Your spuds might not be award-winners, but growing them will be fun for the whole family.
IT REALLY IS possible to grow potatoes in a garbage can. It’s more for amusement than production, but sometimes you end up with a pretty good harvest.
One thing’s for sure: Kids love growing spuds in a garbage can, and it’s a great way to get them excited about gardening. Nurseries sell special potato-growing containers, but any clean 15-gallon or bigger plastic garbage can will do. Don’t use galvanized steel cans, because they rust out.
Begin by drilling several half-inch-wide drainage holes in the bottom and up the sides, about 2 inches up from the bottom. Good drainage is essential. If the roots sit in constantly wet soil, the plants will rot.
Next, fill the bottom of the can 6 inches deep with houseplant potting soil. Use potting soil that already contains slow-release fertilizer, or feed with a balanced (equal numbers) organic, soluble houseplant fertilizer every two weeks until the vines show signs of dying back in late summer.
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Buy starter potatoes online or at your local nursery, and plant them whole, 5 inches apart, just under the soil surface. Plant only one variety of potato in each can.
Water the potatoes when you plant them, and before long, growth will occur. As soon as the vines grow to 4 inches tall, cover all but the top inch of the lowest-growing vine with compost, wood chips or potting soil. As the vines continue to grow, keep covering all but the top inch every time they put on another 4 inches. Potatoes form only along vines that are covered regularly, so allowing excessive uncovered growth to occur usually results in a reduced harvest.
Eventually, the vines will grow out of the top of the container, which will now be full of the covering material, and they will begin to bloom. By this time, spuds that formed along the covered vines should be sizing up, and you can reach in and pick the biggest ones you can find. These are new potatoes. They don’t store, but are delicious roasted for the evening’s dinner, especially if you follow Julia Child’s advice: “Add more butter!”
As summer progresses, continue to water and fertilize regularly while harvesting a few new potatoes now and then. In late summer or fall, depending on the variety you’re growing, the vines will begin to wither. Once they’ve died back completely, cut the vines where they emerge from the top of the can, and wait a week before harvesting. That will give the skins time to harden enough to store well.
Now comes the fun part. Adults and kids can’t wait to check out the bounty when you dump out the can. You never know what you’ll get. One year, I was delighted to discover 35 good-sized “German Butterball” potatoes, while my record harvest was 55 softball-sized, purple-skinned “Purple Peruvian.”
Wouldn’t you know: The year my TV partner Meeghan Black and I demonstrated the technique on our show, we ended up with about 200 potatoes, but to our chagrin, they were all about the size of Ping-Pong balls.
The most memorable harvest I experienced was at an event offering a prize to whomever came closest to guessing how many spuds were in the garbage can. Imagine the surprise when out came only eight potatoes: the smallest about the size of a marble, and the biggest practically the size of a Volkswagen Beetle!