Oh My Potato!

There is a lot of talk about sustainability and growing your own food etcetera. So I wish to share this year’s results of our efforts in this regard, specifically potatoes.

In the spring we bought 20 kg of potatoes for about 40 € including shipping. We planted them to a patch approximately 40-50 square meters and now my father has great fun harvesting them.

Typical potatoes, ones that go into the cellar for storage look like this.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Then there is also a lot of “beads” which are very small potatoes, and a lot of potatoes that are damaged by weeds, slugs, bugs etc. Those need to be consumed first. But this year it looks like we do get reasonable amount of big potatoes in good condition. And whilst the saying in Czech goes “Čím hloupější sedlák, tím větší brambory” (“The dafter the peasant, the bigger his potatoes”), I think that saying just reflects the enviousness in human nature. Because getting reasonably big potatoes, regularly, is not easy.

The main problem with potatoes is that they need light, humous soil, and the soil in our garden is more like heavy clay. In the vegetable patch, it is a lot better, because that soil is a result of careful cultivation over several decades of tilling the clay with compost, manure, wood ash, and fertilizer. Still, it is far from ideal and way too sticky. So this year I have tried to improve the soil further by adding a lot of organic material directly around the potatoes during planting, specifically crushed reed stalks from my sewage water treatment facility. It seems to have helped – a few plants were planted without the reed stalks and their potatoes were visibly smaller. Also, the soil with the crushed reed is easier to tilt and falls easier apart. So it seems I have a use for the reed stalks, which until now were a waste-product.

But even without those, each year when we grow potatoes, there are outliers like this ca. 500 g (>1 pound) specimen.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Pieces like these bring great joy to my father, who currently really has fun with garden fork tilling the patch and getting the potatoes out. We have a small tractor, but my mother has urged me not to use it and leave my father to do the work manually – he needs the exercise and enjoys doing it. And although he impales some potatoes on the fork, the damage is smaller than the plow would do. For example, this 950 g specimen got impaled and needs to be eaten asap, but a plow would probably just cut it in half.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Well, that one is really an outlier. It can feed the whole family for a day. It would be great if they were all like that, but that is alas unattainable.

Ok, enough bragging and back to the sustainability issue and soil care a bit.

We have planted circa 200 plants. We get at least 120 kg of potatoes from it, so on average 600 g from each plant. That means we could, theoretically, set aside 20 kg for next year and still have 100 kg to eat. So how does that help us re: self-sustainability? It is just about 600 g of potatoes per week per person in our household, so two-three servings. That is a lot, being a significant money saver. But it still does not bring us anywhere near to being self-reliant.

The first obstacle to that is of course the sheer amount of land needed for true self-reliance. I almost have the land, but the soil quality on most of it is very poor and it would take years of back-breaking work to bring it up to scratch with the vegetable patch.*

The second obstacle are nutrients. Potatoes have about the highest yield per area of all crops that I can grow here, but they also deplete the soil of nutrients really, really fast, and can destroy it. I do not need to go too far to see a real-life example of this – my neighbor does not make compost, does not take care of her vegetable patch the way we do, and she did grow potatoes always in the same spot for many years. The soil got sour, and the potatoes were getting so small it was not worth the effort anymore.

The third obstacle is pests and diseases. We solve this problem by twofold approach – we spray the potatoes against mold and beetles, and we only grow them every second year. It seems to work out well, but should we try to be self-reliant, it would double the needed land again. We alternate them with onions, pumpkins, and legumes, which also produce reasonable harvests, but nowhere near to be significant on the same amount of land. Alternating the crops also reduces the amount of pesticides we use, since onions and legumes do not need to be treated.

The fourth obstacle is the sheer amount of work needed. My father does most of it, with me only doing the most difficult parts like plowing, and it takes a lot of time and effort throughout the year. To feed all three of us that effort would be tenfold.

This makes me highly skeptical about growing your food on the windowsill or front porch. But even so, I think it is a great idea to plant some vegetables in pots on your windowsill or front porch if you can, just do not expect any wonders regarding the amount you will get.

What you can expect though, is great taste. Supermarket bought vegetables cannot hold a candle to anything you grow by yourself.

  • The poor soil quality around here is one of the main reasons why many fields were converted to pastures and meadows after the Iron Curtain has fallen.


  1. kestrel says

    Those are some real beauties! I am currently engaged in picking and digging and pulling up my vegetables for this year and then canning, freezing and dehydrating them to make them last as long as possible. This year I grew dark blue/purple potatoes, and I am considering dehydrating them as they would then last for quite a while. It is some work to get them ready to dehydrate… but it’s a form I like, so maybe I will do it.

    Re: soil. I am lucky (I suppose!) to also have animals which produce manure. Sufficiently aged it is fantastic for adding to the soil in the fall, and helping to put back some of those nutrients.

    Re: self sufficiency. To me, most people who try this simply don’t realize how interdependent we all are. I was told, “If anything bad happens and society falls apart, you’ll be all set because you have (fill in productive farm animal here)!” Yes… but I rely on feed stores to supply my well-balanced and nutritious diets for those animals. If society fell apart, I would not be able to go and buy feed for them. Trying to feed them off the land is really tough, and for the same reasons it’s tough to feed people: the soil becomes depleted with over-use, and most of us simply have not got enough land for such a purpose. The grasses and forbs lose nutrition. And as they say, “You can’t starve a profit out of an animal”.

