Gardening Topic for May 2010
A Tale of Two Potatoes

Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
www.wmassmastergardeners.org.

By Margaret Larson,
Master Gardener


 


 

Last year, I decided to grow potatoes for the first time. Previously, I dismissed potatoes as garden space hogs that I could easily get at the grocery store. But then my family fell in love with the small, more exotic potatoes that are delicious but can be difficult to find at the grocery store and expensive to buy at the farmer’s market.

I started with Russian Banana Fingerlings, and All Blue (which are actually a deep purple color that fades only slightly when cooked). Potatoes are grown not from seed, but from small seed potatoes, which can be purchased from many seed sources or companies that specialize in potatoes. These are generally shipped in early to mid-May, so now is a good time to place your order. It’s also possible to use potatoes purchased from a store, but they should be organic and local to avoid the chemicals that retard sprouting; this time, you want your potatoes to sprout!

You’ll want to find a space in your garden where you haven’t recently grown anything in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant. Potatoes belong in this family and are subject to the same diseases and insect problems, so they must be rotated accordingly. Potatoes prefer soil with a pH between 5 and 5.7, since they will often develop scab (i.e. hard spots) if exposed to a much higher level, but I grew mine at 6-ish and didn’t have any problems.

Note: in case you’re wondering, sweet potatoes aren’t a member of the potato family. They are actually a member of the morning glory family and have altogether different planting requirements and growth habits. I grew these too, for the first time, but that’s a topic for another day!

Because this was an experimental crop, I started with a raised bed only 6’ x 3’ and prepared it by digging a trench about 8” deep. In late May, I planted my seed potatoes approximately 6” apart, staggered slightly in the bed to take advantage of the full 3’ width. I tend to plant very intensively, which makes smaller potatoes a good choice; if you like larger potatoes, they should be planted about 12” - 15” apart. My seed potatoes were so small that I didn’t need to cut them, but larger varieties can be cut into small chunks with at least 2-3 eyes apiece. Do this a few days before planting so the cut edges harden and you reduce the chance of rotting. Of course, you can also plant your seed potatoes right into the ground or even in containers.

I covered the seed potatoes with an inch of soil and then waited. When the potatoes sprouted and the growth reached about three inches, I “hilled up” a mixture of compost and composted leaves around the stems, leaving an inch of growth at the top. I repeated this every so often as the plants grew until they started flowering (the blue ones have a lovely purple flower). This process allows the plant to produce potatoes all along its stem while preventing light from reaching the potatoes, since exposure to light causes solanine, a poisonous compound, to develop just under the skin.

Once the new growth slows a bit, you can begin harvesting baby potatoes. It’s perfectly fine to use regular soil for the “hilling up” process, but I found that the fluffier compost/leaves concoction made it very easy for me and my young son to find and harvest the little treasures. Plus, the compost gently feeds the plants so I don't have to apply any fertilizer.

The late blight that decimated many tomato crops last year can also affect potatoes. I was lucky in that the blight never made it to my yard, but if it had, I could have cut off any infected potato foliage immediately and likely saved the crop.

Once the leaves have died back in August or so, your potatoes are completely mature and ready to be harvested. You can leave them in the ground for a few weeks or harvest and put them into a cool space for storage. My family simply ate them as we harvested them; our final tally was about 100 potatoes (of varying sizes) from 12 plants. Not too shabby for an investment of about $15.

This year, I’m expanding our potato crop to include a small red variety and Yukon Gold and we’ll be growing them in raised beds and containers. I purchased some black fabric containers made specifically for potatoes, but I’m sure other containers would work just as well. We’re looking forward to another great growing season!

 

 

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Provided by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
www.wmassmastergardeners.org