I have seen this idea around for a while and it seemed easy enough to do. I decided I’d try building one and I finished it in an hour or so. This is what I think of them: it’s a lot of work and not a good project for someone with a bad back.
There are different kinds of potato towers. Some start at the bottom and you add material as the potatoes grow, others (like what I built) are planted all at once and are very low maintenance, which seemed awesome to me: because it gets hotter than Hades down here in our Texas summers. I don’t want to be doing anything harder than watering when we’re in the triple digits.
You start a potato tower with a wire frame. I don’t know what happened with COVID-19 but I can’t find wire anywhere. No chicken wire, no hardware cloth, no nothing! I like recycling my previous purchases and since I couldn’t find anything to use at the store: I unrolled a ten year old plastic fence I had in storage. I cut it to the length I wanted, ziptied it closed and started from there.
The fencing does not have big enough holes for the plants. I will cut squares out when I can see the sprouts. I tried this fence specifically: because we have a field and forest nearby and mice and rats get into my root crops. We also have squirrels, which one (or more) of my dumb neighbors are feeding. If you garden: you know squirrels are just rats with fluffy tails. They get into, and destroy, everything that rats and mice get into and destroy. Hopefully, they stay out of this tower. But if I WANTED rats and mice in my yard, a tower made of straw would be the perfect habitat for them.
After I measured out the fencing and ziptied it together I put the structure over a plastic bag that I had laying around. The reason I did this was 1. I live in Texas and our summers are brutal. This stops the tower from losing moisture along the bottom and 2. I built this on top of Bermuda grass. That stuff will grow in a mat across my porch if I let it… in the shade, no soil or water: it just grows and never stops… the stuff is incredibly difficult to contain! Having an area around the bottom will help when my husband is out with his weed eater. And 3. I don’t want to have a mouse highway inside this because they dug into the bottom. Again: hopefully this tactic will deter them.
The first layer I used was straw (I got my straw from a farm supply store. I use Tractor Supply down here.) I made a nest in the bottom moving the straw up the sides a bit and keeping soil in a column in the center, all the way down. Because this is new straw, and not a bale I’ve watered and let sit wet for several weeks, I will get barley or wheat sprouts after I wet it. In this particular project: that really doesn’t matter. (But, it’s a bad idea to use fresh straw in a raised bed, because you’ll be picking sprouts for weeks.) Then I put a layer of soil in. Put my potatoes around the exterior and aimed their eyes outward in a horizontal line. I only put 5 or 6 seedling potatoes per layer.
Don’t laugh at the pictures of my sad seed potatoes. I had about 100 things ahead of the tower on my to-do list and the potatoes mayyyy have suffered a bit of neglect!
After the potatoes, I put another layer of soil in and topped that off with composted, bagged, cow manure. Then another nest of straw. And so it went, until I ran out of potatoes. I topped it off with soil and manure and put my last potatoes, eyes up, with a layer of straw on top to keep them moist.
So, this is the tower. I don’t know if it will hold together. I may have to cut off the plastic fence and replace it with wire fencing when it becomes available again. After messing with this a bit, I’m going to cut some of the hardware cloth I have around one of my beds. I think my plastic fencing is just too old and brittle to make it through the season. I also have a roll of plastic poultry fencing. I considered using it but decided I’d be happier with the hardware cloth. I’m not looking forward to cutting areas open for the plants in the hardware cloth, though. But, I don’t want to use a wide opening, wire fence, because of the mouse situation in my area.
People usually put in some sort of support for the tower to tie it to. I don’t think mine is going anywhere. It’s fat. If it were more narrow: I might be inclined to go with a some sort of support. But for now it’s fine like it is. It’s also heavy. However, being on top of the bag, I can slide it around to where I think it would work best. But it’s not going to go very far, maybe a foot or two to adjust it for light. I wet it as I went, which is really important when working with straw. The straw also needs to be fluffed and not laid in there in a full flake. Straw bales are bound so tight: water will not go through it well as is. Fluff the straw, wet it and pack it down. I used a hoe to pack the wet straw. You can see the layers in the tower. I’m sure the soil around the edges will wash out, but it was a difficult thing to build anyways, and I really didn’t feel like being perfect (playing with the layers until it looked perfect would have taken twice as long and I was tired and hot.) The whole thing will compact over the season, so these imperfections are temporary.
What do I think of this method? Well. It’s a lot of work. If you have read anything else on this blog, you will know that I do not have an aversion to hard work, but this was excessive. Usually, if I’m building something that is this complicated: I’m expecting to use it indefinitely. This is only good for a single season. I made this because I wanted to have space for the potatoes outside of my cinder block beds. I have other things, that I grow in those, over the summer. I chose this because it seemed like a doable idea. It is doable, but it’s a lot of work. My shoulders are not happy.
I ended up filthy, with mud and composted cow poo all over me, and straw all over everything else. It’s messy (I was covered in the wetted ingredients, from head to toe). It’s a lot of work (you have to get a shovel full of soil, lift it up and over the sides and then put it down into the tower, over and over again.) and there’s a lot of bending (to get everything arranged right as you go.)
I’m feeling a bit defeated after working on this. I’m tired and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to get out of it. It may be a total failure because we’re pretty far into the season down here and my seed potatoes were in sad shape. If I turn this tower over in the fall and have a giant mess of potatoes, then: I will be very happy. But I’m not sure I would build this again. Maybe in a year where I needed extra space (like this year) and earlier in the season: so that it wasn’t so miserably hot to work on it.
I’ll let you know what happens when I tip the tower over. Hopefully it will be worth all the time, mess and hard work!
Update: The potato tower started to lean so I put a piece of rebar down the center and drove it into the soil to stabilize it. You can see, along with copious amounts of barley or wheat sprouts, the potatoes are starting to grow. I’m still hopeful.