Total Potato Fail

I am having the darndest time with the easy plants this year. The beans, the peas, the broccoli, the berries, the onions, the beets, the lettuce, the squash, the artichokes…all thriving, but the crops you just can’t mess up? Well, they’re messed up. The garlic went tits up due to white rot and my potatoes are all but dead.

You may recall my enthusiastic experiment growing potatoes in burlap sacks. I was so hopeful that this was going to work. Potatoes do well in various condos and containers, and burlap is super cheap. I thought I’d free up a lot of room in the main garden and have a super easy potato harvest to boot.

What I have is a total potato fail.

Problem #1: Burlap rots really, really quickly. Any bump or nudge of the potato bags causes all the soil to spill out the bottom of the bag which has basically rotted away. This disturbs the roots and weakens the plants. In addition, potato vines were attempting to push through the sides of the bag and were managing to make some progress. Now, like the rest of the plant, they’ve basically just given up.

Problem #2: Impossible to water. You want to know what lets water run out really quickly? A loose weave burlap sack. If you’re looking for high-drainage, this is the container for you. Next time I’ll grow a cactus in one. If you actually need to keep a root zone moist, even in coolish weather, you’re committing to more-or-less daily watering. The only method I’ve found to actually get water to absorb into the soil is overhead sprinkling, which had lead to all kinds of fungal problems. These weak plants haven’t been able to fight off anything, and black spot is running rampant.

Problem #3: Wow that took a lot of soil. Like, really a lot. A few cubic yards were shoveled into the many bags we filled. If the results had been superlative I’d be happy to invest in another few cubic yards of good garden soil and go through this process again, but with dead potato plants to show for it, I can say without hesitation I will never try this technique again.

Conclusion: The time, energy (those bags were a workout to plant) and the expense of the soil, the seed potatoes and the bone meal made this technique a bit of a hassle from the get-go. But I was so hopeful that the hassle would pay off in sacks of delicious potatoes and extra room in the garden.

Moving forward: When the great potato fail became undeniable two weeks ago, I did what you are never, ever supposed to do. I picked up some organic taters at the YuppieHippie Market. What the hell, they can’t die more than my really expensive seed potatoes have. We threw together a few large bins and I scratched a bit of bone meal and some compost into a patch of neglected, sad soil in the ornamental (read: mostly ignored) half of our yard. I threw the market taters in the ground and crossed my fingers.

Right now, it’s about all I can do. With some luck I’ll get a small harvest from the in-ground sowing.

Did anyone else out there embark on this potato-in-a-burlap-sack experiment with me? If so, I truly hope your experience has been more fruitful than mine. What have you found to be the best way to grow potatoes? Container? Open field? Straw bale? I need some new potato ideas.


  1. says

    Having little to no luck with potatoes in condos or containers, this year, we planted straight into the ground. I hilled them up twice, but then just let them do their own thing. I'll let you know how it turns out.

  2. says

    Oh. My. Gosh. Completely horrible results and it's awful to hear! I suppose the experiment – burlap and all – can be worked into the mulch pile.

    My dad would plant potatoes in a row in Southern MO where I spent the second half of my childhood life. (I worked so hard to get away, now I'm going back!! Aaaaaaaargh) I remember he did it for neighbors who were too old to do it themselves and I helped occasionally. They always thrived.

    Good luck with the other potatoes – I think it would behoove me to go get some myself and plant in buckets, given the pitiful, dry state of our nation's corn crops after so many fields were left barren after the floods. *sigh* Sorry, I digressed…

    Okay good luck!

  3. says

    I've planted potatoes for the first time in many years. Half are in a half a whiskey barrel and the other half are in the "done" compost pile (what was left of it after making my new raised bed lasagna style on the lawn). I see lots of greenery but haven't poked around at all.

    Sorry to hear about the bags. It seemed such a cool idea!

  4. says

    I am growing potatoes in straw this year for the first time. I used a 4×4 square foot method, planting four eyes in each square about 4 inches into the soil. Once they started sprouting, I mounded straw all around them and then once the stems grew six inches above the straw, I added another layer of straw, etc., till now my potatoes are a few feet tall. However, despite the small crop of potatoes we are enjoying every week or so, this straw thing has become a slug's utopia- they are everywhere and my poor potatoes leaves are looking quite flea-bitten at this point. I am not sure how much longer the plants will survive. :( Lesson I have learned: Straw is good, but install slug traps before you get started.

