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Garden Q&A: Avoid planting food in tires

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
Potato bins

Q: My neighbors and I are working on a garden together, and we would like to have a potato tower. I am looking at one made one out of wood, but we were told that a tire tower is a lot less work. We are concerned that the tires may be toxic to the potatoes in some way. I checked on a couple of websites and am still not convinced they are safe. Could I please have an opinion from you about whether we should use the tires?

A: I'm glad you asked before you planted your taters in those tires. I suggest you avoid planting any edible crops in tires, as they can leach heavy metals and all sorts of chemicals. These compounds can find their way into the soil and, in turn, into the plants themselves. Please avoid using tires for your garden.

While I do like the idea of building or buying a wooden bin, I've got a better (and cheaper!) idea for you. Build a potato bin out of wire fencing and some newspaper or cardboard. Here's how:

Purchase a roll of 3- or 4-foot-high, vinyl-coated boxwire fencing or chicken wire fencing (or use a scrap piece if you have any extra sitting around). Cut the fencing into lengths of about 6 to 7 feet. Each section will become one potato bin. Roll each piece into a cylinder and fold over the cut ends to hold it closed. Turn the bin up on end and line the inside of the cylinder with a layer of newspaper about 10 sheets thick or with sheets of cardboard. Then begin to fill the cylinder about a quarter of the way up with a combination of compost, topsoil (I use the old potting soil from last year's container plantings), rotted down leaves, year-old manure, or whatever other kind of organic matter you can get a hold of. Mix it all up.

Cut seed potatoes into sections, being sure each piece has at least one “eye” or growing point on it. Plant the seed potato sections in the bin. I use about a dozen pieces per bin and bury them about 4 inches deep.

In a few weeks, the potatoes will sprout. Once they are an inch or two tall, pile in more soil and organic matter, and as the potatoes grow, continue to fill in the container until the soil reaches the top. This basically serves the same function as “hilling” ground-planted potatoes, generating more roots and therefore increasing their potato-growing potential.

Once the bin is full, the plants will sprawl out the top. Be sure to water the bin regularly, much like you would water any other container planting.

After the plants yellow and die back completely, wait two weeks for the potato skins to cure, then unfasten the bin and watch the taters come tumbling out.

It's a great system that I have used successfully in my garden for many years. Good luck!

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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