How to Build a Potato Condo

I went to W’s school this morning and built a potato condo with his kindergarten class. I highly recommend doing this if your kids’ teacher lets you – I brought a copy of Two Old Potatoes and Me to read beforehand, then the kids got to scoop dirt and plant potatoes, and all thought it was very cool. I love that the knowledge of how to grow their own potatoes is now somewhere in their wee brainpans. Maybe some of them will go home and ask their parents to grow their own potatoes in their own backyards or on their balconies. Maybe they’ll teach their kids how to grow potatoes. And so on.

We made our own last week, which once you drill holes in the bottom of your garbage bin takes all of about five minutes. I keep eluding to it on twitter, and people keep asking what the hell I’m talking about. So let me explain the concept of a potato condo, and how to make one, even if you’re not a gardener nor have space for a full-on garden. If you have room for a garbage bin, you have enough to grow a good-sized crop of potatoes your very own self.

I know, potatoes are cheap – but the satisfaction of going out to your back yard, thrusting your hand into a container of dirt and pulling out clusters of wee new potatoes to rub clean and cook up for dinner is (nearly) free. As you probably know, potatoes grow underground, but grow up toward the surface, rather than down, like most root vegetables (picture a carrot, leaves growing up, root growing down), which is why they are generally planted in little hills, with provide extra dirt for them to grow up through. Make sense? A potato condo allows you to grow lots of potatoes vertically by adding more dirt as the potato plants grow to the surface. It’s also a great way to contain them, taking up little space in relation to the yield. The first (and probably most) potato condos were made out of wood, with new sides added on as the plants grew, but I’ve seen and heard of potato condos built out of old tires, milk crates and garbage bins. Last year we built one out of a galvanized steel bin I had initially tried to turn into a smoker. (Which, not surprisingly, didn’t work.) This year there are plenty of spare plastic garbage bins around as the city has supplied us all with their own black bins. I’d love to see those unused garbage pails growing food rather than filling landfills.

To grow potatoes, you start with seed potatoes -essentially potatoes which have been allowed to sprout eyes… you may have inadvertently produced your own seed potatoes in your own kitchens by leaving them in the bottom of the bin. The potatoes we used were from last year – mostly from our CSA farm – stored in a cool, dark place they practically turned into potato plants right there in the depths of my kitchen.

To make your potato condo, first drill a few holes in the bottom of your garbage bin to allow extra moisture out – this will prevent your potatoes from drowning and/or rotting. I put a few near the bottom but on the sides, so they can’t get blocked underneath.

Then put some dirt into the bottom of your condo. Cut your seed potatoes into chunks, making sure each piece has a sprouting eye. Place them in the dirt, with the eyes upward, and cover with about 6 inches more soil. That’s it. Water and sun. They’re pretty low maintenance, actually.

Once the leaves poke through the surface and manage to grow several inches, cover them with more dirt and compost. This encourages the plants to keep growing more potatoes, growing upward. Once it starts to flower, you can dip your hand into the dirt and feel around for new potatoes to pull out – just be careful you don’t disturb the root system.

Your full harvest won’t happen until the fall, when it grows chilly and the above-ground part of the plant withers and dies. Then you can tip over the bin and sift through the dirt to harvest your potatoes. You won’t believe how many you’ll get. If you build a potato condo, keep me posted!


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49 comments on “How to Build a Potato Condo

  1. H-woman
    May 25, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Hmmm…a potato condo…I just might have to try that!

    I’m in for the potluck!


  2. anja
    May 25, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    oh, i just love this! am just trying it out on our balcony in an alternate version, that is, a kind of special plastic bag that you can use to plant them. you can already see the plants- we`re really looking forward to our harvest!thanks for this post and best from faraway berlin,anja

  3. Donna
    May 26, 2011 at 12:23 am

    We’re coming, too — address please in an email.

  4. Jan (Family Bites)
    May 26, 2011 at 5:22 am

    This is so fun! We’ve planted a garden but I haven’t considered doing potatoes. We going to make one this weekend and I’ll let you know how it goes.

  5. Robyn
    May 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

    oh how i wish i could fly to calgary for the weekend!

  6. CathyD
    May 26, 2011 at 7:54 am

    I think I’ll be over on Saturday! Just trying to wrangle out of something else 🙂

  7. susie
    May 26, 2011 at 8:06 am

    So I’m thinking, everyone here is working this weekend, let’s see where the bloggers are heading for dinner with Julie, because I love a road trip, especially one at the last minute. However, 2100 miles is too much for this loyal reader! (2 large cookie orders loom) Although the mapquest route looks like an awesome trip, and I have never been to Calgary… Maybe I’ll just plant some potatoes on Saturday!

