Tag Archives: container gardening

Growing Potatoes in a Pot

Potatoes are one of the easiest things you can grow at home, regardless of how much space you have. And if you have any potatoes in your pantry, you’re halfway there already. All you need to do is plunge a few of those potatoes into a container of soil and wait few weeks. Here is today’s before and after picture of a few organic supermarket potatoes that I planted exactly 2 months ago. So in a matter of 8 weeks you can grow your own meal of garden fresh new potatoes:

Potato foliage reached about a foot and a half in height in a matter of 2 months.

A handful of new potatoes harvested from 3 starter potatoes from the pantry.

How to Grow Potatoes At Home:

1. Gather a few potatoes from your pantry or buy some from the supermarket. Look for ones that have “eyes” starting to form or sprout. The eyes are simply those white protrusions on the surface of the potato- usually there are several.

2. Fill a container with soil rich in organic matter. Any standard patio planter will work as long as there are holes in the bottom and room enough to accommodate the growing potatoes. Potatoes like well-draining soil, especially if it’s amended with manure, compost or even whole kitchen vegetable scraps mixed in. Beyond this, they won’t require additional fertilizer.

3. Bury 2 or 3 potatoes several inches down into the soil. Alternatively, you can carve out the sprouting “eyes” from the starter potato, leaving a small chuck of flesh around each eye. The eye will sprout into the root system and foliage as seen above. Each eye you plant will produce an individual plant, so the more eyes you start with the more potatoes you’ll end up with. But remember they need room in the pot to handle all their newborns!

4. Water well and place in a location that will receive plenty of sun once the foliage emerges. Water regularly when the soil starts to dry, but don’t make your potatoes live in soggy soil. Potatoes are hardy and can tolerate a fair amount of abuse.

5. After 8 weeks, when foliage reaches 1 to 2 feet in height, gently pull the soil away from the base of the foliage to explore the size of the new potatoes. Harvest if they are a size you want to cook with or cover them back up and wait a couple more weeks if you want more mature potatoes. When harvesting, explore the soil well as the potatoes may be scattered throughout the container.

6. After harvesting the potatoes, you might place some of the small or imperfect ones back into the soil to start the process all over again.

July 18th Harvest: Before and After

We were in the Carolinas last week when we heard about the heatwave headed towards Chicago. About 80% of my containers were connected to irrigation, so I figured I’d suffer a few casualties. Arrived back home to find the garden doing surprisingly well and recovering nicely from the recent storms. Never expected to be eating an entire meal from the garden today. Sometimes gardens like to be ignored (ignored plus irrigation and fertilizer).                                                      (Above) Bush cucumbers, Blue LakeBeans, Red Potatoes, Squash Blossoms, Tomatoes (Opalka and Stupice)

An hour later and voila! Lightly breaded fried squash blossoms and two salads: 1) an Indian-street-food-inspired salad of tomatoes, cucumber and cilantro in a sweet lemon cumin vinaigrette. 2) A red skin potato and green bean salad tossed in a dressing of veganaise, vegan sour cream, mustard, celery seed, salt & pepper:

The foliage (above) has grown in so quickly you can’t even see the storm damage. I’m not getting any pollination on the zucchini or yellow sqash- hence eating their blossoms for lunch. Blossoms taste better than a boring zucchini anyway. With only that single pot of Blue Lake beans pictured on the right, we’ve already had 2 meals and there are plenty more beans on the way. Tons of green tomatoes have recently popped out and check out this baby eggplant that’s about 1/2″ long:

I nearly forgot about a few spindly seedlings that I was sure would die off. I put them in a windowsill greenhouse just to see what would happen. Well, as luck would have it, the little greenhouse got destroyed in the storm but not before it nurtured this Shishito pepper and a few tomatoes seedlings to hardiness. Not sure how prolific these plants will be, but I’ll enjoy every inch of these two peppers that have appeared:

A few random flowers currently in bloom 4 flights up:

And finally a few glimpses of the not-so-edible things thriving on the rooftop. One mantis is green and the other is brown. I don’t know if that indicates gender, but I guess I could just wait to see who eats whom. Ladies first!

With today’s perfect harvest and some critter sightings, I have renewed hope for our rooftop garden. Next year when we encounter hurricane-strength wind, marble-sized hail and 100-degree heat,  I’ll just flip back to today’s post and remember that lunch.

