Planting potatoes is one of the most enjoyable events of spring. Because potatoes can take up lots of space and are relatively inexpensive to buy at the market, homegrown potatoes are not as popular as they could be. Cut into a just-dug potato and you’ll hear a resounding crack as, bursting with juice, the tuber splits open. The taste is incredible. If you’ve never grown potatoes, set aside a small patch — you needn’t plant a whole field — and give them a try.
Potatoes prefer cool weather and can be planted two weeks before the last spring frost.
Rather than seeds, you plant chunks of potato. At the garden centers, these are available as pre-cut chunks or as whole potatoes. If you are buying your potato starts, be sure to purchase certified disease-free “seed potatoes” rather than using those potatoes from the grocery store. If you have grown potatoes before, you can use any leftover potatoes as your “seeds” this year, provided your plants had no disease last season.
If you are starting with whole potatoes, you will want to cut them down to size. The day before you plan to set them in the ground, cut the whole potatoes into chunks, each piece containing at least two eyes and weighing a couple of ounces. Let these pieces air-dry overnight to help seal the just-cut edges. This air-drying supposedly helps keep disease at bay, but if you’re in a rush, you can skip that step.
Potatoes prefer loose, well-drained soil and full sunshine. This sort of soil texture also makes planting and harvesting the spuds easier on the gardener. Contrary to what might be expected, the potatoes do not form on or below the roots of the plant, but instead, they develop from the stem that sits between the buried potato and the above-ground plant. Therefore, the deeper you plant, the more room there is for potatoes to form. Generally, you want to plant 4 to 6 inches underground.
Once the green plant emerges, you start “hilling” soil around this growth, scraping garden soil from the paths to raise the soil level around the plant, thus adding more depth in which the spuds will grow. Instead of hilling my potato rows, I prefer mulching. The mulch provides the same benefits as hilling, but is easier. Mulch also helps keep the soil cool and moist and helps prevent weeds. Within a week or two of planting, I spread a 6-inch layer of well-fluffed, loose hay or straw over the entire bed. As more potatoes grow, they rise up to soil level and can turn green. Green potatoes taste nasty so be sure to check your rows periodically, topping up with additional hilling or mulch as needed.
As flowers appear on the plants, I like to gently dig around with my hands, feeling for those first baby spuds for a special treat. For fresh eating, potatoes can be dug throughout the season, although you’ll get your best harvest if you wait for several weeks after the flowers appear.
For storage, harvest your tubers at least a few weeks after the foliage has died back. This waiting period allows the skins to thicken for better storage. Potatoes will keep through most of the winter if kept in the dark at 40 to 45 degrees. Potatoes can be left in the ground until fall’s freezing weather arrives, but they will continue to be threatened by the sun’s rays so make sure none of them get exposed.
The Colorado potato beetle can be a real problem, but walking the patch every day or two, pinching off the orange larvae will solve that problem.
Beverly Carneycan be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.