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Growing Potatoes in Buckets a Failure for Us

The Potato Bucket Challenge is an experiment in growing potatoes in buckets. We did not consider the experiment to be a success, but we also had to deal with an unexpected and untimely freeze as well as a heavy downpour that stressed the plants.

Introducing the Plum Fabulous! Potato Bucket Challenge

The Potato Bucket Challenge was an experiment in growing potatoes in buckets.  

What do you do when you have 17 cattle feed buckets laying around?  You find a use for them! Last year we planted 30 pounds of seed potatoes and only harvested 45 pounds of potatoes due to the enormous amount of water we received in the beginning of Spring. I watched sadly as row after row wilted and died in the soggy garden mud. When it was time to harvest, at least one third of the potatoes that had grown were rotted in the ground. It was a disappointment to say the least.

This year, I saw an article at Mali Nino about growing potatoes in whisky barrel tubs and decided to try the idea, thus creating the “Potato Bucket”. The benefit was the ability to really hill the potatoes up due to the deep container. When you’re growing potatoes, the plant sends roots off of the main stem that bulb up and form the potatoes. So, as long as you keep the main stem covered with dirt, it will continue to produce more roots and potatoes. You want to leave the top 4-6 inches of the plant exposed so it can continue the photosynthesis process.

Looking around my yard early one Spring, I spied the piles of buckets that someone from our church had brought me after cleaning up his pasture. They were not as pretty as whisky barrels, but they were free and easy to move. Not only was I hoping to increase my potato yield, but planting potatoes in buckets would also free up space in my garden for something else. And if we received torrents of Spring rain, I wouldn’t have to worry about drainage.

The next problem was how to fill 17 potato buckets with dirt. I knew that would make them very heavy and I didn’t have anywhere near enough homemade compost to fill them. That would mean needing to buy dirt, which I don’t particularly like to do. I compromised by filling each potato bucket with 6″ of dirt and compost, just enough to plant them in. I planted 8 potato pieces in each bucket (a total of 20 pounds of seed potatoes which had already been cut and dried for 3 days). I planned to then hill them up with leaves from the many, (many!) bags of leaves that I was able to get at the Fayette County Recycle Center in February. This would keep the potato buckets nice and light, allow me to hill them up easily and hopefully start the compost process on my leaves.

I was able to solve another problem with the location of the potato buckets. We always have to contend with grass trying to sneak in our garden from around the edges of the fence. I decided to lay newspaper and cardboard along one fence edge and place the potato buckets there. Now they would be close to the rest of the garden and hopefully, we would kill the grass on that side. An unexpected bonus from being so close to my existing garden was the ability to tap a line into my existing drip irrigation system, thus eliminating the need to water with a hose.

February 14th the Beginning

We usually plant potatoes between February 9th and February 19th. We keep a close watch on the weather, and try to contend with our busy schedules to find the right planting date. This year it was February 14th.

March 7th Update Before the Freeze

By March 7, the plants were growing up through the thin layer of leaf mulch in each potato bucket and I was thumbing through recipes trying to decide how I would use the massive amounts of potatoes I was sure I would harvest.

March 21 After the Freeze

Then we were struck with a very unexpected freeze. The once beautiful, bright green, promising sprouts turned into slimy, stunted, withered masses overnight. Fortunately, I had experienced frozen potatoes before and I knew that they would rebound. A week or so later, little spots of green began to brighten the buckets up again.

April 18th After the Great Flood

As if that was not enough, we then had a repeat of last year’s Spring deluge. In one night we received 13 inches of rain and my garden became a lake. Fortunately, the water drained after a few days and I could rest easy knowing that my potatoes were not rotting away in soggy soil.

April 21st & Later

Although the potatoes re-emerged after the freeze and flood, their growth was definitely stunted. I usually get 6-9 pounds of harvested potato per pound of seed potato planted. I harvested around 2 pounds of potato for each pound of seed potato planted here. We consider this a failure. Maybe if we did not experience the weather extremes, things would have been better. But for now, we will go back planting them in-ground.