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And more good news – potatoes are a relatively simple crop to grow even in small garden spaces and horrible soil. They can suffer from a number of diseases, but by taking the right steps from planting through harvest, you may end up with a root cellar full of tubers.
Potatoes are grown from “seed”. What’s confusing about potato “seed” is that they aren’t reallyseedsat all. Rather, they are potatoes grown for planting new plants.
So, if potatoes are grown from potatoes, why not just plant one from the grocery store or from last year’s harvest?
Unfortunately, potatoes that we harvest from home or even purchase from the farmer’s market may be infected with disease. These aren’t diseases that harm us when we eat, but they may become problematic in future crops. Non-organically grown potatoes, like many sold at the grocery store, may be treated with growth inhibitor agents. That means, if you plant them, most likely they will just rot in the soil. Enter the seed potato, which has been cultivated to be disease-free and left untreated with growth-stopping chemicals.
Seed potato is available from most seed suppliers and nurseries from winter through late spring. Each variety of seed produces a different variety of potato – from big bakers to creamy mashers to waxy types ideal for salads to weird-looking fingerlings perfect for roasting.
A little seed potato can go a long way. Each potato can be carved into many pieces and from each piece a plant should grow. The trick is to be sure each cutting you plant contains an “eye”. These are the little dents or nubs that sprout when you leave a potato in your cellar for too long. When planted, those sprout points (eyes) will form a new plant. If you aren’t sure about carving up your potatoes, just plant your seed potato whole.
Planting in the ground? Hoe a planting row into a small mound of loose soil. Insert your seed potato to the depth recommended on the package – usually just a few inches. Throughout the growing season, continue to hoe soil over the growing stems as the stems put on several inches of new growth. By burying the stems repetitively, you will encourage the plant to convert green growth into roots, on which the potatoes you eat will form. Never bury the stems completely; always leave a few leaf pairs above the soil level.
Planting in a pot? Plan to grow a small variety potato such as a fingerling like “Red French” or “Rose Finn Apple”. Use a larger container that gives your plant room to form lots of roots (aka potatoes). Deeper pots are better. Begin by filling the pot with only a few inches of soil. Insert a few seeds; how many will vary depending on the size of your container. Cover the seed with another few inches of soil. After the plants have put on about ten inches of green growth (or several leaf pairs), insert another few seed potatoes around the green growth and then layer on another several inches of soil. Repeat this throughout the growing season until the plants begin to flower. And, like with in-ground plantings, never completely bury the green growth.
Keep your potatoes well watered throughout the growing season, but don’t let them sit in soggy soil. Fertilize only minimally. Too much green growth may result in fewer edible tubers. Plus, potatoes often produce a great crop when they grow in less fertile soils. Monitor crops well for signs of disease like blight, which can readily pass among all nightshade crops like potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. If your crop begins to fail, remove and dispose of it immediately or you may see the disease spread rapidly and infect your garden for the longer term.
After your plants flower, the top growth should begin to dieback. As this happens, begin to reduce watering. At this point, you should be able to dig around the base of the plants and begin stealing fresh, young potatoes. And, shortly after, you may harvest the entire crop – or leave it in the soil to store until later in the season.
When you do reap the final harvest, be sure to gather all of the potatoes. Running the soil through a screen may help. By removing even the tiniest remaining potato, you reduce the risk of propagating disease in your precious soil. If your harvest comes from a pot, resist the urge to reuse this soil for any nightshade crops. Instead, re-use it for ornamentals or other plants.
Once your crop is harvested, store your potatoes in a cool, dark location away from other stored crops. To help them keep longer, dust off dried soil and sort out any damaged tubers to eat right away. If you don’t wash your stored potatoes until just before cooking, they may keep just a little longer.
Garlicky Oven-Fried Fingerlings Recipe
Ingredients: ½ pound fingerling potatoes, washed and split in half long ways (& chopped into 4-6” lengths or to fit roasting pan)
3-4 cloves unpeeled garlic
2 T olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
Directions: Preheat oven to 400F.
Place potatoes & garlic in 9”x 13” glass baking pan.
Toss with oil. Sprinkle with salt & pepper. Flip potatoes to cut side is down.
Place in oven and roast for about 18-25 minutes or until cut sides touching pan are well browned. (Note:younger potatoes may roast very rapidly.)
Remove from oven. Allow garlic to cool to touch. Squeeze garlic out of peels and toss with potatoes and oil. Serve.