Growing Potatoes

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Growing Potatoes

The approach of March 17 may have had you filled with anticipation.

After all, what's not to love about St. Patrick's Day? Maybe you revel in pinching party-poopers who don't wear green or you eat sugar cookies with lots of sweet green frosting or you tease your kids about leprechauns and pots o' gold at the end of the rainbow. In our house, we get excited, too, but not so much over the holiday of March 17. March 17 is the day those of us who enjoy gardening in our part of the country put our potatoes in the ground! I know. For most people that doesn't hold a candle to a sugar cookie with lots of sweet green frosting. For a gardener though, it is marks the beginning of the season of getting our hands dirty. Lettuce and spinach and radish seeds may have been sprinkled in the dirt before now but March 17 is when the actual digging and the dirt-under-your nails commence.

I've grown potatoes sporadically in the past, usually because my husband suggested it. Planting potatoes on St. Patrick's Day was just a tradition I was attempting to be faithful to. Last year was the first year I had any real success. The potato beetles didn't win. The blight didn't win. For the first time, I did! We really enjoyed our harvest so I decided to take this potato growing thing a little more seriously this year. I actually did some research rather than just go with the standard procedures I've heard from family and friends over the years. These were:

1. Cut your seed potatoes into chunks with 2 eyes.

2. Let them dry.

3. Bury them in the ground on March 17.

As I researched, something I consistently read was to only buy certified seed potatoes. Basically this means the potatoes were handled in a way that assures they are (or should be) disease free. With a sack of potatoes from the grocery store, you don't have the guarantee. Also, potatoes from the grocery store may have been sprayed with sprout inhibitors. No (or few) sprouts means no (or few) potatoes. There is more to certification of seed potatoes than these two points. If you are interested in knowing more, an internet search should give you what you need. For now, I'm content with the layman's understanding.

While I'm not one who feels the need to be an expert on seed potatoes, I am one who always challenges the validity of what I read on labels. Just because the container of potatoes had Certified Seed Potatoes printed on it, I didn't just trust that they were GOOD potatoes. I had read that you want to use young seed potatoes, not old ones. Well how in the world do you tell if a potato is old or young? Do old ones have more wrinkles? Do their sprouts turn grey? It turns out there are physical characteristics you can look for to help you determine if you have new or old potatoes.

potatoes 2

Fortunately the certified potatoes I bought from our Farmer's Exchange are young seed potatoes. I know this because the sprouts are all coming out of one end. Middle aged potatoes will sprout over the entire surface of the potato. I guess that's like middle age spread for potatoes! Senior citizen potatoes grow thinner hairy sprouts (versus the thicker sprouts of a young potato) over the entire surface. Really old potatoes will grow small tubers on their sprouts.

Once you've chosen your potatoes you want to "chit" them. They should be set out in a warm (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit), well-lit place for a couple of weeks and allowed to sprout. The potatoes in the above photo have been chitted. Anywhere from 2 days to a week prior to your planting date the potatoes need to be cut into smaller pieces and allowed to dry.

Cutting the potatoes into smaller pieces was something that I didn't fully understand in the past and I now realize this is where my problems originated. I understood that cutting them into smaller pieces, with at least 2 eyes per piece, gave you more plants than planting the whole potato but following this advice, I always ended up with a lot of pieces that molded or didn't grow once I planted them. I read that ideally the pieces should weigh around 1.75 ounces each. Fortunately this also happens to measure out to the size of a small egg so you don't need to weigh them.

potatoes 3

Another tip I read was to cut the potato pieces into blocks, not slivers or slabs. The potato is the plant's source of nutrition in the beginning so there needs to be some substance to it. My potato pieces in the past? Lots of slivers and slabs. I was trying to get too many plants out of a potato and cutting the pieces too small. If small enough, the potato doesn't need to be cut at all.
After cutting the potatoes, the pieces are left out to dry and form a skin on the cut edges. The skin will help prevent the potato from rotting once planted. The potatoes are tender from this point on and need to be handled gently to avoid bruising or damaging the exposed flesh.

There are many options when planting your potatoes ranging from planting them in rows in the ground to using soil-filled containers to not even using soil at all and instead using straw. Even more options come into play when you consider the type of containment you will use. You can choose no containment by using the ground, recycling by using old tires, easy care by using raised beds, or convenience by using trash bags.

While I read that potatoes will grow pretty much anywhere, including in a pile of straw, my research left me feeling that using well-amended soil will give me the best yield. My container of choice is some old tractor tires we were looking to dispose of. The use of tires is controversial as some people believe they may release toxins into the soil so if this is of concern to you, you might want to choose an alternative.

On to the down-and-dirty of soil for potatoes. The soil needs to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the potato plants to begin growing. Too much nitrogen will concentrate growth on the plant, not the growth of potatoes. A soil on the acidic side (a pH of 4.8-5.4) will help prevent the potatoes from developing scab. Scab is harmless for consumption but really (really) unappealing. I didn't even show you how unappetizing it looks but just hearing the name scab, I know you're already losing your appetite!

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We grow our vegetables in raised beds filled with soil we create using mostly well-composted cow and rabbit manures. Since manures raise the pH of soil making it less acidic, I would probably benefit from amending my soil. Changing the pH of soil does not happen quickly by sprinkling a little of this or a little of that on it so this is something I will have to plan for in the future. In the meantime, we have taken soil samples in for testing, something we do every 5 years or so, and have applied sulfur to the surface of the soil to feed the plants acid.

When planting potatoes in rows, to allow adequate air circulation and light for the plants, the rows should be 30 inches apart. Begin by digging a narrow trench that is 6-8 inches deep. Place the chitted potato pieces, sprout side up, in the trench. They should be spaced 15 inches apart. Fill the trench about half way. When the potato plant has grown to around 8 inches tall, fill the trench in and begin forming a hill of soil around the plant. One half of the plant should now be covered by soil. The plants should be hilled two more times when the plant has grown to about 8 inches above the soil, again covering one half of the plant stem. Hilling will increase your yield as potatoes will now also form from the part of the plant you have buried. After the third hilling it may be necessary to periodically add soil to the hill to keep the growing potatoes covered.

potatoes 5

When planting potatoes in containers, use the same guidelines as row planting replacing the trenches with holes dug and spaced accordingly to accommodate your container size and shape.
From here, the care of potatoes is minimal. As the plants mature and temperatures rise, the plants' water needs will increase. Keep them well watered, especially when they are blooming, but avoid water-logging the soil. To reduce the risk of plant diseases, try to keep the foliage as dry as possible.

Other than consistent watering and watching for and quickly removing pests such as potato beetles, aphids, and flea beetles, care of potato plants is minimal. Unfortunately, fungal diseases are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to fight. Keep your plants watered, as dry as possible, and free of pests to give them the best chance for survival.

After the plants have finished blooming, they will soon begin to turn yellow and die back. Once the plants have died, you can begin harvesting your potatoes. Of course, if you like new potatoes there is nothing wrong with harvesting some earlier as well. The amount of time from planting to harvesting mature potatoes depends on the variety you plant. Harvested potatoes should be laid out to dry for a few days to allow the skin to toughen up.

If long-term storage is your plan, the potatoes should be left in the ground for a few weeks after the plants die back to allow them to fully mature. Potatoes should be stored with good air circulation in a dark location at around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooler the better. Last year, this method left us with a couple of months of stored potatoes. This year, to simplify things, I plan to try the method of leaving my potatoes in the ground and harvesting them as I need them. It may not be a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow but unlike this old fable, because still harvesting from my garden during the winter months is actually possible, I'll spend my pot-o'-gold searching time nurturing my potato plants!