Growing Potatoes in Straw: A Labor-Saving/Better Harvest Technique

April 3, 2012

Growing Your Own Food

growing potatoes

As a preparedness-minded person (& chief cook / bottle-washer), I often evaluate foods based on their shelf-life, ability to fill the eater up, adaptability in cooking, and how well they can extend the meal.  Potatoes really are winners in these ways.

If properly stored (in a cool, dark, somewhat humid place), they can last months and then the remaining ones can be used as seed potatoes for the following year’s planting.  A food source for “fresh” eating and a seed crop for the future-  pretty good.

Potatoes are well-known for being filling.  One of our regular rotations on the meal calendar is stuffed baked potatoes.  Any number of things can be “stuffed” inside them, from healthy broccoli to hearty chili.

The humble spud can be cooked in a myriad of ways at any meal.  Breakfast hashbrowns, homefries, scalloped, mashed, and on and on.  They can take center-stage as the main course or be content to be merely a side-dish.

One of the best aspects of potatoes from a preparedness standpoint is that they really help extend a meal.  I’ve heard tales of women “just adding another potato to the stew” when extra hungry mouths showed up during hard times.  Not more meat, of course, but another potato to fill another stomach.  When we eat stuffed baked potatoes, in the winter we often open just one large can of chili to spread over them and top with some cheese.  That’s pretty economical.

Nutritionally, they are pretty good too.  With their “jackets” on, they are high in potassium and Vitamin C.  They’ve gotten a bad rap in recent decades because of the way most of them are eaten these days- skinless and fried.  Of course, we are interested in getting the most nutritional bang for our buck too, so we’d plan to eat them prepared in the healthiest way.

As preppers, we should be giving more consideration to how potatoes may fit in our food plans.  That brings me to my present topic- a different way to grow them.

A Primer on the “Traditional Method”

Most of us know that the edible part of the potato plant is the tuber that grows below ground.  Traditionally, you put a “seed potato” (a chunk at least 1″ x 1″ with a sprouting “eye”) in the ground and covered it with dirt.  As a new plant emerged, you continuously mounded dirt over it, leaving only a bit peaking out.  All underground parts would form tubers.

At the end of the season, you had to very carefully dig away the dirt to get the potatoes out of the ground.  I found this part to be so aggravating.  After months of carefully mounding the dirt and watering, a fair number of the potatoes were always pierced by garden fork or shovel.  Some could be washed and used immediately for dinner, but far too few were left to store and save for seed potatoes.

A New and Improved Method

A couple of years ago, I began to see articles about growing potatoes in straw.  That was very intriguing.  After more doing more research and reading anecdotes from all over, we have decided to try this method ourselves this year.  According to many of these folks, you not only don’t have the problem of ruining the potatoes as you dig them up, but the harvests are much better.

We have some sturdy old plastic bins around that we have decided to re-purpose as our potato gardens.  Being that this is an experiment, I only purchased a few pounds of organic seed potatoes for this trial.  As mentioned in previous posts, we are starting raised beds this year and I am “great with child” again (due in June), so I didn’t want to put too many new irons in the fire.

I first put several sections of non-slick/non-color newspaper on the ground beneath where the potatoes would go.  (This was to block out weeds from below.)  Then I pinned the paper in place with the plastic boxes.  I made mounds of  “good dirt” (compost and peat moss) and placed the seed potatoes in them and covered them with more dirt.  I sprinkled organic bone meal on the soil also, since it helps in the formation of tubers.  (You do not want to add much nitrogen or you’ll get lots of leaves on the plants, but fewer tubers).  Then I piled straw over top of them in the bins.

As the plant tops grow through, we will add more straw (rather than covering with dirt).  We always had a problem in our traditional row garden with having enough dirt to continue to rake up the mounds of growing potatoes (and after a certain height, it just wanted to tumble back down or wash off with the next rain).  With high-sided bins and lots of old straw around, we hope to address this problem too.

colorado potato beetleWe’ve had a pretty bad Colorado potato beetle problem in years past.  I think I will try planting marigolds and nasturtiums in the bins with the potatoes.  They have helped with bean beetles and squash bugs, so maybe they will deter those ugly brown and yellow potato beetles too.

The only real issue I can see with regards to this method in our fairly warm climate is that the potato plants may get too hot.  They are considered a “cool weather” crop, meaning they tolerate cooler temperatures better than hot.  That’s why they thrive in places like Idaho.  We’ve had good crops in-ground in years past.  I’m wondering if they will get too hot this year without soil around them.  On the flip side, the straw will be mostly shaded by the high sides of the bin.  We’ll have to see how it goes.

At the conclusion of the season, we will tip the bins over and pull the straw away.  Hopefully, we will reach right into the straw and harvest a couple hundred pounds of perfect potatoes (at least those are the yields some people claim).

