The first year we planted the potatoes in rolled up hessian bags, and unrolled the bags and filled them with dirt as the plants grew. At the end of the season you tear open the bag and voila! there are your potatoes. In our case though – we only harvested a small collection of miserable looking potatoes, even though they were quite edible. The problem is to keep these bag moist in our very dry summers. The soil becomes hard and compacted – not very comfortable for beautiful potatoes to make their home in. Besides, the hessian bags were lined up on the side of the lawn and they were generally difficult to irrigate. So we decided, OK, we have to do this potato thing properly.
We identified a long strip of open space on the one side of the vegetable garden where the new potato boxes were to go. I spent a lot of time planning how to build these boxes so that we could fill them easily with dirt as the potatoes grew and then empty them out just as easily when we wanted to harvest the potatoes and rest the soil for the next year. So soon two trucks arrived again with the untreated hardwood already cut to size and the organic soil and compost mixture. This was followed by bags and bags of organic and heritage potatoes from Diggers.
So I set my plan into action and built beautiful 3-layer boxes, where the top two layers on the front could be removed to harvest the potatoes and to easily remove the soil in preparation for the next growing season. To this I added an adjustable height irrigation system which could easily be set to the changing soil levels. I was really proud of this design, despite at the then cost of potatoes we had to produce maximum yield for four years to pay off the cost of the boxes. So it wasn’t the most cost-effective design, but we were building it for the long haul.
That first year we filled the boxes as the potato plants grew, adjusted the irrigation system every time, mulched them with cane straw which we inter-layered with new dirt as we built it up and so we carried on until their luscious leaves started showing signs of dying back. That meant they were ready to harvest. With great anticipation we removed the front sides and started digging for the mass of potatoes we were expecting. Great was our dismay when we only got a pitifully small collection of miserable looking potatoes, even though they were very edible and tasty. At that rate of production we would have to operate for about 10 years to make the boxes pay for themselves…
We gave it a go for another season, digging out the dirt and straw mixture, storing it to the side of the boxes and repeating the whole process from the start again – re-filling the dirt as the potatoes grew and re-adjusting the amazingly flexible irrigation system. When this lot again produced a few poorly looking potatoes, we came to the conclusion that organic potatoes are not that dear to buy, and we could be using those same boxes much more productively for vegetables and fruits that are hard to come by organically.
Right about that time I had a rush of fermented cow poo to the brain that we had to have more berries of various types (more about that in a subsequent post). But you can’t just grow blackberries anywhere – they grow so vigorously in Australia that they are considered a pest in some areas. You need to grow them where they can be contained. You also have to grow them very far from Raspberries, as these two are not good bedfellows either. So I cannibalised the back three “potato” boxes for Blackberries (Marion berries, Tayberries, Silvan berries and Youngberries).
These are doing quite OK and in the first year, and although we didn’t harvest buckets full of black berries, the children could regularly forage a few handfuls of yummy juicy blackberries. We even had to net the berries to keep the black birds out.
We also used the front three boxes for more strawberries – and despite our Companion Planting Guide stating that strawberries and potatoes hate each other, the strawberries grew exceptionally well in the failed potatoes’ soil – maybe to teach them a lesson? So that left one in the middle that we are currently using for normal rotational crops, but I have my eye on that one for blackberries as well.
- I don’t know what we were supposed to learn about the potatoes, apart from that we sucked as potato farmers, and that it was more economical to buy organic potatoes than to grow them, and that space could be better utilised for other crops…
- Well, we did learn that the potato boxes with the adjustable height irrigation worked well. Just a pity our harvests didn’t warrant the capital outlay.
- The berries did OK in their first season, at least better than the potatoes, and we’re looking forward to some good growth and harvesting come next summer.