Solutions for Self-Reliance

Potato Towers and Open Source Innovation


Last fall, I built some wire mesh towers to house expand my home’s composting system.

I had lots of leaves to dispose of and it was easy to build them (<5 minutes a tower from some recycled wire fencing).  It was so easy, in fact, that I built them wherever the leaves were collected.

So far, they’ve worked well.  The large towers have stayed alive and cooking throughout the New England winter.  As they cooked down, I’ve added new kitchen compost and covered it with the “brown/carbon” shredded leaves I had stored in smaller towers around the property.

I like the way these towers conserve space and are easy to manipulate/move.  So, now I’m now trying to figure out what else I can do wire mesh towers during the gardening season coming up.

One of the ideas I’ve been researching is how to build potato towers.  This research effort has proven to be an interesting example of resilient innovation in actin.  Read on to find out why.

The traditional approach growing potatoes is to hill them.  Essentially, you use a hoe to cover up the potato sprouts (shaws) as they emerge to get more growth out of them.  Here’s an example from a growing resilient community in Seattle (love the way this parking strip has been turned from scrub grass and into productive raised garden).

Potato Hills

In contrast to the above, a potato tower grows the potato vertically, above ground.   This method has the potential to yield more than an “in ground” method while using less space and reducing the labor required to dig them up.  Here’s what a potato tower (via OJSkinner), using wire mesh would look like:

Potato Tower Exmaple


IN this method, the sprouting seed potatoes would be placed at the bottom of the tower.  As they sprout vertically, you would add soil to cover it (with straw on the exterior wall to hold it in).  Seems like a straight forward innovation.

However, as with many early innovations, the early experiments with potato towers haven’t proven it to be effective.  Yields have been dismal.  For example, Rob built impressive towers like the one below but got a very small yield on the plants that actually did make it.


Is there a way to fix this? I suspect there is.

Some innovative work by a small entrepreneur in the UK (Henley Potato Tower) has found that the key to towering potatoes is a combination of the following:

  1. A few high quality seed potatoes and good soil (don’t scrimp).  Lots to the efforts that fail do this.
  2. Very rapid covering.  Cover the shoot before it leafs out and becomes a shaw (the tower should make this easier to do).  I suspect that all you will need is two feet of covering soil at most.  The idea is that once it coverts to leaf, it doesn’t fully convert back, sapping the plant of energy.
  3. Turn a root from each seed potato into a “shaw” (leafy shoot) as soon as possible.  Essentially, guide the root to an opening on the side of the container and let it grow outwards.  IF you don’t do this, the plant will not get enough energy to yield.

Without getting too technical, a potato tower that is working correctly will be covered in green, from base to top.   If you only see green at the top, you’re going to get a poor harvest.  I suspect that explains what happened to Rob’s harvest.  His tower didn’t allow roots to grow outwards, fueling the potatoes with the energy they need to become bountiful.

Let’s try this out this spring.

I’ll let you know how the experiment at the “resilient Robb house” as the year progresses.  We’re getting better and better at this.  The key is to keep digging and continue to innovate.

Resiliently Yours,



PS:  The amazing thing about resilience is that there’s still an incredible amount of opportunity for original innovation and amateur science.  So, if you are creative and want to move the future of humanity forward (like Rob above), dive in and share what you find.   The more people that join in, the faster a transition to a resilient world will happen.

PPS:  Steve M, the gracious Strategies member that contributed the solar case study for the December 2012 RS report, just told me that the hardware prices for DIY solar equipment are even lower than they were last fall.  We’re on the positive side of history folks.  Local superempowerment is getting easier by the day….

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