Our Guerrilla Gardening, by Oregon Pat

Over the years our lifestyle of self-production has morphed from simply producing more of our own needs into an active learning, training experience for the whole family.  Our children have grown up working alongside us in the garden, enjoying our late-night “canning parties”, and lately helping to raise and pursue large animals for our consumption.  This last year our gardening has taken on a greater academic angle with more experimentation and trying new things.  We’ve done a fair amount of foraging in the mountains around our place, and we were wondering how our ‘domestic’ garden varieties would fair in the wild.  This is how our guerrilla garden began.

We already knew from years of experience with deer and elk in our garden that corn and other vegetables are a wildlife favorite, so we decided to see how potatoes might fair in various circumstances.  The internet is full of advice and experience, but our own personal efforts have been invaluable to teach what is possible and what is successful.  We chose potatoes also because of their valuable payoff in volume and nutrition for any emergency scenario.

Last spring we decided to see how potatoes would do in various conditions.  With lots of our favorites still in cold-storage from the winter, we had plenty of our favorite seed potatoes – Purple (“All Blue”), Reds, and Yukon Golds.  We decided on three main locations: 1) normal conditions in our regular, groomed garden; 2) ‘new’ garden conditions in land we recently cleared; and 3) rustic gardening in the wild parts of the hills around us.  We hoped each of these areas could teach us new things about growing one of our favorite foods.

In our regular garden, we planted over 50 potato plants to use as a control and also to experiment with things like using straw, dirt mounds, and even bucket systems we’d read about to help increase yields.  We varied the planting distances between plants, monitored watering, and even measured the effect of damaging the main plants might have on potato yields.

Adjacent to our regular garden we recently cleared out pine and fir trees to expand the regular garden plot.  This soil had not been cultivated or fertilized in any way – we simply mowed the grass and weeds, then did a rough tilling of the soil for us to plant in.  We wanted to see how suitable our ‘native’ ground might be for growing in short notice.  In this area we planted another 50 plants.

Our third location was chosen to see how potatoes might fair in the mountains of western Oregon.  Most of the land here is accessible by logging roads, and with so much space to use we were curious how the plants would fare.  First, we contacted local county and state Agricultural resources to make sure there was no legal issue with us planting domestic plants in the wild.  Also, we scoped out where noxious weed spraying might occur.  Finally, we decided on 4 different locations in the hills near where we often target practice or roam.  We chose these locations to provide different growing conditions – on top of an exposed hillside, in a small ravine, alongside a logging road, and in a small open meadow.  Would the animals find the plants?  Would they get adequate moisture and sun?  Was the soil suitable?  Lots of questions.

Our Experimental Conditions
In our regular garden we experimented with X condition to see how they would affect yields: mounding dirt around the plants; piling straw around the plants; enclosing a plant in straw and a bucket; spacing between plants; and ‘damage’ to the main plant when it flowered.  Each of these factors was chosen based on what we had read of others doing.  We varied the spacing between plants from 12 inches to 2.5 feet.  Some plants we regularly raked up dirt up to 12 inches high around the base of the plant as it grew, while others didn’t get mounded dirt.  We piled thick straw around some plants to see if they would grow potatoes in the straw, and if that helped hold heat, moisture, etc to promote potato production.  For 2 plants, we cut the bottoms out of 5 gallon buckets and placed the bucket around the plant as it was large enough to “see out” of the bucket.  Within the bucket around the plant we filled the space with straw.  One group of plants we regularly watered, while others we left to the elements.  I had read that if a plant was damaged around the time it flowered, it would put more ‘effort’ into the tubers, so we munched up some of the plants to ‘simulate’ crushing or deer damage, to see if it produced more potatoes.  Yield results for these plants in our regular garden area were most dramatic and clear between different conditions.

In the rough “new” area we planted, we simply rototilled the ground and planted the potato starts.  Some parts of this area had many roots left from the trees we removed, and even 3 stumps of considerable size.  About half of this area started growing field grass aggressively after our planting.  We also added straw and dirt mounding to some of these plants.  We did not give extra watering to the plants in this area.  We were mainly interested in seeing how the soil and conditions would do for potatoes.  In an extended emergency, would it be possible for us to till up yard or pasture and get a suitable crop at harvest in the first year to help our family?  Without extra fertilizer or watering, is growing our own food realistic?  How important is our efforts to remove grass and weeds in land we want to garden?  Lots of questions we hoped to answer for very little effort or work.  Big ramifications though for what we might find – especially if our dinner depended on this ground.

