To read some of the web sites regarding the growing of potoatoes, you would conclude there is some controversy about the best way to grow potatoes. Some people insisting that, to get a large crop, you must plant them in the ground. Others strongly advocate for growing them vertically in cages. After finishing up our first season of growing potatoes, I have concluded they are both right.
Without a doubt, if you have a lot of space to grow potatoes, you can produce a LOT of them by planting them in rows and mounding dirt up on the vines as they grow. On the other hand, if you are growing potatoes in a tiny space, like an urban or micro farm, potatoe cages can help you make the most of your small space and produce a nice crop of delicious spuds, even if you do not get quite as many potatoes for each seed potatoe planted.
Potato cages are remarkably simple to put together: Just take a piece of hardware cloth or chicken wire and make a ring out of it that is about 3 feet across, than add stakes for added support, if you choose. We recommend using wire that is 3-feet wide, so that you end up with cages that are about 3-feet tall. We used plastic cable ties (or zip-ties) to connect the ends of the wire together to form a wire tube.
This year, we tried something we will not do again... we made multiple cages and connected them together. Because this limited the amount of sun that could reach the growing plants once they began growing, I believe this limited our crop somewhat this year. In spite of this, and the fact that we planted the sun-loving potatoes in the shadiest spot in the yard, we ended up with a nice crop of spuds.
Ideally, you will select an area in your yard that receives full sun and you will place the cage on soil that is rich and full of worms that will migrate up into the cages and help to keep a very loose, rich mixture in which the potatoes will thrive.
The secret to mastering the potatoe cage is the planting. Once your potatoe seeds have begun to sprout, and you have cut them into the sections you plan to plant, you are ready to fill your cages, which you will do in layers of straw, soil and compost.
The first layer you will put down should be straw. This will do several beneficial things. Most importantly, it will help hold the soil and compost in the cage as you add those layers on top of it. That is because the soil and compost will sink into the straw and the straw will keep it from falling out the sides of the cage. You can encourge this even more by making the outer areas (closest to the wire) a bit thicker. The layer of straw on the bottom will also attract worms and other invertebrates that live in the soil to come into the cage, where they will feed on the straw, helping to break it down, while providing a steady supply of rich fertilizer for the potatoes.
With the first layer of straw in place, add a layer of about 6 inches of rich, black dirt. Plant your first group of potato seeds in this layer. On top of that, add a layer of compost. I used a 50/50 mix of organic leaf compost and manure.
After that, add another layer of straw, another layer of soil, in which you will plant another group of potatoe seeds that you will again cover with a layer of compost/manure blend. Continue adding layers until the cage is full. I recommend capping the top of the cage with a generous covering of straw. Then, all you have to do is water and wait.
Most potato varieties like it hot and wet. As a result, many gardners recommend planting them in late may. I am impatient and couldn't wait to get them started, so planted ours in early may. This allowed us to get a delicious and early crop.
Once growing, the potato vines will begin emerging out the sides and top of the cage. They are robust and beautiful plants that produce a good number of flower clusters.
The soil in the cages should be watered well and regularly, especially when the plants are flowering. This is also when the plants are forming their tubers.
Once the vines turn yellow and are drying up for the season, the potatoes are ready to harvest, which is an especially fun and easy task if you grow your potatoes in cages. All you need to do us pull up the stakes you used to secure the cages, and push the cages over, then sift through the loose, right soil to find the potatoes.
When you harvest, you will be surprised how lush and rich the soil in the cages has become. Additionally, if you have done things just right, you are likely to find some of the largest and happiest worms you have ever seen! This year, I found one that was almost as big around as my thumb! Needless-to-say, all of that right, organic soil is the perfect thing with which to enrich the soil in the rest of your garden for the following season. In other words, growing potatoes in this way is also a great way to grow thick and rich organic top soil that will benefit your entire garden.
Potato plants are very susceptible to a variety of insects, most commonly, the potato beetle, which can decimate a crop in a very short period of time. When we found potato beetles on our plants early in the season, we got rid of them by purchasing ladybugs and releasing them in the potato plants. Never saw another beetle the rest of the season.
In short: Potatoes are easy and fun to grow, and, if you lack the space to plant potatoes in the traditional way, potato cages will likely help you grow a nice crop in the space you have.
This video shows the process well!