There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but sometimes gardening is so rewarding you have to question that old cliché. We’ve been growing potatoes in tyre stacks for a couple of years now – last year we didn’t do so well, mainly because the seed potatoes we used were no good. We cracked it this year though, and yesterday we harvested heaps of lovely yellow spuds from our stack. All you need is a square metre of ground, three tyres, some seed potatoes and a compost heap or other source of compost. Anyone with a tiny garden can do this, so here’s how to get an (almost) free crop with very little effort.
Growing potatoes in a tyre stack
- First, you’ll need some old tyres, about three is standard for this growing technique, but you could use more if you have vigorous plants. Most garages will be overjoyed if you ask them if they have any bald tyres they need to get rid of; these are such an annoyance to the trade that your request will get a very warm welcome and you’ll be offered as many as you can handle, so don’t be shy – you are doing someone a favour. And once you have them, they can be used year after year.
- Next, you’ll need your seed potatoes. Get them fresh from a reputable source, be sure that they are firm and healthy. If you have a friend with an allotment or kitchen garden they may well have bulk bought more seed potato than they can plant and will be happy to give you a handful. We had about five or six planted in our stack. You could probably use less.
- Lay just one tyre out to start with, upon well drained earth in a sunny or well lit spot. Our tyre stack is on concrete and works fine, but ideally earth is better for drainage. Fill it with mature compost from your compost heap (and if you don’t have one, you’ll have to make a trip to the garden centre for some compost. This is the bit that will cost you, you will need lots!) and plant the potatoes. Water well. Water daily. And wait…
- If all goes well the potatoes will sprout and grow quickly, so that eventually their leaves are well above the hight of the first tyre. This is when you place the next tyre on top of the stack. Heap compost up all over the growing plants, leaving just a bit of leaf showing. The plants will continue to grow, pushing through the new layer of earth. The parts of the plant that are buried are the parts that will produce potatoes, so basically the taller the stack, the more potatoes you will get. Keep the stack watered, let the plants grow through thoroughly before adding each new tyre and compost… and that’s it.
- The plants should be allowed a decent amount of growing time after you put the final tyre on the stack, so that all those leaves get the chance to convert the sun’s energy into potatoes. The plants should look green and vigorous. Eventually though, the leaves will become yellow and sickly looking. That’s when your potatoes are done!
- To harvest, simply knock over or dismantle the tyre stack and the potatoes will be very easy to find among the compost. One advantage of growing in a stack is that unlike growing in a trench, you will easily find every single one. Then shovel up the compost and put it on your flower beds.
We made a three tyre stack this year, but the plants were so strong we probably could have used an extra tyre and got even more potatoes. As it is we got two large bags of potatoes from the six we planted. We were given the tyres and the seed potatoes and made our own compost, so this crop was absolutely free – all we needed to do was add water.
About a month ago I was bemoaning the mildewy state of our courgette plants when I noticed a brilliant yellow speck moving about in the foliage. Upon taking a closer look I was happy to find this pair of 22 spot ladybirds taking advantage of the sunny weather by mating vigorously (and for ages!) on the chewed and greying leaves.
It was impossible to get a better photo without disturbing them, but as these ladybirds are tiny – only 3 to 5 mm long, I was pleased to get any picture at all. All ladybirds are welcome in our garden – they are wonderful pest control – but I only found out how pleased I should have been on behalf of our courgettes yesterday when I read this post about ladybirds in Hagbourne Wildlife, which told me that the 22 spot eats mildew! I had no idea that there were any non-carnivorous ladybirds so I did a little bit of research.
Native to Europe, their latin name is Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata, often abbreviated to Psyllobora 22-punctata, and they can reliably be identified from their small size and uniformity of markings. Each wing case has 11 evenly spaced black spots. The pronotum (the section between the head and the abdomen) also has 5 black spots, which don’t seem to have been counted when this insect was given it’s name. You’ll find them on low growing mildewed (mouldy) plants, and a quick scout around wildlife forums also revealed fun informal accounts of them coming into utility rooms or living in house plant pots where the compost has become mouldy.
Alas my yellow spotted friends could do little for the courgettes – even if they bred a 22 spot army the mildew had already well and truly taken hold. I still like to think of their larvae munching bravely away – at least they won’t go hungry.