For the potatoes we planted out in the wild, the only “experimental” factor we added was to put an old tire around one of the potato plants to see if the tire would ‘warm’ the plant and encourage any noticeable yield improvement.  We found the tire along the logging road so it was a last minute idea to try.  Using what was available to learn something new.  We planted seed in a barren, clay bank, marshy wet soil, and even in dirt with a lot of ‘riprap’ rocks from the logging road.  Interestingly, the results in the wild were all pretty much the same, though we learned a lot from it.
I should say that the best part of all of this was not eating the results, but the fun we had.  We all had a great time planting, brainstorming and researching, and of course digging up the goods.  Our many children’s ages range from 5 to 19 and each of them was eager to get out and check the plants.  When checking on the plants in the woods, we often used the occasion to target practice, look for new mushrooming areas, or scout deer – it was always a great outing.  Learning life skills and enjoying this great world God has given us is always better (and more educational) when it is a fun time.  One of my sons was quite surprised when he realized he could use our experiments as a science project – he thought it was all just for fun.

Our Results
We regularly checked on and monitored the plants – noting any early deaths, plant growth, and observations.  The weather last summer was moderate, and relatively mild with regular rainfall and no dramatic heat stretches.  Good conditions for experimentation.  We carefully made notes and when digging the potatoes weighed the results from each plant.  None of our efforts were statistically defined, though we tried to randomize as much as possible.  Not truly scientific, but close enough for us!

Most of our insights were from the regular garden area, with all its variations.  We measured the yields to the closest ounce, but I won’t bore you with the number details.  The Red potatoes yielded much higher than the Purple or Golds.  This was expected.  We also observed that mice and mold preferred Reds over the other two.  The Red potatoes were still green and vigorous into September, while both the Purple and Gold plants were dying off or dead before mid-August.  These are all considerations for emergency conditions when our dinner might be on the line.  Red potatoes produced 5.5 to 6.5 lbs of potatoes on average; Purples put out 3.2 lbs each; Golds averaged 1.8 lbs.  Most of our experimentation was on the Reds, which is part of the greater range in average.

In our regular garden, the two most significant factors affecting potato yields were sun and dirt mounding.  The amount of sun the plants received was easily seen in the yields.  Mounding dirt vs. unmounded plants was even more dramatic – more than 30% more potatoes (by weight) was produced by plants that had dirt mounded around them.  The mounding also helped keep the weeds at bay so this might have been a factor.  We will always mound our plants after this experiment!

The straw around the potatoes had no significant effect on increasing the amount of potatoes, but actually had a large NEGATIVE effect in that the potatoes grown in the straw had much more mold and losses to mice.  Most potatoes had some damage and many were lost because of the mold and rodents, whereas those plants without straw had little or no damage.  As I mentioned, the Reds were much preferred by the rodents over the Purple or Golds.

The only noticeable effect that spacing had on the plants seemed to be related to the amount of sun.  plants close together but on the south side of the patch still had high yields, as did the plants spaced out more but not on the south (sunny) side.  Greater spacing also helped us to mound and keep the weeds out.
Those plants that had the extra watering did seem to have better yields, but it was not significant or really noticeable.  Not to say watering isn’t important for the potatoes, but perhaps the mild year we had was wet enough.  We don’t think that extra watering (unless a dry season) is worth the extra effort.

The damaged plants we crushed or munched up branches on showed no real difference in potato yield than undamaged plants.  The mounding and sunlight was still the overwhelming factor on these plants.

The plants with a bucket around them had lower yields than their peers.  No rodent damage but I suspect the buckets decreased the sunlight available to the plants.  All of the potatoes were in the dirt and none of them in the straw.  With all the ideas on the internet about stacking tires or boxes around the plant as it grows, I figured there would be something too it, but it didn’t pan out for us.  This shows the value of trying it for yourself, in your own local circumstances!

One final note on the results in our regular garden area was interesting – we planted just the “eye” growth from a Gold potato to see if it would grow to a plant, and indeed it did.  This eye start was about 2 inches long and we broke it off the potato before potting, then transferred to the garden.  It grew, but only produced 0.25 lbs of potatoes whereas the other Gold plants around it were producing 1.5 to 2.8 lbs.  It did something, but not much.  At least something to consider if you don’t have enough seed potatoes to plant a large chunk of seed potato with the eye on it.