Here’s What’s Growing 6/2/11

I haven’t been posting much about the rooftop situation out of pure shame and embarrassment. I was mislead by a few nice days in mid-May to think I could plan my SIPs. Then the weather got weird; warm season veggies got too cold and otherwise hardy veggies were shredded by high winds.

Three tomatoes survived and now have stems that could survive a hurricane. Most of the pak choi survived (pictured below). Peas did great.  The rest of the vacancies were replaced this week by heirlooms I bought at Gethsemene Gardens or leftover seedlings I kept indoors. Tomorrow I’m heading to Portland, OR for a week so these babies better learn to get along without me.

Here’s a look at what’s up:

 

 

 

pak choi

 

 

 

 

 

SIPs well-staked and bamboo-d

 

 

 

Micro-irrigation kit in place for my upcoming week out-of-town

 

 

 

 

Very hardy and prolific Dwarf Gray peas

 

 

 

 

First meal of indoor-grown baby Asian greens

 

 

I have a couple hundred amaranth seedlings I’m not quite sure what to do with. Lots of pho’ I guess.

 

 

 

Not bad for an $8 rose bush from English Gardens in Royal Oak, MI, eh?

A Blustery Day for Berries

Weather Underground is showing 67 degrees today, but it sure is windy 4 stories up. I figure it’s good training for the 10 strawberry plugs I planted today. This year I’m trying Ozark Beauty which is an everbearing cultivar. Here’s a really nice Purdue University pdf guide to planting strawberries.

This year I planted them in traditional planters with organic peat-based potting mix. Last year I made the mistake of buying strawberry bags that contained pure coir. Coir, or coconut husk, can be tricky to work with. It dries out quickly on top during hot days and then blows away with the slightest wind. Yet in rainy/cool periods I found it retained too much water for strawberries. Mine did produce some fruit last year but endured way too much water stress. My fault, though; should have mixed it with perlite at the very least.

I’m still interested in affordable alternatives to peat, so if anybody has suggestions for a good non-peat mix please feel welcome to comment here. Coir is probably still a good alternative if amended properly, but it’s still more expensive and harder to find in large quantities. Here’s a nice Oregon State University article about coir vs. peat.

Well, I’m done outside for the day. The wind was blowing peat in my eyes and I was getting worried that my little 10 pound dog was going to catch a gust and end up in Lincoln Park.

EarthBoxes Arrived!

Ten EarthBoxes arrived today, 5 per box. Each shipping box weighed about 30 lbs. and came via FedEx. I ordered them on 3/2 so that’s just under 2 weeks. I spoke with the EarthBox folks last week who said they have been inundated with orders and barely have enough people to handle the packing volume. I guess that’s a good sign for them, but for the rest of us it means we better hurry up and order if we want Boxes for spring planting.

EarthBoxes are self-irrigated planters or SIPs. Here is their about us blurb on their website:

“Since 1994, EarthBox® has been the pioneer in container gardening systems. The patented EarthBox® was developed by commercial farmers and proven in the lab and on the farm. Our maintenance-free, award-winning, high-tech growing system controls soil conditions, eliminates guesswork and more than doubles the yield of a conventional garden…with less fertilizer, less water and virtually no effort!”

For the record, I’m not affiliated with EarthBox in any way nor am I endorsing them (not yet, anyway). They are my planter choice for this year’s rooftop garden; and at $28 a box, hopefully a wise one!

The tropical desert Midwest?

Opuntia "Prickly Pear"

I’m a plant geek- continuously amazed by the plant world. Like when I first found out that cactus grow native to Michigan and Illinois. A few years ago I was walking past a house in Michigan that had mounds of prickly pear growing and flowering in the yard. Double-take! I expressed my amazement to the woman living there, “I had no idea cactus can live outside here!” She called hers “Michigan Prickly Pear” and broke off a few pads for me to grow. And grow they did (above pic). It would be a much larger patch, actually, were it not for a hungry critter two years ago.

More than likely this is Opuntia humifusa, or Eastern Prickly Pear, which grows native in the Midwest. Opuntia monocantha and Opuntia fragilis can apparently also found in Illinois and Michigan. Mine appears lanky in the pic because it started to grow in low-light conditions while over-wintering. I have since moved it onto the rooftop where I expect it will thrive and hopefully bloom. I can confidently say that this species can handle its fair share of neglect and abuse! It looks quite disheveled (ok, it looks dead) after a harsh winter but perks right up in the spring.

