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Growing Potatoes – It’s Hard to Mess Up

Gardeners have planted and grown potatoes a lot of ways. Over 33 years I’ve tried most of those ways.  One thing I’ll tell you for sure, and that is —- it’s pretty hard to mess up. Still, you want to get the best yield you can.

When to Plant

Ideally I like to plant by March 15th, but I let the weather determine the date.  Potatoes planted in cold damp soil in my garden just sit there and do nothing.

This year the Farmer’s Almanac calls for unseasonable mild weather in March, so I may end up getting at least an early variety planted during the first part of March after all.

(Watch for dandelions blooming all over your yard.  That will be about the right time. Another gauge is 6 weeks before the last frost.)

The mid and late season varieties I’ve ordered will probably go in at the end of March. These will insure that I have potatoes a lot longer into summer and fall.

Dark of the Moon?

I get in a hurry and don’t always remember the age old thing of planting root crops when there is no moon.  I’m going to remember it this year and try to do it.  People who plant this way say that you get a better yield and I think that’s a pretty easy way to try for increased yield.

Seed Potatoes

Make sure that whatever potatoes you get are certified disease free.  If you’ve saved your own small potatoes to use as seed potatoes just make sure that you had no disease in your potatoes last season. Otherwise, you’ll have the disease again this year.

(In case you don’t know, seed potatoes are small potatoes with visible eyes used for planting.)

Crop Rotation

Home gardens are small so it may not be as critical as with large farms, but I think it’s a good principle to only plant the same vegetable in the same soil every 3rd year.  So if you planted potatoes (or tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant that are in the same family) in a certain bed in 2010, don’t plant potatoes there again until 2013. 

Sprouting before Planting

If my potatoes arrive in time I’ll let the eyes sprout and grow a bit before I plant them.  This practice can be a real time saver and give your potatoes a jump start before they ever get into the soil.

Whole or Cut?

Years ago I use to cut my potatoes into pieces with an eye or two on each piece; let the cut flesh harden over for a day; and then plant. I found this to be totally unnecessary and get better yields when the entire seed potato is planted. (If you are using large left over potatoes you might want to cut them in half, but you don’t have to.)

Soil

I’ve grown potatoes in the fertile soil of the garden and in the average soil of a new border when I needed room.

Half row of potatoes growing in the garden.

Planting in a Garden Bed

My garden beds are about 3 feet across.  I note the center and come forward 6 inches toward the edge and then plant potatoes one foot apart in a zigzag pattern the length of the bed. I push each potato down about 5 to 7 inches into the loose soil.

After planting I cover with a little straw to protect the soil.  As the potato foliage emerges I start to mulch heavily, pulling the mulch right up to the leaves. I’ll continue this as they grow. By the time potatoes are producing, mulch will be 1 to 2 feet deep. (2 feet is preferable )

Planting Outside my Garden

I scatter the potatoes on the ground and cover with at least a foot of straw.  As the foliage emerges I continue to add straw.

These potatoes growing outside the garden in a border were just tossed on the ground and covered with straw.

What the Mulch Does

  • Potatoes form above the roots.  They migrate towards the surface as they grow. When exposed to light they turn green and are said to be toxic. Thus, you have to keep covering them with more soil (called hilling) or add mulch.  I find it easier to keep adding straw mulch.
  • A thick mulch will definitely help keep the potato beetle away. They may eventually find the potatoes but the mulch buys you time. Every week that I don’t have any beetles is a joy and gives me more time.  This is especially wonderful when I’m harvesting strawberries and blueberries and don’t want to have to spend anymore time in the garden.
  • Potatoes like consistent moisture and the mulch helps keep the moisture at moderate levels.


The Colorado Potato Beetle

When the beetle finally does find your potatoes, you’ll need to check for adults, larvae and eggs everyday and kill them.  (Wear garden gloves.)  Its easier to do this while the number is small than to let them get out of control.

Several large larvae of the beetle can defoliate the potato plant in a day.  Potatoes grow the most after bloom.  That’s when defoliation can cut your yields considerably.

Flowering

I get excited when the plants flower and try my best to wait another month before I go scrounging around for potatoes for dinner.  I usually end up allowing myself at least one or two meals with new potatoes when the bloom first starts.

And by the way, if you forget what color potatoes you planted where — their flowers correspond to the color of the tuber.  Pink flowers for red potatoes. Blue flowers for purple potatoes.  White flowers for white and yellow potatoes.

Harvest

About a month after flowering, I start harvesting for meals.  That means I’ll harvest every other day or every third day.

Uncovering treasure.

Harvest of the day.

Keep in mind that these early harvested potatoes are not fully mature and will not store well.  If you want to store potatoes – wait until they are fully mature with a skin that cannot be rubbed off.

The potatoes will be finished about two weeks after the tops die back. All can be harvested then.  I harvest only what I am going to use. The rest are left in the ground for late fall harvesting. (If I’m having problems with voles eating them, I’ll harvest earlier.)

Harvest gently to avoid damaging potatoes.  Easy with that harvest tool.  Potatoes can migrate as much as a foot away and you want to avoid spearing any if possible.  Potatoes damaged during harvest need to be used right away.

Yellow potatoes just harvested.

