Potato Experiment

One of the blogs I follow, and I wish I could remember which one, had a cool idea for maximizing potato yields in small spaces. She built round bins of wire, filled them with alternating layers of compost and straw, and planted potatoes in the compost. This would allow for four or five layers of potatoes in each bin. That reminded me of a couple of things.

The first was our compost bin, which happens to be round and made of left over 4 foot wire fencing. We’d put off turning it until we could find some pallets to make a new bin. After an entire spring during which I nagged my husband long-distance while he assured me that pallets were “everywhere,” he finally decided that it was time to turn the compost, at which point, pallets were nowhere to be found. Go figure. So we have a good-sized bin of cold, half-finished compost.

The other was my first compost bin, a pit, really, in my mother’s back yard. She lived on St Simon’s Island, Georgia, essentially a large sandbar barely above sea level. Rather than building a bin, I just dug a hole in the sand, and following the instructions in Peacock Manure and Marigolds acquired a bag of cocoa bean hulls and started layering them with kitchen scraps. (The lawn was so pathetic that grass clippings were not an option. I’m not even sure that we bothered to mow it.)

Mom, as usual, thought I was nuts, “on drugs,” or led astray yet again by “your little friends.”

Until the potato sprouted. It was a sweet potato, gone funky in the veggie drawer. I tossed it into the heap, expecting the bacteria to have its way with the poor thing.

Instead it grew luxuriously, producing the best sweet potatoes Mom had ever eaten.

Another day, another convert.

So there we were when my fellow blogger reminded me what to do with that bin. I planted 14 Yukon Gold potatoes around the edge, covering them with garden soil. It’s not the multi-layered maximized use of garden space of the original, but it is a way to turn non-garden into growing space. It seems to be working, as you can see from the photo below. I’ll keep you posted.

potato

Containing Compost

Finished Bin
We’ve always composted, and continued to do so after our recent move. We continued our conserving ways for several months before a neighbor showed up, glanced at the back yard, and cheerfully informed us that the city has fines for people with unsightly properties. Given that everyone else had been complimenting us on how much better the yard looked since we’d moved in, we pretty quickly narrowed down the object of our neighbor’s concern to the pile of dead leaves and grass clippings concealing the potato peels and egg shells.

On a trip to the local hardware palace for yet more perennials, I noticed a plastic compost bin for sale. “51 gallon capacity,” the sign said. That sounds a lot more impressive than “six point eight cubic feet” which also happens to be true. While it might be enough to hold kitchen waste, that’s nowhere near enough capacity for a lawn’s-worth of grass clippings plus  two shade trees worth of leaves. Plus, it looked like Dark Helmet’s hat from Spaceballs. We can do better, I thought.

In a few minutes of wandering the aisles, we located 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers at $3.54 each for the corner posts and 6-foot cedar dog-eared fence planks at $1.17 each that would serve as rot-resistant sides. That, plus a bunch of deck screws and a few metal fence stakes, gave us a two-bin, 3’ x 3’ x 4’ compost heap for $55.05. We used scrap lumber for the boards to hold the front slats in place, and recycled the inner cores from dog poop bag rolls for spacers. Buying a 1” x 6” x 12’ and a foot of aquarium hose to replace the recycled items would bring the cost up to just a little over that of the pint-sized commercial model.

However we get a lot more bang for our buck: 36 cubic-foot capacity in each of the two compartments, to be precise, enough for grass clippings and leaves as well as kitchen waste. That works out to 11 cents per gallon of storage capacity, and, other than the recycled plastic spacers, it uses no petroleum products. Compare that to the $1.14/gallon of Mr. Helmet’s hat. May the Schwartz be with you!

Materials list:

3 – 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers

28 – 6-foot cedar fence planks

9 – ¾” length pieces of plastic or metal tubing, ¼” to ½” diameter

144—2” decking screws, 9 – 3 ½” decking screws

4 – 5’ metal fence stakes

Tools:

Saw, measuring tape, marker, drill, screwdriver, level, sledge hammer

Instructions:

Cut the landscape timbers into 4-foot lengths.

Cut 12 of the cedar planks into 3-foot lengths for the sides of the bins.

The planks may split if you run screws directly into them, so it’s a good idea to pre-drill 2 holes on the end of each plank plus two more 2” from the centers of the 6-foot planks.  You can expedite this by stacking the planks and drilling them 4 or 5 at a time. Carefully measure the first plank and put it on top of each carefully stacked pile of planks as a template.

Lay three of the posts on the ground, spaced so that they line up with the holes in the 6-foot planks. Space the planks a finger’s-width apart for better air circulation.  Screw the planks to the posts using the 2” decking screws. The top piece will extend above the end of the post. You now have the back of your bin.

Stand the back up in the place you want the finished bin to stand and attach the bottom plank to the end, using one screw. Attach the front post to the plank with one screw. Use the level to insure that the posts are vertical and screw the front and back ends of the plank to the uprights. Attach the remaining planks the same way, again, a fingers-width apart. Repeat this procedure for the opposite wall and the middle wall.

You have a bin! Reinforce the walls by driving a metal fence post on the outside of each side wall and on both sides of the center wall, near the front posts. (Rooftop gardeners might want to place a cinderblock on either side of the front posts for support, instead.)

Front:

Attach a 4’ length of board to the center post at top, middle, and bottom, running the 3 1/2” screws through the spacers. Leave a little play between the spacers and the post, rather than running the risk of splitting them by screwing them on too tightly. They’re just there as guidelines. Do the same with the side posts.

Measure the distance between the spacers, subtract ½”, and cut the front planks to that length. Slide the boards into the slots as needed as your bin fills. Remove them when it’s time to move the compost out.

If you have the space and wish to double your capacity, you’ll need to get 12 more cedar slats and four additional fence stakes. Leave your side and center pieces 6 feet long and reinforce the middle of the side and center walls with the stakes.

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