The following 101 comes from Jana, a Kansan with a wicked sense of humor. (“I have a fridge to turn into a raised bed, a front porch to fix, a chicken run to improve, a sidewalk to clear, a patio to clear, and a nap to take.”) Thanks so much, Jana, for sharing the potato love and please keep the good ideas blooming!
So, I’m a bit of an oddball when it comes to gardening. I grow weeds quite well and vegetables better if I don’t weed than if I do. I’ve had potatoes in the garden for the last, oh, four years, and quickly determined that I very much disliked attempting to find them underground. After reading about different kinds of potato towers online, I opted for the cheap and easy version: tire towers.
It is my experience so far, with two different varieties of potato, that each tire level will not necessarily contain potatoes. That said, the potatoes that do show up are a great deal easier to find and harvest than those planted in hills—or those that spontaneously appear where you missed some the year before.
I’m still getting the hang of potatoes, but I did better this year than last! I’ve used towers for two years and will again next year.
» Old tires: How many depends on how many towers you want, how high you want them to be, and how many you can scrounge. I kept my old ones rather than pay disposal fees, got a few from relatives, and a few more from friends. I have 13 at the moment, so I made three 3-tire stacks and two 2-tire stacks. (Keep reading for a few tire alternatives, below.)
» Dirt: Kinda important for filling the tires. Finished compost works well, but normal dirt’s good, too.
» Seed taters: Can’t have a tater tower without taters to plant!
» Cardboard is optional
» Landscape paper is optional
» Tempera paint is optional
If you opted for tempera paint, paint the outside of your tires any way you want. They’ll be much prettier and create focal points rather than garden eyesores. (Naturally, this depends on your personal design style.) Be sure the tires are dry before proceeding.
You can lay landscape paper or cardboard down where you intend to put your towers. It isn’t mandatory but does help keep the potatoes from growing into the ground under the towers.
Decide how many towers you are making and lay down your first row of tires. Fill these with dirt, plant the seed potatoes, and toss a second layer of tires on top of the first layer. (I got my seed potatoes at the Topeka Lawn and Garden show and planted them around March 21.)
When the leaves reach the top of the second tire—I didn’t pay much attention to how long this took, but I don’t think it was much more than a week—carefully add more dirt and the next layer of tires. Repeat this until your towers are as tall as you feel like having them or until you run out of tires. I had used all of my tires before the end of April, I think.
When the potatoes are ready to harvest, the easiest method is to knock the towers over and pick out the potatoes. The hard way is to remove and check each level of tire individually, which also works if you’re only after enough to make an order of fries. I harvested on November 20, eight months from planting. I could have harvested earlier, but I despise both too hot and soaking wet, and the weather couldn't decide which it preferred. I wound up harvesting after the second frost, when things dried out, because I wanted potatoes and didn't want to go shopping.
When you’re done harvesting, stack your tires to the side to use again next year and tidily put your dirt back into the tower, if you like. You’ll be sure to have a sufficient amount of easily locatable dirt the following year. Happy planting!
Mother Earth News says tires are safe for gardening in the short term, although you'd want to retire them before they begin to biodegrade. If you'd rather avoid mixing tires and edibles altogether, some great potato tower alternatives exist.
• Mavis Butterfield of One Hundred Dollars a Month uses recycled chicken wire and straw.
• Sunset magazine recommends using old tomato cages wrapped with reed screening.
• And this Instructable advocates for hardware cloth.
Have you tried building potato towers out of something besides tires? Post a comment and share your own potato prowess! You might also be interested in 101s on growing asparagus, hops, garlic, lettuce, broccoli, radishes, and peas. If you’re into aboveground planting, check out 101s on container gardening, and on building a self-watering container and raised beds. You can always find more things to plant, grow, make, craft, cook, preserve, and stack in the HOMEGROWN 101 Library.