2012 Harvest

2012 Harvest

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Planting and Growing Potatoes

If there is one vegetable in our garden our family can't do without, it's potatoes. Not unlike many other Americans, we love our potatoes. While I believe every home gardener should be able to grow potatoes, I would not consider them to be as easy as many other vegetables. The process of planting potatoes generally takes more time than most vegetables and they require a good deal of organic matter or fertilizer to be successful, not to mention dealing with the Colorado Potato Beetle.

We had a great harvest of potatoes last year and were fortunate enough to have about 15 pounds of potatoes left over for replanting this year. Our storage conditions were nowhere near perfect and by springtime the potatoes were quite shriveled and were probably no longer suitable for eating. This was our first time using potatoes from the previous year, so we decided to only plant 2 rows using our own potatoes and purchased certified seed potatoes from Tractor Supply for another 6 rows. If all goes well this year with the 2 rows we saved, we'll certainly try using all of our own next year.

Preparing the Spuds


Unlike most vegetables, potatoes are generally not grown from actual seeds. Instead, new plants are grown from potato sprouts. If you've ever had a bag of potatoes in your cupboard for too long, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. When stored in warmer conditions, potatoes will shoot sprouts out of what is considered the "eyes" of potatoes. These sprouts are actually the beginnings of a new potato plant.

Although many store bought potatoes will sprout over time, it is not recommended to plant those potatoes as some producers spray the potatoes with a growth inhibitor to slow the growth of those sprouts. However, I did plant two store bought potatoes last year and saw no difference in yield or quality. I imagine I just lucked out with planting a brand that did not receive that treatment.


Potatoes can be planted whole, or if they are sprouting in multiple locations they can be cut into two or three pieces. Each spud should have at least one healthy looking eye with some sign of sprouting. Most of our spuds had long sprouts, but as long as there is evidence of sprouting the potato spud should do fine. Potato spuds that have been cut should be cured for at least a day or two for the flesh to scab over a bit. This helps prevent the potato from rotting when planted.

Preparing the Soil

Planting potatoes requires more work than your typical garden vegetable. The first step and one of the most important steps is to fertilize the garden with manure. Horse manure is probably the most likely choice as it is more nutrient rich than Cow manure and is more readily available than other types of manures. At the end of the day though, any manure will be extremely beneficial to growing potatoes. Fresh manure should be avoided if possible, but if not, then simply apply to the garden a few weeks in advance. If manure is not an option, a granulated fertilizer will do just fine. It's best to use a fertilizer high in Potassium and Phosphorus.

Planting the Spuds


To plant the spuds, first dig a trench about 3-5" deep and about 6" wide. Place the spuds about 1 foot apart with the sprouts facing upwards and cover with the original soil. As an optional step, adding a bit of seedless straw and leaf compost before covering with the original soil may provide some addition benefits to the potatoes. Rows should be spaced around 3 feet apart to allow for future hilling and harvesting.


8 Rows of Potatoes

Maintenance and Growth

Hilling the Potatoes
Potatoes will take several weeks before popping through the soil. Once the plants reach around 6-8" inches tall, another 4-6" of soil should be added to the base of the plants. This provides some additional soil in which the potatoes will grow. We accomplish this by using the soil in between our rows.

Hilled Potatoes
Potatoes after Hilling

Dealing with Colorado Potato Beetles
One of the most frustrating aspects of growing potatoes is dealing with the Colorado Potato Beetle. These little pests seem to show up regardless of whether or not potatoes have ever been grown in close proximity in past years. If left unchecked, these pests can wipe out a potato field in a few days. The beetle itself seems to do very little noticeable damage to the plants, rather, the beetles lay yellow egg sacks under the leafs. Those egg sacks hatch into larvae that feed on the leaves and stems of potato plants. It seems one small egg sack can produce hundreds of larvae.

Colorado Potato Beetle
Colorado Potato Beetle Larvae

We approach this problem in two ways. First, the best way to avoid damage to your potato plants is to physically remove the Colorado Potato Beetles as soon as they begin to appear. Once the plants reach 4", I would begin checking for Beetles regularly. This does require a considerable amount of time, but the initial effort early on will likely prevent a larger problem later on. In our experience, the Beetles will still somehow find a way to survive and inevitably larvae will begin showing up exponentially. They should be removed and killed as often as possible.

The second option is to use a pesticide. While we like to avoid the use of chemicals as much as possible, I am not opposed to using pesticides if it protects my crop in a way I am unable to do so. If time is an issue or the pests seem to be outpacing your efforts, I would suggest using Seven Garden Insect Killer. This product comes in a powder or spray form and should kill the Colorado Potato Beetles and their larvae within minutes of contact. Unfortunately this product is not a fix all, as it may need to be reapplied after a few weeks or after a heavy rain.

Potatoes after 2 Months
Harvesting Potatoes

After all the hard work and effort potatoes require, there is something very special and rewarding about harvesting your own potatoes. Baby Potatoes can be harvested once the plants have flowered, but we prefer waiting until the potatoes are finished growing and the tubers have reached their maximum size. The best way to ensure that the tubers are full grown is to wait to harvest the potatoes until the plants have all turned brown.

Harvest the potatoes by digging an inch or two beyond the base of the potato mound and carefully overturning the dirt. This should expose the potatoes, which should be handled carefully to avoid damage to the skin. The potatoes should then be left out to cure for a day or two so the skin has a chance to harden.

Storage

One of the most attractive features to growing potatoes, is there storage capabilities. With proper storage conditions certain varieties can be stored for 6-9 months without any spoilage. It's best not to wash potatoes prior to storing, as washing them increases the chance of damaging the skin which would drastically shorten the storage life. The ideal storage condition for potatoes is a cool, dark place, with relative high humidity and good air circulation. To be more precise, storage temperatures should be around 45 degrees Fahrenheit with about 95% humidity. Basements or cold cellars are probably the best option for most people. Exposure to light can cause some potatoes to turn green, which should not be eaten as they contain a toxin called solanine.