Let them dry and gently brush off loose dirt.  Store in a cool, dark, well ventilated place. Do NOT WASH until you’re ready to use them.

Final Words

The taste of fresh, new potatoes right out the ground, cooked that evening with a bit of butter or olive oil and a sprinkle of parsley or rosemary just can’t be beat.  It’s something you have to experience.   When you do — you’ll never want to be without them — at least once during the year.

_______

All content including pictures is copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com.  All rights are reserved.

 

14 comments to Growing Potatoes – It’s Hard to Mess Up

  • Beppy White

    That was a wonderful post. My mouth is watering.

  • Theresa

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Beppy.
    Gardening wouldn’t be right without potatoes!

    Theresa

  • Wonderful Post! Thank you!

  • Theresa

    So glad you liked it!

    Theresa

  • don

    I plan on trying potatoes this year. Thanks for the details.

  • Theresa

    Hi Don,

    Best of luck with your potatoes this year! I think you’ll really enjoy potatoes fresh from the garden. They will spoil you!

    Let me know how you do.

    Theresa

  • Sue

    Hi Theresa,

    I am reading conflicting information on the internet. If I understand you correctly, you do not coverup any leaves when you add more straw. Some sites say to cover some of the leaves. My plants are big and bushy but do not have but 2-3 inches of stem without any leaves. Do I just bring the straw up to the leaves? Thank you

  • Theresa

    Hi Sue,

    Yes, I would think you would find a lot of conflicting information on the internet.

    Two main reasons probably. Number 1 – People do things differently. Number 2 – A lot of people who write articles have absolutely no experience in doing what they are writing about.

    After looking at the pictures with my article I can see why you thought the leaves would not be covered. Actually the answer is two fold – for me anyway.

    My potatoes are growing like crazy (as you said -big and bushy) and I’m still trying to pile straw on. No heavy matted straw, but very loose straw. I apply it even on top of the leaves, but by the next day they’re up 6 more inches!

    Then there comes a point that enough is enough and they’re so bushy and big they’re just not going to stay covered. I do keep putting straw all around them wherever I can.

    Hope this answers your question. If not, feel free to let me know and I’ll try for even more detail.

    I’ll ask Bill to take a picture of my potatoes as they are right now and email it to you.

    Thanks for the question Sue. It’s an important addendum to the article.

    Theresa

  • Aparna

    I came across your site searching for why my cucumber plants were wilting mid-afternoon and whether I should water them.

    I have not stopped reading your posts since then. Very addictive for a newbie like me.
    I like your plant philosophy and practical no-nonsense tips.

    Very informative and will be my go-to site for my gardening needs.

    This year just for fun my girls and I grew potatoes in containers.
    Oh what joy it gave us digging up the tubers. They were promptly cooked with some olive oil, garlic and salt.

    Thanks for the wonderful posts.

  • Theresa

    Thank YOU Aparna for the wonderful comment. I am extremely pleased that you find TMG addictive and hope you will get lots of enjoyment and information from it.
    And yes, nothing more exciting than taking new potatoes out of the ground. They are so delicious!
    How old are your girls? What state are you in?
    Nice to have you as a reader. (I hope you will subscribe so you won’t miss anything.)If I can be of more help, let me know
    Theresa

  • Aparna

    Theresa,
    How wonderful to hear back from you!
    I am in CA. My girls are 10 and 5.

    With the fall season coming up, I getting ready to plant cool season veggies. But ofcourse after reading your posts, I’m working on building up my soil.

  • Theresa

    Thanks for replying to my questions Aparna. 10 and 5 are great ages. I’m so glad that you’re making the girls “a part” of things in the garden. We all know things like that are so important to us all as we’re growing and they tend to stick with us through life.

    So many people (in this country especially) have no idea about where there food comes from or how things are grown. You are giving the girls invaluable information and by making it fun for them — it will really stick.

    Keep up the good work Aparna. Moms like you are this country’s hope.

    And keep working on your soil. It’s the best thing you can do for your garden!
    Thinking of you and the girls.
    Theresa

  • Heather

    I’m growing potatoes for the first time this year and harvested my first batch a few days ago. Mmmm!!!

    But, I didn’t get as many as I had expected. Re-reading this post I see something I missed before: “Potatoes form above the roots. They migrate towards the surface as they grow.”

    I guess this explains why, when I dug down in the soil for them, (12″ or so), I only found 6 or so medium potatoes per plant plus some still small ones, all not far below the surface of the soil. I was expecting to find lots of them down deep, thinking (apparently mistakenly) that as the roots grew deeper, potatoes would form at deeper and deeper levels.

    I did mulch with pine straw, but I guess not nearly enough (about 8″). Like another reader, I also thought I was only to mulch the bare stem part and not cover up any leaves. Next year I will try continuing to mulch as they grow until the mulch is at least 2 feet deep. I assume this would get more potatoes, is that right?

    Thank you Theresa!!

  • Theresa

    Hi Heather,
    Regarding – “I assume this (deep mulching) would get more potatoes, is that right?”
    You can’t attribute a bumper crop of potatoes to just deep mulching.
    Deep mulching is a great thing — but bumper crops come from many variables like: the variety of potatoes, how good the soil is, and when the potatoes are planted, and how long they grow.
    Theresa

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