  5. says

    in ground planting has been the best for us thus far and we have tried, straw, in tires other containers and so on… but even our in ground crop was the worst harvest EVER this year…garlic n onions sucked too

  6. says

    I'm growing some potatoes in a burlap sack this year and so far haven't had any problems. I just keep mounding up the soil. They get watered every day or every other day, depending on my motivation. Combination of over head, and just aiming the spray at the burlap bag. I guess we'll see later this fall if it actually works the way I'm hoping.

  7. says

    I am doing towers again. I have had good luck with them- no problems. Other than really expensive to fill w/ soil. I was going to do mix of straw, soil and chaff this year. But I went out of town when they were about 1/2 full and never finished fill the things. Though the plants are looking out over the top. I didn't really water them either. They look fantastic. Whether there are edible potatoes under there remains to be seen!

  8. says

    sad news! i hope your fall crop turns out well, we'll hope for the heavy rains to hold off so they can get established…
    i did a few potato experiments this year. i did some in bags, but i used bags leftover from potting soil and poked some drain holes. i had some soil in the bottom but used straw to pack in- they're growing, i wouldn't say thriving. i also threw a bunch under the shade of the enormous sitka spruce tree, lacking room elsewhere, and thinking they did not have much hope but i had them so i threw them on the ground and put straw on top…. they are thriving beyond belief (apparently the slugs are so happy chomping on my beans that they are leaving potatoes alone…) i have barely watered these things, and they are 3 feet tall and the flowers are about to open. i have piled the straw about 1.5 feet deep around them, and keeping fingers crossed. finally, yet more seed potatoes came my way and i tossed them into some big black planters with more straw, and they are only a week or two in, but i saw green stuff when i peeked in last night. anyway, not sure any of this is helpful unless you have a huge spruce you were wondering about growing food under…
    p.s. i appreciate your blog and especially the monthly gardening lists… :)

  9. says

    I'm doing tires, and I agree – lots of soil, lots of work – I am struggling to keep them mounded up. They're healthy though, and not taking much water. I just doubt I'm going to get many potatoes as they keep growing faster than I can keep up.

  10. says

    I'm growing them in three large pots (leftover from planting trees) and also some volunteers inside a raised bed. So far, so good. I've not been using soil or straw, though, I'm using grass clippings and compost, alternately. Of course I have no idea what the actual yield will be, so ask later. :)

  11. says

    We live in an area that is famous for its seed potatoes. We plant them in the same manner that the big growers plant theirs, and follow the same watering program. They are planted in the ground, in rows that are far enough apart to get a tiller between until the plants get big enough to be their own weed prevention. We water well at the beginning, then wait to see growth before hitting them with plenty of water again. We put extra manure in that portion of the garden and rotate them with peas. If we have a wet year and we're worried about disease, little mesh of pennies scattered on our acid soil seems to help. Digging is still a hassle, but the crops we get are worth it. And our local growers would have our heads on a platter if we ever planted grocery store potatoes. Thankfully, they make their potatoes readily available to the community.

  12. says

    Hubby harvested our whole potato crop today…six little potatoes from a volunteer that popped up in the compost bin! He refused to plant any potatoes this year, because the potato bugs were SO VERY BAD last year. Hope my soup in the slow cooker now does justice to our tiny crop!

  13. says

    This year i gave up my rented garden plot due to time and major bug infestations and decided to pot it in my driveway. Ironically, potatoes have been my biggest success. I bought large green potato bags from our local garden center, they remind me of tarp material. They have drainage holes and little access pockets so you can pluck out new potatoes instead of digging. My potatoes have thrived, even better than garden growing and I've had great success in the past few years with them in my garden. I love these bags and next year I'm adding two more. Very durable, I expect to get quite a number of years use out of them.

  14. says

    Don't give up yet!

    Here are some things I've learned about potato towers:

    1) you only really need soil in the bottom 6-8 inches – the potatoes will grow up through straw, which is super inexpensive and will ammend your bottom soil when it's done. This has allowed me to plant potatoes in fairly bad soil, put straw in as they grow up and then have delicious soil to throw into my raised tomato bed at the end of the season (for crop rotation).

