By John Moody
As a kid, I always enjoyed tinkering with toys and other things. Many didn’t survive my escapades of disassembly. As a homesteader, both urban and rural, I have continued in that train. Worm compost in the basement of our apartment building. IBC totes turned into animal transporters inside our mini-van. Container growing on the corners I could convince landlords to let me use.
Often, people say you can’t grow certain things certain ways. So, when last summer I decided to leave a single leftover sweet potato that I was using to create slips for field planting in the starting tote, I knew I was going against the grain. The tote was about half full already with a mixture of our homemade compost, coir, and worm castings – a nice, rich, water retentive mixture that we use as our go to for seed starting and other such purposes.
I filled the tote about a quarter of the way more, gave it water every few days, and at the end of the season, this is what I found!
So, how did we stumble into such success?
It All Started With Some Free Mineral Tubs
In rural areas, farms with large animals use a fair number of these each month, especially if the farm operation is large and has lots of animals. Instead of a one-way trip to the landfill, we collect them and use them for all sorts of farm projects – storage, worm composting, soil block mixing, and container growing, among many other options.
All you need to do to make use of these totes (also known as mineral tubs) for growing is ensure they drain properly. A drill with a small-diameter bit (¼-inch or slightly larger) will allow you to put 20 or so holes in the bottom, providing adequate drainage and air exchange. Don’t make the holes too large – the growing medium will fall out the bottom. It is good to layer the bottom two or so inches of the totes with rotted wood chips or similar compaction-resistant material to ensure that the holes don’t become clogged.
You don’t have to use mineral totes. I dislike purchasing new plastic, especially when so much used material is already around. So feel free to repurpose almost any sort of plastic tote or container. I do recommend that you go with a tote with at least 2 cubic feet of volume or a bit more for any root crop. I like the mineral totes because the surface area to depth ratio is about perfect for sweet potatoes (about 18 inches deep). Much deeper and you are spending money filling space that probably won’t improve your yields much. Too shallow and your yields will suffer from insufficient space.
Also note, depending on how long and where you place these, first the grass underneath will die. But, not only did I find a tote full of sweet potatoes, I found another 15 or so underneath the tote to boot! Second, you could use this setup to grow on a patio, deck, or similar structure, but you would need to be careful about excess water causing damage. You don’t have to worry about the roots – they will air prune or otherwise die back in most situations. You can also create a self-watering type design of two totes nested together where the bottom serves as a water reservoir for the top tote.
The Big Two For Sweet Potato Success – Fertility and Water
Unlike field growing, containers present two unique challenges. First, they need supplemental water, especially for a water hungry crop like sweet potatoes. Now, when the plants are small, the totes don’t need nearly as much water as they will use in late July and August, when you are dealing with a dozen or more square feet of leaves all needing liquid to convert that sunlight into sweet potatoes.
It was not uncommon for us to water the totes two times per day, and when temperatures reached into the high 90s or low 100s, on full sun end of summer days, three times. Note, sweet potatoes don’t like to be waterlogged, though. So ensure the growing mix is moist, but don’t water to the point you are getting leakage from the bottom if possible (that leakage is also possibly washing out valuable nutrients, another reason to water more often more lightly if possible). If it happens on occasion, nothing overly disastrous will happen. But if the mix is always overly moist, rot and other problems will assault your sweets.
In the future, if I do sweets in totes again, I will use some sort of semi-automated or automated approach to watering the totes, especially if I do a number of them. This will make the task less messy and less time consuming, especially for multiple totes.
Second, we provided some supplemental fertility in the form of organic approved fish emulsion, a spoonful or so about every four weeks diluted in a few gallons of water and then poured into the bin. If you think about how much nutrition is in 30-40 pounds of sweet potatoes, you can see why such an approach was necessary. I like fish emulsion, since it comes with a wide range of trace minerals along with a solid NPK profile. The cost was miniscule – probably fifty cents to a dollar per tote is my guess.
A few other things are worth mentioning. First, the sweet potato foliage will spread far beyond the container. You can use this for amazing landscaping effect – sweet potatoes vines and flowers are beautiful (and the leaves are edible!). If you have a raised deck, fence, wall, or similar spot, the vines would serve as a lovely seasonal decoration as they spread and grow. Second, sweet potatoes need harvested before frost!
Second, don’t overfill the totes. I left about two inches of space between the lip and the growing medium. This helps ensure that the medium doesn’t spill out and over as the sweet potatoes expand. When it comes time to harvest, choose a spot you don’t mind dumping out the exhausted medium. I like recharging the material by running it back through one of my IBC tote sized worm bins.
Last, realize that once full, these are fairly heavy, especially when the soil is moist. So try to make sure you won’t’ have to move them. If you have a number of them up on a deck or similar structure, make sure it can take the extra weight.
Get John Moody’s new book: The Frugal Homesteader Handbook
The Frugal Homesteader Handbook is a Mother Earth News Wiser Living award winner and recommended pick, and is full of useful information for any type, skill level, or place of homesteading – urban, rural, and beyond. Dozens of project outlines and ideas, along with lots of other time and money saving information make this book a “must read.”
Joel Salatin had this to say about the FHH,
“To say I love John Moody’s book would be the understatement of the year. I smiled all the way through it, marveling at the ingenious money-saving projects and reminiscing about my own growing up on a frugal farmstead. This book is chock-full of ingenious ways to do it cheaper, more efficiently, and perhaps most important of all, more child friendly.
You can order a copy directly from John by visiting www.homesteaderhandbook.com, or catch him at one of the many Mother Earth News Fairs, such as the upcoming Seven Springs, PA, or Topeka, KS events.