If you've been accustomed to purchasing potatoes from the grocery store, chances are you've only tasted a few common varieties. When you grow your own, there is a whole world of flavors, colors, shapes, and sizes open to you. You can grow all the new potatoes you could possibly ask for, or grow good-keeping potatoes to store for the winter. And the good news is potatoes are not much work for the gardener.
Here are some tips for growing tasty organic potatoes in your garden.
Select the Right Planting Site
Potatoes should be grown in an area that gets at least six hours of sun per day in soil that is of average fertility and well-drained. Heavy clay soils make it difficult for full-size tubers to form. The planting site should also be a spot in which you have not grown potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, or eggplants for the past two years to prevent transmission of soil-borne diseases.
Give Your Potatoes a Healthy Start
Plant early season varieties once soil temperatures have consistently reached 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Mid- and late season varieties can be planted one to four weeks before your last spring frost.
You should only plant certified disease-free seed potatoes, which are available in garden centers, nurseries, and catalogs.
For an extra early start on your early potatoes, you'll want to "chit" them. This simply means laying your tubers eye side up in a box in a cool, dry place for one to two weeks until the eyes sprout. You do not need to chit mid- and late season potatoes; simply plant the tubers whenever you're ready.
Small seed potatoes can be planted whole. Those larger than a chicken egg can be cut, so there are one to three eyes per piece (though this isn't essential). Just make sure that you let the cut seed potatoes sit out for at least 24 hours before planting, so the cut sides callous over and won't rot.
There are several methods for planting potatoes:
- Planting in trenches: Dig a trench 6 to 8 inches deep, and place potatoes 12 inches apart. Cover with 4 inches of soil.
- Planting in individual planting holes: Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and wide, place a potato in the hole, and cover it with 4 inches of soil.
- In containers, such as barrels, trash cans, or wire enclosures: Place 6 inches of soil in the bottom, place potatoes on top of the soil, and cover with an additional 4 inches of soil.
Care for the Potatoes
Growing potatoes is very simple. They require 1 inch of water per week. And if you've amended your soil with compost, they won't require fertilizer. If you haven't been amending the soil with compost or other organic matter, you can mix a balanced organic fertilizer into the soil at planting time, following label instructions.
In addition to keeping the area watered and weed-free, you'll need to hill your potatoes regularly. Hilling ensures that the forming tubers stay underground and don't turn green. (Green potatoes are poisonous.) When the foliage of your potatoes is 12 inches tall, add either soil or straw to the top of the trench or hole, leaving 3 to 4 inches of foliage exposed. You'll want to do this every couple of weeks, being sure to leave the top few inches of foliage exposed each time.
Watch Out for Pests and Diseases
Common pests and diseases for potatoes include:
- Colorado potato beetle: Handpick beetles, larvae, and eggs from plants.
- Flea beetles: Keep the area weed-free, so you don't provide cover for flea beetles. Spray infested plants with insecticidal soap.
- Leafhoppers: Blast them with water from the hose.
- Aphids: Blast them off the plants with a strong spray of water.
- Scab: Practice crop rotation to avoid transmission, or plant resistant varieties (e.g., 'Norland', 'Chieftain', and 'Russet Burbank').
- Late blight: Practice crop rotation, and clean up the previous season's foliage and tubers. Also, plant resistant varieties (e.g., 'Sebago', 'Elba', and 'Allegheny').
If you have the pests mentioned above in your garden, it's advisable to cover your potato patch with a floating row cover to help protect them.
Know When to Harvest
New potatoes can be dug any time during the season as soon as you see blooms on the plants. If you are growing potatoes to store, let the foliage turn brown. Cut it back, and leave the potatoes in the ground for a few more weeks, being sure to harvest before you get a hard frost.
The best way to harvest potatoes is to use a digging fork and start at the outer edge of the hill or trench. Try to get the fork as deep into the soil as possible, and lift to harvest the potatoes.
You can save seed potatoes from your garden from year to year. Simply save healthy tubers in a cool, dry spot. The good thing about this is that over time you'll end up with a strain of potatoes that is particularly suited to conditions in your garden.
To store potatoes, keep them in a cold but not freezing, dark spot with some humidity. Don't wash them before storing. Let them sit out for a few days after harvesting, so any soil clinging to the tubers dries thoroughly.
One plant will typically yield between 2 and 10 pounds of potatoes.
Early season (65 days until harvest):
- Russet Norkotah
- Red Norland
- Yukon Gold
- Adirondack Red
- Adirondack Blue
- Early Rose
Midseason (80 days until harvest):
- Idaho Russet
- All Blue
- Purple Viking
- Austrian Crescent
- Red Gold
- Rose Finn Apple
- French Fingerling
- Yellow Finn
Late season (90+ days until harvest):
- German Butterball
- Purple Peruvian
- Green Mountain
- Red Thumb