    2) Using straw will help keep the water running down into the bag instead of out of the burlap.

    3)Rotten Burlap – You're right that you can't move the bags much – they really have to stick in place once planted. I really like how you squished them all together in one place to keep them from falling over. When the potatoes are done, the burlap is so rotten that you can use it as a ground mulch around plants that need it like brassicas!

    4) It's important to avoid throwing taters in the ground because when you inevitably miss some of those stinkers they will rot in our cool, wet winter climates and can disease the soil. This disease can stay in the soil up to 13 years (or so).

    Hugs to you and your potatoes. Please update us once you've dug them up!!!


  15. Saskia says

    Yep, I tried this experiment with you, but kinda by accident. I got free burlap from a coffee roaster intending to use the bags to smother grass at the bottom of a new raised bed. Some of my store-bought potatoes sprouted, so I decided to try your idea.

    I planted them very late for our area (early May in the Calif. central valley) and filled the bags 1/2 full with our plain old heavy, clay garden soil. That soil unamended can be a bummer for a lot of crops, but I will say that it holds moisture very well, so that might be why the porousness of the burlap wasn't a problem in my case. Also, while the burlap did rot, it was just on the very bottom and so the bags didn't tear if I bumped them (maybe b/c it's not as wet here as in the PNW.) I also got weeds popping out the sides of the bag, but the leaves didn't pop out that way. Potatoes didn't grow into the straw either, though; just in the original soil. That might have been our 90-100+ weather–at some point the plants probably just stopped growing under those conditions. I emptied the bags today and got a handful of small potatoes out of each bag.

    My seed potatoes were planted in April into a raised bed filled with nicely amended soil/compost mix. I did add straw to the top, but as with the burlap, no actual potatoes grew into the straw. It was easy to dig those potatoes out last week by pushing soil around the bed and I'll definitely plant that way again.

  16. says

    Nooooo! I had such grand plans of planting potatoes in burlap sacks. I have it on my fall garden plan diagram and have 3 sacks just WAITING! Crud. Where will I plant those taters now!

  17. says

    I'm so sorry to hear about your potatoes! We tried potatoes in tires using straw last year and had a total yield of maybe 20 twisted, ugly, tiny potatoes in several stacks. We live in Colorado where I suspect straw just does not hold enough water for our climate (technically semi-arid desert). My husband swore we would never grow potatoes again but I used your post to convince him otherwise. Maybe we'll try those potato bags cmv mentioned above together with garden soil. I've heard that if you bag the potato soil for a year to rot, it is safe to reuse the year after. We're thinking about doing this and putting in some fresh manure to rot too.
    Good luck with the rest of your potato endevours!

  18. says

    We did the bag thing and it was a total flop too! But then we tried plastic food grade barrels cut in half and they worked MUCH MUCH better. They are bigger, and you can get them cheap and they last a long time. And they are all over the place because it's a easy way to transport liquid sugars and stuff like that. We used ours as little mini raised beds all over. Just a thought…

  19. says

    I plant uncut potatoes about the size of an egg. One per square foot, 9" down in my raised beds. Water well. Then immediately cover all the soil with "flakes" of straw. (You know how straw comes off the bale in a 5" thick chunk? That's a flake.) I loosen the flakes just a little, so each flake makes a mat about 5" thick and maybe 18" or 2 feet wide, and I place these mats edge to edge over the whole raised bed.

    Usually, I do nothing else until harvest. No watering, no more straw, nothing – though last year, I had to hand–pick potato beetles and I think I watered when we didn't have rain for 4 weeks.

    This usually yields 1-1.5lb per square foot. I'm in Michigan, though, and while we do have some slugs, I've heard horror stories about the slugs in the PNW, so the deep straw might not be your friend.


  20. S. Carter says

    Hi–just reading this before I try potatoes with a school group. If we plant them in the ground, they will likely be trampled, and I have some very attractive burlap. It’s dry around here from April until October, (Bay Area, CA) so I am not too worried about rot/fungal diseases. I will shore up our burlap with a piece of wood at the base, and I will line the bottom/base with some extra landscape fabric I have from some work with a client. We have a lot of straw to layer with dirt in the sacks, too. I’ll send you a pic if it works!


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