  8. Colleen
    May 26, 2011 at 8:35 am

    I am definitely building one of these this year. We must have a garbage can I can use and if not, I’ll buy one. I love potatoes and especially new potatoes. I left a message yesterday about the potluck. I’m in. My only concern for you is that it is supposed to keep raining – you may have to stagger us to get us in your house. I’ll bring a very large umbrella!!

  9. Lana
    May 26, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I echo Robyn in wishing I didn’t live so far away!
    Love the potato condos- luckily we have room for a big garden so I grow ’em in hills!

  10. Randi
    May 26, 2011 at 9:53 am

    Julie – I’m going to make one this weekend!

    I have composted all my potatos… should I just wait for one to sprout eyes? Also, how many do I plant in my condo?

    I am excited!

  11. JulieVR
    May 26, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Randi – yes, use sprouting potatoes! plant a few in your condo – I may have done too many, but the boys were excited!

  12. Ruth
    May 26, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Note to all potato condo users: plant something other than yukon gold potatoes! If you can find them plant fingerlings (my favorite are french fingerlings) or other early season potatoes. Yukon golds will grow in the bin but will not continue to grow up as you fill the container with dirt. So in other words no bin full of potatoes just a regular harvest at the bottom.

    I will have to be at the potluck in spirit! Maybe I’ll comment on what I’m having for supper and make you all hungry just like Julie does for me everyday!

  13. JulieVR
    May 26, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Ruth – thanks for the info! I had no idea! Someone had told me to plant late season potatoes – not sure why? But I’ve just planted whatever good potatoes I had sprouting eyes, with success!

  14. Laurie in Calgary
    May 26, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Can’t wait to do this with the kids! Maybe I can get some seed potatoes from Eagle Creek? May have to see if we can sprout some potatoes quickly. Will it still work if I don’t have the crazy rooty eyes that you have in yours? And I love that book! I was at the Young Writer’s Conference with my oldest daughter again this year and was lucky enough to take a class with Carolyn Fisher who did the beautiful illustrations. I’m taking it as a sign that a potato condo must be built here at Casa Schneider…

  15. JulieVR
    May 26, 2011 at 11:26 am

    YES! Eagle Creek farms sells seed potatoes!

  16. mmac
    May 26, 2011 at 11:51 am

    I MIGHT be there. I WANT to be, but waiting to have something else confirmed first. Can I be a firm “maybe?”

  17. Natalie (ga)
    May 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Seriously. I don’t know what I would ever bring to the potluck since EVERYTHING I make is found on this site or your cookbooks :). Have a great time, ya’ll.

  18. Sandra Sobko
    May 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Oh Drat,

    We have tickets to the Children’s Festival. Please, please do this again and we will come!

    My husband is the potato grower. He’s looking for new uses for our now no longer needed garbage can.

  19. danzy
    May 26, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I have seed potatoes to give away!!! Russian purple and Netted Gem (Russet type I think). I also have Blue Lake pole beans. I can bring the seeds to the Potluck (can you send me the details JVR?) or people can come and pick them up at our house in Valley Ridge (NW).
    Just about to start the pizza dough for tonight’s meal…your recipe of course Julie!

  20. Lori
    May 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I wish I had enough balcony space for a potato condo. I Hope to make it to the pot luck!

  21. JulieVR
    May 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Danzy – awesome!! that’s fantastic!!

  22. Laurie in Calgary
    May 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Also, I’m very sad that I can’t come to the potluck. Must work a catering. Sigh. I hope you have another. Enjoy everybody!!

  23. sweetsugarbean
    May 26, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    The potato condo looks awesome! Wish I was in your neck of the woods this weekend. Have fun!

  24. Janet
    May 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Looking forward to the potluck – my husband and I. When the rain stops, we’ll plant our potatoes out at our friends’ acreage near Okotoks, as well as our cucs and beans here in the city. Tomatoes, beets, swiss chard, and bok choy are already planted. Would love to try a potato condo though, anyway!

  25. Kelly
    May 26, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    So making a potato condo this weekend….maybe tomorrow actually as I have a boatload of kids coming over and this would be a few minutes of entertainment!

  26. Corwin
    May 27, 2011 at 12:51 am

    Love your blog Julie.
    “Last year we built one out of a galvanized steel bin I had initially tried to turn into a smoker. (Which, not surprisingly, didn’t work.)”
    As I’m sure you know, galvanized steel is chemically treated to reduce rust (dipped in zinc among other things if I recall correctly) and is NOT food safe, especially if heated as in a smoker application (I used to work in a metal fabrication shop and welding galvanized steel offgases noxious gases). Just as you don’t use pressure treated wood for smoking food, don’t used galvanized metal around food either. Just my opinion but pretty sure I’m right on this one.

