'There are few more important foods in the world than the potato. Its history goes back to the early days of man—a past spanning feast and famine. Potatoes were discovered by pre-Inca Indians in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in South America and archaeological remains have been found dating from 400BC on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in ruins near Bolivia, and on the coast of Peru. Now the potato is the staple food for two thirds of the world's population.'
Although we live on a corner block and have a reasonably large area of front garden and a kitchen garden just off the lane at the rear of our home, we have no back yard as such (just a large courtyard). So the year before last Peter and I began experimenting with container gardening en masse. Growing potatoes in a half wine barrel was among our projects, which included planting a number of fig trees, citrus fruits, a grapevine and olive trees in pots. Each of these has so far proved to be successful and we have already harvested small crops of home-grown olives, Isabella grapes, Meyer lemons, Kaffir limes and potatoes. Our first figs are currently maturing as well and we can barely wait to taste them.
We were particularly happy with our 'no dig' potato project and will continue to grow our own potatoes in this manner. As such, I have been wanting to share our experiment with you in the form of a photographic essay, but this has been on the back burner for some time as I fell ill with pneumonia in April 2013. I'm telling you this, dear readers, as I strongly suspect (and my doctor agrees) that I possibly contracted pneumonia because I wasn't mindful of wearing gloves, eye goggles and a face mask on every single occasion when I worked with potting mix. There are manufacturer's safety instructions on bagged potting mix for a good reason. Legionella longbeachae, a bacteria commonly found in potting mix, causes a rare form of atypical pneumonia and it is potentially deadly. I learned my lesson the hard way and this is one of those 'do as I say, not as I do' messages, folks. Please make sure you are extra cautious at all times when using potting mix.
On a more positive note, container gardening is most enjoyable and yields surprisingly good produce. In the fullness of time, I will share with you our other success stories. Potatoes are easy to grow and you don't need to have a large area to grow them in. We live in a cool climate area, so we followed the advice provided by Gardenate and planted seed potatoes in mid October. By Christmas, they were almost ready to harvest. So, let's see how our project progressed from start to finish...
Getting started... you need a half wine barrel
This half wine barrel previously held a mop-top Catalpa, that we had transplanted to a larger tub when it became root bound. Note the drainage holes drilled in the bottom. The chap at the garden centre advised that we bleach the inside of the barrel and wash it out thoroughly before re-using it. Remember, wear gloves and a mask for this job.
Spread a 10-20cm layer of potting mix and compost in the base...
Arrange the seed potatoes over this layer of soil, leaving space in between. Then spread another 10-20cm of soil and compost mix over the top, and water in well.
As the shoots start to appear...
Cover the growth with additional layers of soil and compost, so that the tips are just visible through this new layer. Repeat until you reach the top of the container. Always ensure that the soil is regularly watered, but not to the point that it is excessively wet.
As the plants grow, add more soil and compost...
These loose layers of soil and compost give the potatoes a nice mounded environment in which they can grow. You can also add a layer of pea straw mulch in between the layers of soil to ensure that the tubers are well covered.
Soon, the plants will flourish and start to flower...
Getting ready to harvest...
When the leaves on the potato plants begin to die down, it's time to harvest (around 30 days after flowering). Allow the soil to dry out before you harvest the potatoes.
A pile of perfect potatoes...
These perfect little potatoes in the image below are store bought, because the spuds we grew were eaten and enjoyed before I could take too many photographs of them. While they may not look quite as pretty, home-grown potatoes often taste much better than store-bought specimens... and, of course, they are free from chemicals!
Cooking with potatoes a la Lizzy...
If you enjoy cooking with potatoes, you might like to try my Scalloped Potatoes Gratin Dauphinois, my Swabian sour potato wheels, or my Hasselback Potatoes (a retro dish that I still love to make). One of my favourite and more unusual potato recipes is a Potato Torte, which is a gluten free sponge cake made with cooked mashed potato. It's deliciously different and has been part of my repertoire for decades.
Tell me, do you grow fruit or vegetables in containers? What has been the most successful for you? Have you ever grown potatoes in a pot?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.