In the new, “unworked” garden area, we saw similar results, though yields were smaller than in the tended and fertilized area.  Average Purple and Gold yields were 1.5 to 2.75 lbs per plant, and the Reds averaged 3.5 lbs each.  This is about 40-60% less than the same averages from the “normal” garden, taking into account the experimental variables we were using.  This is dramatic, but still encouraging.  Two to three pounds of potatoes from a plant in native soil would be a big deal in a year of famine or emergency.  With so many of our neighbors without gardens, it would be a big help if they had this option to grow potatoes without having a couple years to cultivate the soil.

Again, the amount of sunlight and dirt mounding demonstrated a big boost to yields.  As the quality of the garden area decreases, we would recommend spacing the plants more and mounding them.  Of course, fertilizing and other factors will also have dramatic increases to yields as the resources are found.

Also, those plants we put straw around showed much more rodent and mold damage.  Maybe we had moldy straw that also encouraged these losses- something to consider.  The amount of tree roots still in the soil also showed a negative impact – the 10 plants in this area (some of which had straw) showed about 10% fewer potatoes than adjacent ones.
The last observation from this unworked garden area was the impact that field grass and weeds had.  The plants in the areas where grass and weeds were thick (and left intentionally) still grew and produced potatoes, but were ~25% lower yields than the other plants in this area.  These plants put out 0.5 to 1.5lbs each, depending on other factors (mounding, straw, etc.).  Even the kids could see the value at harvest from weeding during the season.

The results from our final area of study – the real Guerrilla arden of the mountains, was disappointing.  We had hoped to hide our little seed potatoes in the waysides and remote mountains, then later in the year find a bounty to meet out need if we ever had to flee to the hills.  But any data is valuable data, and we had fun.  None of these plants produced more than a few small potatoes, of just an ounce or two.  Each plant had a potato though!

First, we learned how tough and aggressive the native grasses and blackberries are compared to our gentile, domesticated potatoes.  The native plants shot up, took all the sunlight, and in many cases buried our poor potatoes to flounder in their shadows.  Without human help to fight off the competition, the potatoes won’t have a chance.

Next, we saw the importance of marking or mapping our plants – we were unable to find many of them!  We tried to use rocks, logs, or natural markers to help us find our plants but on return trips our success rate was low – we found less than half of the plants by the end of the year.  It is truly a jungle out there!  When the plants were green and growing they were easier to locate and identify.  In September they were shriveled enough to make it hard to find them, and more difficult to positively ID them.

That tire we tried on one of the plants?  Well, someone needed it more than we did – it just up and disappeared, and we couldn’t locate the plant it was marking.
Elk do seem to like to nibble potatoes, though they didn’t completely eat them gone.  Turns out we planted some of our potatoes on the hillside where 4-6 elk regularly bed down (we confirmed the beds several times) and while they nibbled the plants, they didn’t outright eat them.  They might have been curious and then lost interest after the taste.

Our final observation on growing potatoes in the wild – no matter how “out of the way” you think you are, someone, usually on an ATV or 4 wheel drive will find your little potatoes!  We lost a patch that was way back in a ravine to at least two ATVs – they went in there and did “cookies” [turns] on top of the potatoes!  I don’t think they saw them and did it intentionally, but it made us laugh to think of how we thought we were so inconspicuous.  People really are everywhere.

Which raises a point about us trying potatoes.  We knew corn would not do well in the wild, because of wildlife but also because it is fairly recognizable.  When considering a garden for public or wild lands, it is best to chose something inconspicuous that another gardener might recognize, but not the general public.  Other than wildlife, people are the next big threat to growing in the wild.  Potatoes are both highly nutritious and inconspicuous.

For years we have been experimenting with our fruit trees, grape vines, chicken raising, and now potatoes.  Trying new things, and trying new ideas on old things adds a great spice to gardening and enriches our fun with the children.  It stimulates their creativity and natural curiosity and keeps them in the garden working longer!  It also helped us temper our thoughts that life in the mountains under difficult conditions would be simpler by growing a garden.  If hard times come, it would be better to have food cache’ed that to hope those potatoes are out there for our stew pot.  And our personal experiences have confirmed what Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet.”

This year we’ve decided to try pole beans and zucchini in our 2013 Guerrilla Gardening.  Pole beans might stand a chance in the wild if they can climb up and out of the cover, and zucchini grows like crazy in town, maybe it will have a chance.  Both have high nutritional values, and are relatively inconspicuous.  We are excited.  Our gardening experiments have been a huge success.  Many of the results were unexpected and helpful, and the time together invaluable.  What will you try in your Guerrilla Garden this year?