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Potato Growing 101

Q. Mike: My wife and I listen to you on Sirius satellite radio Sunday mornings, and we need to know how and when to plant some tasty taters. We would like to grow a couple of types - sweet, red, etc. And we've heard something about "planting" them above ground - under hay? Can that really be done? Thanks,
    ---Tom and Joan in Orange County, VA
While mixing compost into the soil early this spring, I noticed some marble sized potatoes. I planted them in a raised bed, and by mid-summer they were knee high with dark green leaves and blooming flowers. When is the best time to harvest for sweet tender 'new' potatoes?
    ---Jim in Norman OK
A. Although people say "you have to grow your own tomatoes to really know how good they can taste", the truth is that you can often get pretty good tamatas from the gardener next door who always plants way too many and from local farmer's markets. But the refrain is true for potatoes, because virtually any you can buy were picked months ago. After all, they're a storage crop.

But fresh potatoes, right out of the ground, are sweet and amazingly juicy. I always grow potatoes and always rinse and bite into the first spud of the year right out there in the garden, and the juice runs down my chin as if it were a tomato. You have never really tasted a potato until you grow your own. And doing so is ridiculously easy.

Ah, but those Sweet Potatoes mentioned by Tom & Joan are not potatoes (nor are they 'yams'; but that's a diatribe for another day). Cousins to morning glories (really!), sweet potatoes require a much longer growing season and are propagated via 'slips'; miniature plants that you coax out of the skin of an old sweet potato. They are wonderful to grow—especially down South, where you're pretty much certain to have the necessary long warm season they require—and they are highly nutritious. But they are not 'potatoes'.

Real potatoes—sometimes called 'Irish' potatoes—don't require a long season, and are much easier to grow. Although all reputable sources will insist that you must begin with certified virus-free stock, many disreputable gardeners (like me) just use whatever eating potatoes are sprouting in the potato drawer at planting time. And that planting time is as early in the Spring as you can work the soil; they are a surprisingly cold-tolerant crop.

But if you want to grow specific varieties and/or have learned to be suspicious when I veer off to the left like this, buy 'seed potatoes'; the small, whole tubers guaranteed to be free of the viruses that plague professional growers. In fact, I recommend you start with certified potatoes the first couple of seasons.

Some sources will tell you to carve up your seed potatoes into pieces that have several good eyes showing. This advice is more geared towards the cost-conscious professional grower who often can only afford to plant this way, and not to the backyard gardener fooling around in a small space. I always plant whole potatoes. I think you get a better yield from whole ones, and cut potatoes are much more subject to rot and bugs. Either way, your seed potatoes must have visible eye sprouts; if they don't, let them sit out in the sun for a few days to develop them. (And don't even think about 'coining up' your potatoes if your Spring has been cool and wet; they'll just rot in the ground.)

Most books advise planting potatoes in 'hills'. This has always mystified me, as all it does is increase the chance that sunlight will be able to strike and thus ruin the growing tubers. So forgo these mysterious hills and plant your spuds at least a foot apart, nice and deep, in the loosest soil your raised beds can offer. (The looser the soil, the more spuds you will get and the better shaped they will be.)

Shortly after planting, distinctively lush green growth will sprout up out of the soil. When it does, heavily mulch the soil all around that growth with lots of shredded leaves, straw or compost. Unlike other plants, you should run this mulch all the way to the leaves and allow it to actually touch those leaves to make sure all the soil is completely covered. Potatoes seem to love to migrate towards the surface and you must make sure those underground goodies don't poke up into the light, as any part of the tuber struck by sunlight will turn green, a visible sign of toxicity. Add mulch as needed to keep your plants well-protected throughout the entire season!

Later in that season, a pretty cluster of flowers will appear overtop the green growth. One of the coolest things about potatoes is that the colors of these flowers correspond to the colors of the tubers growing below: Pinkish flowers appear above red potatoes (one of my favorite colors to grow; they look great and are very tasty); green flowers over green and purple potatoes (which are the most interesting looking, but to me, the least tasty spuds) and white flowers overtop of white potatoes and the super-tasty, naturally buttery-flavored yellow ones, like the legendary Yukon Gold. ("Golds" are the best-tasting types you can grow, says I!)

Most sources urge you to immediately yank off those flowers to concentrate the strength of the plant into growing bigger spuds. People who propose this have no soul and should be sprayed with Miracle-Gro until they cheer up. Instead, enjoy these surprisingly pretty posies for a week and then scissor them off. And mark the date on your calendar, as those small tasty 'new potatoes' many people so treasure are typically harvested a month after the flowers appear. (Yes, I'm finally answering Jim's question!)

But I almost never do this either. (You folks sensing a pattern here?) The spuds grow fast from this point on, and you get three to four times the poundage if you're patient; although potatoes are edible at any size. (As long as you can see them and they ain't green, you can eat 'em.)

I wait until the above ground growth begins to die naturally towards the end of the season. When that happens, pull up the plants sloooowly—you'll harvest more potatoes that are still attached to the roots (and thus easier to find) this way. Then very carefully go treasure hunting for the rest, which can often be found a foot or more away (they are wascally wabbits!). Be careful—it's very easy to spear them at harvest time.

Get all of your harvest out of the sun and indoors right away. Then brush off any loose dirt from the undamaged ones, and store them in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place. Pay special attention to the 'dark' part; even room light can make them less healthy to eat. Don't wash 'em until you're ready to use 'em.

Wash and cut up the ones you so lovingly speared, shoveled or garden forked (don't feel bad; this is virtually unavoidable) and put the cleaned chunks in glass jars filled to the brim with cold water; they'll keep for weeks this way in the fridge..

And yes, to answer that final question (asked so many moons ago), the legendary Ruth Stout did indeed simply scatter her seed potatoes on top of loose soil and cover them with a couple feet of spoiled hay or straw. Ruth kept adding more mulch throughout the summer, and then harvested a nice crop right off the surface of the soil at the end of the season. Ruth was the champion of 'no work' gardening, and this is perhaps her most famous 'laziness' tip.

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