Category Archives: potatoes

An Oakland Urban Farm of Ideas

I visited Rachel Kayen’s Oakland urban farm this past weekend. She and her roommates have a half acre yard in the Mills College neighborhood that’s a backyard lab of ideas. On it they have aquaponics, bees, vegetables and currently 9 chickens, 7 ducks and a turkey, with more turkeys on the way. Rachel says she’s been raising animals since she got into 4H when she was just a kid.

One idea I liked was letting a hen raise ducklings. Most domestic ducks have lost their instinct to brood, but finding a broody hen to take over the job is not hard and it’s way more interesting for everyone involved. This hen has been raising 6 ducklings since she sat on the eggs last month. The ducklings follow her around and at night she keeps them warm under her. So they may grow up confused… Read about it in detail on Rachel’s blog and see a video of a duckling hatching:  Next up, Rachel is letting another hen take over the turkey eggs.

Let your broody chicken raise the ducklings.

Let your broody chicken raise the ducklings.


A turkey egg (left) compared to a chicken egg

The 10'x10' coop was built for 10 birds with a plans found on the internet.

The 10’x10′ coop was built for 10 birds with a plans found on the internet.

Another tip is making compost the easiest way possible,  you don’t even need a bin. They have a basic “hot pile” with a dirt bottom. Start with nitrogen rich vegetable scraps in the middle (comfrey, pumpkins, squash, alfalfa are all full of nitrogen) Then add brown matter on top to insulate (dead plant matter, like leaves or hay) Add a little water now and then to help the decaying begin and each time you have more nitrogen rich vegetable matter, add it to the middle. Soon the decaying will heat up the center and you’ll have rich soil for your veggies, worms included. PS Free range chicken will do the mixing for you.

Let the chickens work your compost for you.

Let the chickens work your compost for you.

I’ve always been interested in growing potatoes and Rachel gave me some tips. When she’s ready to plant potatoes she starts by buying old organic potatoes that have “eyes” that are starting to put out shoots. Cut the potato into sections around each “eye” to plant. She grows them in these chicken wire structures that make harvesting easy and keeps the growing potatoes dry. As the shoots grow, more compost  and hay is added. When the compost and soil reaches near the top of the structure she has 80 pounds of organic potatoes! Rachel has a great blog post with more details here (scroll down)

Each of these potato planters can yield 80 pounds of  tater when full!

Each of these potato planters can yield 80 pounds of taters when full!

The aquaponics system was built by one of Rachel’s roommates who spent time in China learning aquaponics from farmers. It’s different than others I’ve seen because it has an extra pool that serves as a buffer  between the plants and fish. Fish are very sensitive to pH changes and having the extra pool helps stabilize the system. Rachel said they had strawberries all winter with their system.

The aquaponics system has an extra pool that serves as a ph buffer for the fish.

The aquaponics system has an extra pool that serves as a ph buffer for the fish.

One last tip is to fence your vegetable plots and let your chickens be free range instead of the other way around. Not everyone can do this, but if your yard is large enough the chickens won’t wander and they’ll eat your pests and fertilize as they go. Just be sure the fence around the vegetables is secure. Rachel says  lately they’ve just let the chicken roost in the trees at night. Raccoons are not a problem in their neighborhood. The big lesson from this urban farm is this. Chickens: get them working. Be sure to check out Rachel’s blog for more ideas:


Free Range Chickens

San Francisco Chronicle’s Rooftop Garden



I included two rooftop gardens in Backyard Roots and was  curious about the downtown San Francisco rooftop garden at the Chronicle ever since I heard about it.  When  the chance came up to visit it  I jumped. Editorial assistant Kim Gomes is also the gardener and she showed me around. It’s her “green sanctuary” she said, up above the hustle and bustle of the city below. It attracts a lot of birds including hummingbirds. They have two thriving hives despite the fact there is not a lot of greenery to be seen nearby. The plants get full sunlight and a lot of wind  so they are watered with a drip irrigation system ten minutes a day. Pests are few and easier to control on an isolated rooftop, although Kim says she still can’t figure out how the snails made it up there.

The garden is a place to experiment with plants and growing methods. One of the latest is a potato growing bag called a Potato Planter bag that has drainage hoes and two flaps at the bottom to retrieve the potatoes. She adds compost to the plants weekly. The potatoes grow faster in the solar warmed grow bag and the bag is a great rooftop option especially if you don’t have much space.  Harvest is easy and fast, just open the flap.

Another successful newcomer are the evergreen strawberries she’s planted this year.  They are planted in containers all over the roof, but I loved the pallet planter. She said to make the planter she simply stapled landscaping material on 5 sides and then filled with dirt.  After planting the strawberries and letting them get established she tilted the pallet up vertically. She did the same technique for a succulent garden. For step by step instructions for the pallet planter and other planter diy planter ideas check the SF Gate article she wrote here.



The Potato Planter Bag