photo) and 5 White Superiors in the larger pot (background in photo).

I used potting soil that already had a slow-release fertilizer.  Because potatoes are heavy feeders, I will supplement with a liquid fertilizer later in the season.

I poured 3-4 inches of the soil in each container, watered, placed the potatoes on top, eyes up, added 3 more inches of soil, watered again, and inserted a plant label. I rolled down the sides so they would not turn inward and prevent rain from reaching the plants.

Growing

One advantage to containers is that you can place them anywhere, a deck, a porch, a driveway, even on grass. Another advantage is that you don’t have to worry about crop rotation if you have been growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the garden. My containers are in full sun on the deck so I can easily keep an eye on them. Because potatoes are susceptible to Colorado potato beetles, I have to be able to easily check the underside of leaves for the yellow/orange eggs.

Potatoes require an inch of water a week so I need to be able to water easily and often, which I can do with a hose on the deck. However, the foliage is susceptible to fungal diseases so I will water by putting the hose nozzle into the bag, not spraying the foliage and not watering in the evening.

In a few weeks I will have to “hill” the plants. The new tubers grow up from the seed potato. As the shoots grow (now stems), and more tubers appear, these new tubers have to be covered with soil. Tubers exposed to light become green and bitter.  (This also is a tip for storing store-bought potatoes, keep them out of light in a cool place but not in the fridge).  When the stems have grown about 8 inches, I will add about 4 inches of soil and repeat the process again, unfolding the sides as I add more soil. This process of adding soil is called “hilling.”

Harvesting

In early summer, when the plants flower, I can harvest immature tubers by putting my hands in the soil and pulling egg-size tubers out (leaving smaller ones in). This immature stage is what we buy as “new potatoes” in the store. New potatoes have a very thin skin and do not keep. They have to be eaten soon and usually they are boiled and mixed with parsley, chives, and butter.

In mid-summer, probably June, the potatoes will have matured. When the leaves yellow and die, I will stop watering, wait two weeks, and then dump the container. I will dump the soil on a tarp. I can either use the soil to start a new garden bed or put back in the containers to plant bush beans.

Chitting

One term that comes up with potatoes is chitting, which is common in England but not so much so here. Chitting is the process of “pre-sprouting” the tuber before planting to give the plant a head start, much like starting tomatoes under lights in the house before May. Chitting affords an early harvest but takes space and time.

I did not chit my potatoes for two reasons. By the time I received them they had already started to sprout. The tubers were small and slightly shriveled. They must have been in a place that was too warm. But if I had purchased tubers, I probably would not chit because I do not have a need to have potatoes a few weeks earlier. Plus one has to consider the space this would take and available windows.

If you are interested in chitting, place your tubers eyes up in an egg carton. Put next to a window in a warm place (the usual heated house). The type of grow lights you use for starting seeds are not necessary. After they have sprouted (like your old potatoes in the vegetable bin), you can plant them outside. If the tubers are large, cut into pieces the size of an egg with at least two eyes.

I am looking forward to growing potatoes in Smart Pots this year — freshly grown potatoes taste better than store-bought potatoes.

You Can Grow That: Lettuce

lettuceYou can grow lettuce, it is one of the easiest plants to grow in the spring. Lettuce needs very little soil to grow and tolerates cool days and frosty nights. In the spring, lettuce should be given as much light as possible. Think container gardening or  garden beds where trees have not leafed out yet.

In my Northern Virginia garden, I  sow seeds in containers and the garden bed in March and again every 2 weeks thereafter until the end of May. Lettuce seeds are very small so just press them into wet soil. Afterwards, make sure the soil does not dry out, which may mean watering often, depending on the weather. The squirrels like to dig in my containers on the deck so I apply a dust of blood meal. In the garden bed, the slugs like to dine at night so I throw down broken eggshells. I tend to sow too many seeds so as the seedlings emerge, I pull to create more space for the remaining soldiers and use them in salad or transplant to other areas of the garden that are waiting for the warm weather veggies. The nice thing about lettuce is that you can grow them before the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants so you don’t need more land; you just double up on your existing land. This year, I sowed lettuce seed in March in a very large Smart Pot called the Big Bag Bed–it is the size of a kiddie pool! By April, I was able to transplant quite a few in a garden bed. Just now, in May, I planted peppers in between the lettuce in the garden bed so by the time it is summer the lettuce will have been pulled (it will be too bitter) and the peppers will grow into the space.smart pot

My family prefers the loose-leaf and romaine varieties. Loose-leaf, or cut and come again, has leaves that are loosely splayed outwards from the crown. They are the easiest to grow, quickest to harvest, and come in a variety of colors.  The entire plant can be cut at the base but most people cut the outer leaves as needed so the younger, inner leaves can take their place. Within this group are some of the best heat tolerant varieties. Romaine, also called cos, is not as sweet to me but I find that homegrown romaine is much tastier than store bought. Its stiff, vertical leaves are great for sandwiches and wraps. Romaine has the highest nutritional value of all the lettuces so it is a feel good mommy lettuce.pepper with lettuce

There are two other types that I have not grown. Butterhead, such as Bibb and Boston, has small heads of dark green leaves. These plants are so tight they have to be cut at the base and harvested whole. Crisphead is the familiar Iceberg, a tight ball of light colored leaves that requires a long cool season so it would be too challenging for me.

Try growing lettuce, you would be amazed at how it is easy and tasty!

You Can Grow That is a collaborative effort by gardeners around the world to encourage others to grow something by posting gardening articles on the fourth of each month. Visit http://www.youcangrowthat.com/blogs/ for more articles.

You Can Grow That! Tuscan Melons

You Can Grow That! Tuscan Melons

This summer I grew cantaloupe from seed and was pleasantly surprised at the delicious taste of the melons plus the ease at which I could grow the vines. These were not just any cantaloupes; these were Tuscan ‘Napoli’ melons from Renee’s Garden.melons3

I started the seeds indoors under lights in early spring and in May, when the danger of frost had passed here in Northern Virginia, I planted several seedlings in two very large smart pots. By using large smart pots, new bags of potting soil, and a slow release fertilizer, I was able to give the seedlings the optimal balance of air, water, and nutrients. I placed the bags on a new garden bed I was creating that had a layer of hardwood mulch. The bags were in full sun, within reach of the garden hose. The vines grew down the sides of the pots and onto the mulch in no time. By June I had so many yellow flowers my kids thought we would be eating melons every day. Sadly, I had to explain that melon flowers are either male or female and they do not always open at the same time. In order to get fruit, bees have to visit both a female and a male flower on the same day. Statistically speaking, by summer’s end, we would have less melons than flowers.melons

Still, we watched the vines grow and by the fourth of July, we could see five small fruit, with smooth green skins. As summer flew by, the skins changed and developed the rough texture and netting pattern. Eventually, as the melons ripened, the skin turned to a yellow buff color, the netting pattern became more pronounced, and the garden was perfumed with a sweet aroma. Our Tuscan melons were incredibly fragrant; we could stand a few yards away and still smell the sweetness. When we picked our melons they were completely ripe, which is when the sugar level is highest. Tuscan melons in general have higher sugar content than the grocery store type of cantaloupes. Additionally, commercial growers harvest melons before they are fully ripe in order to ship with minimal damage. So ours were not only fully ripe they naturally produce more sugar and thus were sweeter than what we could have bought from the store. Next year, try growing Tuscan melons – you just can’t buy such beautiful homegrown freshness!melons2

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