I originally published this article in the New Zealand magazine: Weekend Gardener
Spud-sowing time of year is just around the corner and if you’re grumbling over grubbing grass and weeds off the paddock patch, seriously sick of spade work, and fed up with forking out to fuel the cultivator, here’s a much, much easier way to grow bigger, better potatoes off an even smaller patch of land!
My new spud growing discovery began a couple of years ago after our farming neighbours bequeathed to us a stack of rotting hay. Never one to waste things, and behind in the gardening calendar, I figured we might as well spread it over the mass of weeds posing as our spud patch, and see what we could grow.
My husband was one step ahead of me, and suggested we clear out the old carpet clogging up our garage by laying that down first to suppress the couch (or ‘cooch’ grass) and buttercup. So there we were, rolling carpet over grass and weeds and humps and bumps.
We added a sprinkle of our usual spud-food (a few handfuls of blood and bone) and I only wish we’d had time to lay down seaweed and animal manure as well.
And covered everything with 20cm of rotted hay.
Then we sowed the seed spuds on top, spacing them as we would if we were using the usual soil-growing method. Finally, we covered the seed with another 20 centimetres of hay. We’re talking about a lot of seed spuds here, and yet it all seemed so ridiculously easy that I was reluctant to believe this spur-of- the-moment experiment would ever produce anything. After all, if growing potatoes was this easy, why wasn’t everyone doing it?
The days got warmer, the spuds emerged through their covering of hay, and the grass around the edge of the potato patch grew higher, offering perfect wind-protection while never invading the area mulched by the carpet.
At some stage we remembered that spuds benefit from being hoed up — a back-breaker of a task if ever there was one. In deference to this practice, we ripped open a few more bales of rotting hay and tucked it round the spuds in a very random sort of way. I think we even missed a few rows.
The potatoes didn’t care. Those tops just kept on growing. During a very dry spell they wilted quite a lot more than spuds grown in soil would, which had me a little worried.
My anxiety was probably the reason I didn’t put in an appearance at the potato patch again until early autumn. Feeling a little curious, I decided to have a wee tickle to see what was going on under all that hay, and that’s when I got the shock of my life!
Just under the surface, I connected with something hard. I pulled back the hay to reveal an enormous cream potato, almost as clean as if it had just been washed! There were more of them — lots more. They weren’t dispersed through the ground as spuds grown in soil are; these beauties were lying in a nest, close together, just begging to be gathered up!
I actually felt like a cheat as I later loaded the potatoes into sacks, especially as I hadn’t had to use a fork to dig them and, consequently, not a single spud had been speared.
This was all three years ago. Since then, unable to acquire wet-baled hay, we’ve moved on to past-its-best-by baylage as a planting medium. Baylage is actually better than hay because, having been “pickled’, the grass seeds it contains are no longer viable so there’s not a problem with grass sprouting in the potato patch.
I will never return to sowing potatoes in the ground. It’s too hard, at every stage. With the hay/baylage method, you can lay down a potato patch almost anywhere. I wouldn’t mind betting that, watered often enough, you could even sow a spud patch on your concrete drive (just be prepared for some mighty strange looks from the neighbours!).