  27. JulieVR
    May 27, 2011 at 4:29 am

    Corwin – great advice! I had read instructions somewhere on how to do it, but it didn’t occur to me that using a metal garbage bin was a bad idea… I’m not 100% sure it was galvanized steel, but I’m assuming most metal trash bins are? anyway, thanks for the tip! I never did get any food in there to smoke it, anyway! Just the hot plate and wood chips!

  28. Joanne
    May 27, 2011 at 9:28 am

    My course got cancelled for Sat. so now I’m in I think–another definite maybe!

  29. sarah
    May 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    This is a great idea. Further looking on the internet suggests that seed potatoes work the best. Does anyone know where to get seed potatoes? Eagle Creek farms says they’re no longer taking orders for 2011. Also, if we all show up at Danzy’s house, despite her generous offer, it’s going to be overwhelming!!

  30. Kathy
    May 27, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    we’re a definite maybe. After stressing over what to bring, I’ve finally decided–booze! lol. Sangria to be exact. It’s a bit of a lowbrow recipe but most people seem to like it.

  31. tracy
    May 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    will sweet potatoes work as well?

    • JulieVR
      May 28, 2011 at 8:24 am

      I was thinking the same! Not sure.. I certainly never notice my sweet potatoes sprouting eyes, so they would probably have to start from sweet seed potatoes? Anyone know?

  32. Robyn in Mountain (Ontario that is)
    May 27, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    How long will it take to have “seed potatoes”. If I start now, will there be time for babies to plant? Or, should I take this fun idea and give it a whirl next spring, once I have eyes (and legs) on some old potatoes? Hmmm? I guess it wouldn’t work with sweet potatoes, or would it? I thought they didn’t grow underground.
    Julie, you are full of great suggestions. Cheers! Happy Weekend!!!

  33. Kathleen
    May 27, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    The other great thing about growing potatoes is that it enriches the soil with nitrogen, which is good for the other plants in your garden. So use that soil for your other planters next year (just not for potatoes… crop rotation and all)

  34. Jane
    May 28, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I got myself some seed potatoes and I am going to build them a nice luxury condo this afternoon!

  35. Dan Clapson
    May 28, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    This is awesome! Totally my project for next weekend! Maybe I’ll take it one step further and build a potato penthouse. 🙂

  36. Cassie
    May 29, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Oh I wish I hadn’t just thrown out all my “gross” looking potatoes! Hopefully I can get some more going soon here
    I wish I would have seen this earlier, I totally would have come to your potluck!

  37. Ruth
    May 30, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I’ve looked into the whole sweet potato thing and it seems we do not have a warm enough climate for a long enough period here on the Canadian Prairies to make it work. I tried putting a sprouted sweet potato in the ground last year and all I ended up with was small gnarled finger shaped things. It did look pretty on top though!

    Also there is defintely enough time to put seed potatos in the ground this year. I ordered from Eagle Creek and got 6 new varieties to try out! Yay! I’m going to plant them this week.

  38. Shawna
    May 31, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Sunnyside has all their seed potatoes on 50% off, so a box of about 20 sprouting seed potatoes is $3-4. They sell proven prairie hardy types, not sure if all the gourmay ones from the grocery store will work. They have early/mid and late season types, also tells you if they are good baking/chipping and or mashing. I have tried Kennebec and Norland before, going to try Caribe (an early season one, figured with the weather this year its the best bet). Good luck!

  39. Durgan
    December 24, 2011 at 6:26 pm 21 August 2009 How a Potato Plant Grows
    There is a great deal of information on the Internet about growing potatoes in tires, boxes and indicating that large quantities of new tubers can be produced with high vertical hilling. Often some article accompanied with a doctored picture indicating massive amounts of potatoes is shown. The view propagated is that potatoes grow from branches all along the main stalk. This is utter nonsense, as the pictures indicate. New tubers are formed around the seed potato and always slightly above it.

    My potato growing test box was opened today. The pictures speak for themselves. Clearly there is no advantage in carrying out excessive hilling when growing potatoes. The purpose of hilling is to insure the tubers are covered, since light affects potatoes producing a green appearance, which is an indication of solanine, which is harmful if ingested in large quantities.. For comparison one Pontiac Red was dug in the same row, which was almost identical to the test box potato in production.

  40. Susan
    April 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I love this as well. I’m am going to grow my very own potatoes. Thank you for sharing your plan.

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  45. Ella Wilson
    January 23, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    Hi, Julie! I was inspired to build a potato condo because of your post! It’s very useful, detailed and easy to follow as well. I really enjoyed reading and doing this. Big fan, thank you!

    • Julie
      January 25, 2018 at 5:06 pm

      Oh yay, I’m so glad to hear it!! Thanks for letting me know!

  46. Patricia Genetti
    June 1, 2018 at 10:23 am

    Hi Julie!
    Thank you for the suggestions on potato condo!! sorry I missed the dinner by about 7 years!
    Hope this finds you and your family happy and healthy!!

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