  2. says

    Hehe, same saying in German. Die dümmsten Bauern haben die dicksten Kartoffeln.
    Where I live the coal and steel barons had an ingenuos tactic: they offered cheap mortgages for their workers so lots of people ended up with their own homes. They also owed money to their boss and couldn’t move, and the boss also underpaid them so they had to do some farming on the side.
    Therefore my grandparents’ garden had three parts : potatoes and veggies (mostly legumes) which changed sides every year and a meadow with fruit trees.
    While I absolutely loved living there as a kid, I also remember the weeks when everything was about harvesting and preserving food. And last but not least, growing your own potatoes is only fun as long as you can still buy some when the harvest fails.
    Having said that, I’m still a big fan of gardening and urban gardening,, as I think it offers many benefits beyond the couple of kilos of fruit.

  3. says

    Potatoes are among the few plants I don’t grow. They cost 0.40 € per kilogram, hence they are not worth growing on my own, I can just buy some cheaply. Meanwhile, for example, cherries cost 4 € per kilogram, hence I grow them, because I couldn’t afford to buy them. I mostly grow berries (all of those being very expensive), fruits, and expensive vegetables and legumes. Cheap vegetables (like potatoes), grains, and those legumes that are cooked after being dried are simply not worth growing, because the amount of money saved is minuscule compared to the effort required to grow these plants.

  4. says

    @Andreas Avester, it depends. With the amount of potatoes we eat, and the amount we are capable to get from our garden, growing them is financially feasible. Plus they are a more reliable crop than anything else I can grow -- this year all trees (except aronia) failed due to late frost, so I do not have any nuts, apples, or plums. Since you live even further up north, I would guess that fruit harvests would be even more of a gamble with the weather.
    But money-saving is not the main reason we grow vegetables and fruit. If that were the main reason, it indeed would not be worth the hassle. The main reason is that gardening is a hobby. That it is cost-neutral or occasionaly positive hobby is a plus.

  5. lumipuna says

    Ah, gardening memories.

    My ancestors have generally been industrial workers and fisherfolk, but some of the former had a huge potato garden as a side hustle. It was a 1700 m2 plot newly cleared from stony forest soil in the 1910s -- it must have been backbreaking. They also built a house and a number of outbuildings there. The land was originally rented from a nearby farmer, then purchased shortly after Finland’s 1922 land reform (which was mainly intended to help “real” tenant farmers).

    By the time of my childhood, my paternal grandparents lived in that house and my parents and I visited there often. There was still some potato growing, though the area was dwindling, as well as other vegetables and fruits and ornamentals. We were all avid hobby gardeners, but my grandparents eventually grew old and passed away, and the location was impractical for the rest of us to keep as a vacation house.

    Two years ago my father finally sold the place -- crumbling old buildings and a huge garden that was in poor shape due to years of labor shortage. I heard the new owners were planning to keep it as a summer house, with a serious hobby of “renovate ALL the old things!” I wish them luck.

  6. lumipuna says

    Also, two years ago I moved in my current home, with the nice warm glasshouse balcony. I’ve experimented with growing leafy vegetables during spring and fall seasons, and tomatoes and other such heat-tolerant plants during summer. I’ve also grown some baby potatoes in buckets, and they were amazingly tasty, though the yield was risibly small. Cucumber and tomato have yielded rather well, with highly intensive care and modest amounts of potting soil.

  7. says

    I do not have any nuts, apples, or plums.

    I think I might be drowning in apples and I don’t have time to do anything with them.
    I’ll can some apple sauce and that’s it.

  8. says

    I am doubtful that agriculture is sustainable, unless it was the semi-gather semi-migratory sort. It’s certainly not sustainable at a population on 7bn.

  9. says

    I think we’re already producing more than enough to feed us all. But if course we cannot feed 7bn on rumpsteak. I’m not vegan, I’ll probably never be, but drastically reducing our meat consumption is needed.
    We can’t waste good land on growing cattle feed.

  10. says

    Wasting good land on growing cattle feed is not the biggest problem either. Wasting food by throwing it away is a huge problem, at least in EU and USA. A problem that could be mitigated by trying to more effectively utilize such waste by composting or feeding livestock with it. Food waste that gets just dumped on a landfill is just another greenhouse gas source.

  11. avalus says

    Great potatoes!
    I have a green balcony, mostly tomatoes and a few mini potatoes. Not sustainable, but fun and soothing green. Although 3 years ago I harvested about 12 kg of tomatoes in a week.

    Food waste is the problem.

    @Marcus: Looking at history I would say: It is sustainable, has been for a few thousand years. Cities kinda need a stable, predictable food supply.

  12. jrkrideau says

    Not that I have ever tried it except for a few sauteed grasshoppers* but I see a lot of promise in insects as a major food source. Crickets look like a good bet.

    * Luckily no one saw me diving all over the lawn trying to catch lunch that day.

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