This Friday gone was Lammas, and to celebrate the old festival R and I climbed Winter Hill near Cookham and sat looking out at ripe wheat fields while drinking wine and eating strawberries. It was lovely, and I’m going to write about it… but not yet. On Sunday we had a more personal celebration and collected a small harvest from our garden – spinach, the last of our broad beans, blackberries picked from the wild bramble that insists on growing through the fence and into our garden, and perfectly ripe golden plums from our plum tree. Really, it hardly seems so long ago since that tree was smothered in delicate white blossom like the one you see on the left, and now it’s covered in golden fruit. it’s been an excellent year for fruit it seems, the fat berries I’ve noticed clustering on almost every shrub along the River Lee towpath, the spill of yellow and wine coloured plums upon the ground. It’s still summer and I like to think that we haven’t had the best of it yet, and yet… Already the garden is slowing down, with much gone to seed, and many things grown straggly – when did I take my eyes off them, when did this happen? The year has turned, and I am feeling it shifting. It’s as if we’ve finally crested a hill and are no longer poised at the top but already started on the way down. This sounds melancholy I know, but after the work of summer we all want to stop and reap the benefits; the birds who sang and worked themselves ragged to raise their chicks can now be found in hedgerows silently gorgeing on plenty. The sun when it appears is still hot, the days still relatively long, and now is the time to enjoy the fruits of the season.
It’s been a busy and disjointed time for me lately, too much living out of a backpack for one reason and another. One thing that’s helped no end is our garden; our little plot isn’t huge, but this year we’ve all got gardening fever and I’ve been so glad of the garden as a way to ground me when I am home.
We’ve cobbled together an eccentric bunch of containers to grow potatoes and carrots in, and it’s amazing how many generous people have donated seed. Home made compost, home made bottle cloches, pots recycled from last years annuals and our garden table is groaning under the weight of potted seedlings raised on high as protection from slugs. The courgettes we sowed in an old water container about six weeks ago are already in the ground and almost ready to flower; I’ve barely been able to keep up with their growth. Our potatoes, buried experimentally in tyres stacked up near the house are already showing promise. Jerusalem Artichokes have shot up like rockets, with a promise of cheerful sunflower blooms and tasty tubers for the pot.
We’ve got beans, we’ve got chilli peppers – we’ve got whatever random things we could easily cadge or lay our hands on, and the practical tasks of planting, watering, weeding and just getting my fingers into the sweet earth has been bliss.
I’d been hoping to photograph our little seedling babies right from the start – a little garden diary documenting their growth, but the growing season is already in full swing and most of them are seedlings no more. Still, my experiment of growing carrots in a window-box is in early days yet so perhaps the second wave of plantings will make good subjects.
We’re not just tending a vegetable patch though. The garden also contains a fascinating and totally unplanned selection of ornamentals, things planted by tenants long gone, self seeded annuals that have made their way over the fence broadcast by wind, birds or in the fur of cats and foxes, and there are the humble garden centre plants we couldn’t resist for their cheap and cheerful resilience. A friend who works for the council frequently brings us rescued municipal strays; when the bedding displays in the local park gets changed she rescues plants that would otherwise get thrown away, and our garden is home to many.
The loveliest things so far have been the native plants – Lungwort earlier in the spring has been overtaken by its handsome and showy relative Comfrey, and both have sung with bees from the opening of the first flower.
While working in a friend’s neglected garden this weekend I found this common frog lurking in a shady leaf strewn bed. Despite all the disturbance around its home, the frog kept returning to one particular spot, so we mulched the area with a touch more leaf litter and left the prettier wildflowers (Herb Robert) intact to provide cover. We watered the area well, then left froggie in peace to guard the nearby strawberry patch.
When we got home, we sat in our own back garden and breathed deeply, for the air was filled with the scent of jasmine. Tiny, delicate moths were enjoying the scent as much as we were, and providing supper for a spectacular hunting dragonfly. The nearest standing water is almost a mile away, so our garden must provide rich pickings to tempt them so far. Swifts careened overhead and the song of blackbirds filled the air. It may lack the grandeur of Skye, but even a tiny London garden does not lack for wild natural beauty.