Hiking in northern Michigan a couple years ago I came across another “desert” surprise- lizards! Maybe not as much a surprise in Illinois, but for an Upper Peninsula of Michigan native, seeing a lizard seemed about as likely as seeing a zebra. Yet there it was on Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain, what I’ve since learned to most likely be a Five-lined Skink, a native of Michigan. Illinois has a native legless lizard, which I’ve yet to see, called the Slender Glass Lizard.

From desert to the tropics…

If you’ve spent time on Chicago’s beaches you may have seen live palm trees. I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying those are not native to the Great Lakes region. But, surprisingly, some folks are successful in growing them outdoors in Chicago (with special care). And orchids, which are normally thought of as tropical plants, are native and even abundant in the region. Even some non-native tropical orchids can thrive in Illinois home gardens. Especially if you happen to live in a micro-climate, where your growing area may be a zone ahead of your neighbors, you can try your hand at outdoor tropicals.

I try to be conscious about bringing non-native and hybridized species into a habitat, but I think it can be safely said that these particular tropicals won’t be overpopulating anytime soon. Even the cold-hardy palms require a lot of attention to over-wintering or they will die. That said, keep them at home and preferably grow them in containers. Here are some websites with tips for picking species and growing conditions of hardy outdoor tropical plants:

Why I chose EarthBox.

Wood decking over composite roof liner. EarthBoxes haven't arrived yet.

In the past I’ve gardened ground-direct, in raised beds, or in standard planters. This year, because of the unique challenges of growing on a Chicago roof top, I chose self-irrigated planters (SIPs). Specifically, EarthBox brand.

EarthBoxes are popular in Chicago for many practical reasons, but also because they have received a lot of attention from local celeb chef and roof top gardener Rick Bayless. The Inside Urban Green blog posted an article several years ago about Rick’s rooftop.

Here are some other reason’s they seem practical and popular:

  • Ideal size 29″L x 14″W x 11″H
  • Easy to use, all-in-one, “just add water” kind of setup
  • Aesthetically pleasing: basic rectangle in 3 color choices
  • Good choice for hot spots due to self-contained irrigation
  • Can be brought indoors for year round gardening
  • Made of recyclable food-grade plastic
  • Have a strong resale value on eBay or Craig’sList
  • Affordable

That last point can be argued but even after reading a lot of ingenious garden blogs, I still found EarthBoxes to be a solid choice. Even DIYers end up spending money on plastic buckets and fittings and tubing and trellises. And I’m not so sure the hardware buckets and tubing are made out of safe plastic. I’m all for DIY projects, so if nothing else they may save a few bucks and are a fun project. But I’m also all for supporting small businesses doing big things like EarthBox.

I started out by purchasing 10 EarthBoxes so I got a bulk discount of $27/box. After pricing planters in local garden centers and other SIPs online, that’s still a pretty good price. Also, it’s pretty clear they are popular enough that I could easily resell them if I wanted to.

The visual appeal, I have to admit, was a big factor for us. I grew up in the woods of Northern Michigan on a small hobby farm so the concept of aesthetics and gardening requires some swallowing of that rugged pride. But we want our roof to be an entertainment and relaxation area, so the uniform look of the boxes seems clean and unobtrusive (unless you’re into that blaze-orange Home Depot bucket look!) We want the focus to be on the beautiful plants not on the planters. Ok, the truth is, if I make our rooftop look sloppy I probably wouldn’t be allowed to garden next year. *smile*

The EarthBox website explains that each box holds approx. 2 cu. ft. of potting media. I spoke with a salesperson at Downtown Home & Garden Center in Ann Arbor, MI who highly endorses EarthBoxes and claims they only take 1.5 cu. feet. So that’s less than 80 pounds of wet weight per box. The Garden Center sold 2.0 cu. ft. bags of Sunrise organic potting mix in the media ratio that EarthBox suggests so that’s what I chose. I’ll be amending with dolomite and organic fertilizer.

I also spoke with the guys at Green Thumb Garden Center in Ferndale, MI who suggest I supplement my plant feeding with silica. They believe it’s a natural way for plants to add their own extra structure to their stems for situations like rooftops in Chicago where wind is a huge factor. EarthBox sells a trellis system but that would have made my purchase substantially more expensive. For support I’ll do DIY trellis and wind breaks this year and try the silica. Clearly this year will be a big experiment, but I suppose with gardening every year is.

Rooftop view looking East towards the city.