Love your potatoes but not so keen on the digging part? Growing them in straw is very straightforward to do, your plants will be just as healthy, and it makes harvesting so much easier.
Straw does away with much of the digging associated with traditional methods of potato growing. Planting is simple, while harvesting requires less effort. It does a fantastic job of suppressing weeds, helps keep the ground cooler in hot weather, and will eventually break down to contribute to soil structure and fertility.
Prep Your Soil for Potatoes
Normally potatoes plants are ‘hilled’, when the soil is drawn up against the stem in order to create more space for the tubers to grow. This also reduces the risk of them making their way to the surface and turning green in the light. But straw can give exactly the same results with less of the work.
You’ll still need to prepare the ground first. Remove any weeds and, if you haven’t already done so, consider adding some well-rotted organic matter, such as garden compost, to the soil. Break up any large clods to leave a more even surface and rake it level.
Potatoes are hungry plants, so it’s hard to over feed them. For this reason, I also scatter over some chicken manure pellets or an organic potato fertiliser just before planting time.
Chit Your Seed Potatoes
Use purpose-sold seed potatoes, which are guaranteed to be free of any disease issues, giving you a clean start at least! After a cool winter you’ll get better results if you sprout, or chit, your potatoes before planting. Just support them so the majority of the eyes – these dimples here – face up, then leave them in a bright, frost-free place to sprout for anywhere up to six weeks ahead of planting. You want the sprouted parts to be up to an inch long. This primes them to grow, earning you a head start.
I prefer to plant my seed potatoes whole but there’s no harm in cutting each seed potato in two, so long as each piece has at least one eye, though preferably more. Allow the cut to heal over and dry for a couple of days before planting.
Planting Potatoes the No-Till Way
And planting couldn’t be simpler. Just push the potatoes into your prepared ground at their usual spacings – about one and a half foot apart each way for maincrop potatoes, and a little less than that for early varieties. Simply nuzzle them into the soil so they’re supported and don’t topple over, and that’s it.
All positioned. It’s now time to cover them with the straw, breaking and fluffing it apart as you go. Aim for a depth of around two to three inches, that’s 5-8cm. Stop the straw from blowing away by laying sticks, canes or a temporary mesh over the top. Once the straw’s laid, give it a water to dampen it. The straw should help to keep soil moisture relatively consistent.
If you’re unsure where to source straw bales, they’re often listed on websites like Gumtree or Craigslist, or just try asking around. I got my straw – which I recycled from an earlier project – through a call out on social media. You can use hay in place of straw if it’s easier to find. Check that your straw or hay is organic or at least cut from pasture that wasn’t recently treated with herbicides. All sorts of horror stories abound of crops becoming severely damaged or even killed as a result of herbicide residues. You have been warned!
Your potatoes need very little ongoing care. Pull back the straw occasionally to check the soil moisture and water if its dry. Water through the straw, aiming to keep the straw itself consistently moist too. It’s important to make sure that the potatoes are always well covered so no light gets in.
Once the foliage reaches about six inches or 15cm above the straw or hay add another layer deep enough to leave just the tips poking through. They’ll soon put on masses of leafy growth to cover the entire area.
Harvesting Potatoes in Straw
Start harvesting the smallest, or ‘new’ potatoes, as the plants come into flower. Then lift potatoes as needed. When the foliage starts to die back it’s time to dig up the rest of the crop. Plants may come away from the ground easily if you grip them firmly at the base of the foliage and pull straight up. Otherwise use a fork to carefully encourage them out.
The straw that’s left behind will have already begun breaking down to nourish the soil. Leave it where it is, rake it up to redeploy as mulch elsewhere, or retire it to the compost heap.
I can’t wait to tuck into the first of my potatoes – a prized treat if ever there was one! Growing them in straw worked beautifully last year I have to say, but I’d love to know how you get on with this method too, so don’t be shy in sharing your experiences below.