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Growing Potatoes 101: Preparing to Plant Potatoes

 Recently, I dropped by our local nursery to pick up a few additional items that we needed to have. One of those items was another five pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes.

While we were sorting through the ‘taters, an older couple was there looking to get some as well and asked us if we’d ever grown them. I was actually pretty shocked, after we said “yes, many times.” When they asked us, “what are tubers?” (The sign on the display referenced tubers) I guess I shouldn’t be… shocked that is… but I was. I guess our disconnect from our food has been going on longer than I had imagined. We talked to then for a little while, giving them a basic primer in potato growing 101, and went our separate ways. It got me to thinking that this may be a really good time to go over some of the basics of growing potatoes. I Usually have my potatoes in the ground around St Patrick’s Day, but this year it’s been so rainy and wet – locally our watershed levels are averaging around 160%-170% of our normal level – that I haven’t been able to get them into the ground. I probably could have squeezed them in at some point, but I think I would have suffered from a lot of rot if I had.

First of all, the potatoes themselves are the tubers; and tubers are “…various types of modified plant structures that are enlarged to store nutrients. They are used by plants to survive the winter or dry months and provide energy and nutrients for regrowth during the next growing season…” (wikipedia). Just needed to get that straight from the start.

Potatoes are plants in the Solanaceae family. That makes them cousins with plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. If you think about the way that those plants bear fruit, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the way that potatoes bear their tubers as well. Many folks think that potatoes grow from the roots of the plant, an understandable thing considering the photo above, it does look like they’ve grown from the roots, But take a look at this photo:

You can see the seed potato that was placed in the ground and can clearly see that the small potatoes are growing from the stem ABOVE the planted potato. Think again about tomatoes … if you pay attention to them they actually grow from a small stem that grows from the main stem. Potatoes are the same, except that they only grow on the stem that is underground. Because of that, they are planted a little differently

This might look a lot like how you would lay out any other plant before putting it in the ground. The difference here is that I’m not going to plant them into the hills, but rather will bury them a couple of inches under the soil at the bottom of the furrows. I lay the potatoes out so I know how many I can fit in a row, then dig them in and leave them alone. Potatoes don’t need to be watered in because the tuber itself is mostly water itself and is designed by mother nature to support this plant as it gets itself established. I let my potatoes grow until they are nearly a foot tall before I ever irrigate them. The spring rains take care of that for me. After the potato plants have grown up enough to be five or six inches above the ground, I will then rake or hoe the soil from the hills over and onto the plant itself. After this, I let the plant grow further. When it’s another five or six inches above ground level again, I will hoe the soil up onto the plant again leaving furrows between the plants that I will flood irrigate once or twice a week.

As the weather turns hotter and the plants are getting taller, I want to keep mounding over the plants as much as possible, and mulching to keep the moisture level steady and weeds down. Grass clippings work great for this. The reason, in case you were wondering, why I keep mounding soil and mulch over the plants is because, as I said, the actual potatoes grow from the stems above the seed potato, but only where it’s covered. I want to make sure that there’s as much stem underground as possible when the potatoes are growing. So, the long and the short of it is that with a little understanding about the way that potatoes grow and some of the ways that you can coax them along and get great returns for yourself.

Best of luck with your tater growing!

Paul~

9 Things I've Learned About Growing Potatoes

1. You know what’s really gross? I mean a real buzz-kill, garden turn-off? Digging potatoes – all happy, clawing into the hill of dirt, all full of yourself like you’re about to pull out gold – and then you sink your fingers up to the knuckle in a mushy, gelatinous rotten potato. And I mean soft like pudding. Ugh.

Seriously, that is just gross. And I ought to know. I’ve done it this week at least half a dozen times.

I suspect that this is a result of the few days a week or so that water from the sprinkler was hitting the potato patch, before I finally moved it, because I know that you’re not supposed to water potatoes, particularly. Then again, I know a lot of things from reading that somehow don’t ever really hit home until I do the wrong thing in spite of what I know. That’s when I really get the picture. 

2. Take a few days ago. Potatoes again. Why do all the Yukon Gold potatoes that I dig up have pink eyes? What is that, rot? Fungus? Disease? Oh my gosh, all my plants are diseased. I’m going to have to throw all of these potatoes away. I feel so stupid!

Google: “pink spots on Yukon Gold potatoes”.

Turns out this is a normal feature of the Yukon Gold. The potatoes are fine. Whew!

3. Last year I learned all about solanine after harvesting green banana fingerlings, and now I’m a solanine expert. I make doggone sure no light can get to those potatoes. I know that apparently you’d have to eat like 5 pounds of green potatoes before you’d really get sick from it. Basically I know my way around one more thing that’s probably not going to kill me.

4. I know that Red Caribe potatoes, which are classified as early – 65 days to maturity – really are early. I know that next year I’m not planting all my potatoes on April 7th. I’m going to do some plants on April 7th, and some on May 7th, and some on June 7th, with the June potatoes being those I mean to keep for storage. And I don’t think I’m going to go with Yukon Gold, either. I’m going to look for something big and thick-skinned and hearty, like a russet.

All of my potato plants have already died back, and I’ve been harvesting potatoes like crazy, and now I’m done.

It’s not even July! Definitely poor planning on my part. It’s unlikely that I’ll have potatoes through the winter. But hey, I’ve got more potatoes than last year, and as long as we eat them all before they go bad, then that’s one for the win-some column, right?

5. I learned that potatoes need to be cured for about 10 days with humidity in a moderate (about 65 degrees or so) temperature before being put away for storage, ideally at something like 45 degrees. I learned that in the living room floor, behind the wood burning stove, in front of the air conditioning vent in the floor is currently the best place in the house for curing my potatoes. It’s 69 down there. That’s the coolest temperature I’m probably going to find inside. Close enough. They’re in cardboard boxes, with a damp towel draped over them for humidity.

6. I told you in my last post that I learned that ladybugs eat potato bug larvae.

7. And now that all of my potatoes are out of the ground, I’ve learned that once the potatoes are all up, you’re left with an area with relatively few weeds. Between the compulsive hilling (over-hilling as it turns out) and covering the hills with straw so that no light can possibly touch a potato, no weeds really grew in that area.

So I have three empty patches in my garden now, and rather than let them be surrendered to weeds like 2/3 of the rest of my garden, which quite frankly is a weed nightmare right now, I’m going to be proactive. One of these areas is going to get onions (planting fall 2010); one garlic (planting fall 2010) and one squash (spring 2011) for the next crop, so I want to make sure they’ll be ready. Which brings me to something else that I’ve learned recently. I mean, I knew it, but lately it’s really started to sink in.

8. Driving twenty minutes each way down the road and back for one or two bales of straw at a time is a pain in the butt. It’s just too time and labor intensive. My local nursery delivers, so I’ve decided to get serious.

I called them today and placed an order over the phone. They’re bringing me ten bales of straw and a bunch of compost. The compost will go into the empty potato beds, which will then receive a heavy layer of straw, to keep them weed-free until I need to plant them again.

The remainder of those bales of straw are going to be used around the garden to combat this weed infestation. Grass, mostly. That’s one more thing I’ve learned over the past few years, although it doesn’t have much to do with potatoes particularly.

9. A really thick layer of straw WILL keep any grass or weeds from growing. So I’m going straw-out.

Bring it on.

Published on Jun 30, 2010

Grit Magazine

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