I have a small obsession with adding to my garden. And since we moved to our homestead 4 years ago, I have plenty of space to do so.
But not everyone has that much space. And right now, a lot of people don’t have much money, either. When that’s the case, growing potatoes in old 55-gal drums might be just the thing!
This is our third year growing potatoes and I’ll be honest — we didn’t get the harvest I wanted the first two years. But I’m hoping I’ve learned from that, and I’ll see a great harvest this year. I’m sharing with you what I learned about this in case you want to try it, too!
How to Source and Prepare Materials
The picture above is my garden set up from the beginning of 2021. I had 10 55-gallon drums lined up along the edge of the garden.
I got these drums from Earthley — they previously held organic alcohol, and we cleaned them out well. You can ask around at local restaurants to see if they have empty drums, too. Any that held food (like oils, alcohol, dry goods) previously will be safe to use for your garden. Avoid any that held harsh or toxic chemicals, which is common in industrial manufacturing. Ask questions to know for sure what used to be in those drums!
Cut the lids off the drums so they are open. Drill drainage holes around the bottom, too. The holes in mine are about 1/2″ wide and there are about 20 of them.
If you do not have access to 55-gal drums, you can also use chicken wire (wrapped into a circle with straw and zip ties) or these 20-gallon grow bags.
For soil, we started out using a mix of sand from our creek and potting soil. This wasn’t ideal.
What Went Wrong
Potato plants definitely grew, as you can see in the picture above! And they definitely made potatoes. Just not very many of them.
The theory with these 55-gallon drums was that if you kept adding more soil to the drum throughout the growing season, the plant would keep producing potatoes in layers, so that a small number of plants would produce 100 lbs. or more all through the drum.
I did not find this to be true. The potatoes all grew in the same layer. Some people have said that planting the potatoes in layers rather than all at once will make it work better, but the whole thing just did not seem to be ideal. I did it twice in different ways (planting more/fewer potatoes; planting earlier in the year; trying to be more proactive about hilling it up) and did not get good results either way.
How to Grow Potatoes in 55-Gallon Drums
This is the system I finally arrived at.
We cut the drums in half to be each around 18″ tall, then lined them up like this. We cut a circle of 1 1/2″ holes around the side of the drums as well to increase drainage, because potatoes don’t like to be in very wet soil. The open drums are lined with newspaper to help keep weeds down, at least for a short time!
We mixed soil on the tarp, which consisted of:
- Sand from the creek
- Organic soil
- Compost (both manure-based and plant-based)
It cost around $100 to buy the soil to fill all of these about half full…which is not bad! I recommend mixing soil from your own yard with compost and perlite to keep costs down. You can also use sawdust, straw, and grass clippings.
I planted 5 potatoes in each of the larger barrels, and 4 potatoes each in the grow bags. Then I mulched them with straw, which I will do again as they grow.
With this system, the potatoes have a lot more room to grow. They were a lot easier to plant, and will be a lot easier to harvest. (The full drums were HEAVY! And hard to tip over, dig through, and clean up again.)
I also planted kale in the center of a few of the drums, because they are good companion plants. I haven’t tried this before, but I’m hoping it goes well. We’ll find out!
I will update this post in the fall, when we see the harvest that we got!