There are some other versions of this method.  One is to use old tires and stack them.  Plant the seed potatoes in one on the ground.  Toss straw over them as the plants grow and add another tire.  Keep going until you run out of tires or time.  Since all the covered plant is supposed to produce tubers (as long as they get sufficient water), you get a vertical growing space that can produce far more potatoes than a plant limited by the lower height of the dirt mound in the garden.

Another possibility I’ve seen is literally to plant the potatoes in the midst of stacked straw bales, adding as you go (like with the tires).

I’m excited about this less-work method of growing spuds.  At the end of the season, I’ll report back about how they turned out.

Ever grown potatoes this way?  Any pointers?  Please share in the comments section.

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13 Comments on “Growing Potatoes in Straw: A Labor-Saving/Better Harvest Technique”

  1. secretcreek Says:

    Sounds exciting! Do your plastic tubs need holes in the bottom for drainage? Does the potato plant keep growing if given more material to grow up thru- hence you stack tires? …I’m not getting why you need to keep adding height/more straw??


    • Laura Says:

      Sorry- I forgot to mention that these particular plastic bins no longer have bottoms in them. One was an old toy box and the other a composter that someone had given us but didn’t work well for us either.

      Yes, the plant will continue to grow upward towards the sunlight, but it is important to really cover the developing tubers well since they will turn green and be unfit for eating if they are exposed to light. With the tires, you add one as the plant becomes level with the top of the last one. When you are ready to harvest, you just begin removing tires. I have seen that some people remove the side walls to allow more room for the potatoes. That also seems wise so they don’t fill with water or provide breeding grounds for things you don’t want to discover when you unstack them.

      For a growing season like this one is shaping up to be, as long as they get sufficient water and aren’t turned into “bakers” in the heat, they should keep growing until the fall and produce quite a good harvest.


  2. Beck Says:

    Sounds like a great, easy way to grow potatoes….unless the goats eat the bins, straw, tires or pthe potato plants. I love how you inform us of new ways to do gardening.

    I had a couple of potatoes go bad and tossed them in the compost area. I have at least three potatoes that are coming up from those. Can’t wait to see how they do.


    • Laura Says:

      Beck, how did you know?!? I went back out to check on them, and wouldn’t you know it, that dumb goat had knocked one of the bins over to get at the spuds. I was headed out, so I haven’t checked for the damage yet. I just righted the box again. Grrr….

      Your “compost potatoes” should do great! Can’t wait to hear how many pounds you get this fall.


  3. Stan Morris Says:

    Very interesting. I might try this myself. But I wonder if the higher tubers would be smaller due to the lack of soil around them. @secretcreek, you do need holes in the bottom or on the sides close to the bottom.


    • Laura Says:

      As I understand it, only the “mother spud” (seed potato) needs soil. It needs a somewhat generous amount beneath and around it, but from what I read, it doesn’t really require any over top. Straw should hold moisture pretty well, but the nutrients would be held in the soil part and passed on to the plant that way I think.

      The reading I’ve done says that the size of the tubers is more related to moisture and phosphorus- thus the recommendation to add bone meal to the soil. Extreme heat can retard their growth though it seems.


  4. Laura Says:

    By the way, the insects in the picture above are the immature (larval) stage of the Colorado potato beetles. Be careful not to mistake these for ladybugs, which I did as a newbie and didn’t hastily remove them the first year. The adults look different. Here are comparison pictures.

    Check the underside of the leaves for the eggs and pick affected leaves off the plants to burn or otherwise destroy. I’ve found sprinkling DE on the plants is somewhat effective, but they multiply fast. The best plan I’ve found is to place a bucket under the leaves as I whack them from above. Many beetles and larva fall in. I feed those to the poultry. Then I sprinkle DE.

    They will gladly eat other plants besides potatoes, especially tomatoes and eggplants, so keep an eye on them also. They can eat an amazing amount of foliage in just one day’s time.


  5. Andy Says:

    You know what is sad. The government is trying to make growing your own food illegal. If you don’t believe me check out


  6. Sylvia Says:

    How id the potatoes turn out. Did the straw method work weir. F at thinting of trying this wirh my preschoolers and wondered how long it would take for a harvest. It sounds like fun


  7. susan lifton Says:

    from susan:
    I have grown potatoes this way and harvested a big piles of perfect spuds as a result. My method was a lot simpler. I tilled a bed 4 to 5 feet wide and as long as space would allow, and dug in a little bone meal. Then I cut straw bales open and pulled apart the straw so it was nice and fluffy. I mounded up the straw on the bed to about two and a half feet (it will settle a lot). Then I took my seed potatoes, one at a time, and reached straight down through the straw and tucked it into the loose soil under the straw covering it with a couple of inches of soil. I left the hole my arm made until I saw green above the straw and then tucked the straw in tight around the plants. I planted the potatoes 2 feet apart alternating in 2 rows down the length of the bed. The plants grow up and cover the straw mound with green and look very good. Some of the advantages to this method are no weeding at all, the ground stays evenly moist with such a thick mulch, and as soon as you see blooms on the plants you can reach in and feel around and carefully steal small potatoes before the main harvest.



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