Easy Gardening – Potatoes

Potato PatchWhen growing anything, my ideal plant is one that can be put into the dirt and ignored until I want something from the plant.  When growing vegetables, potatoes are close to perfect.  It can be as easy as putting them in some dirt, then ignoring them until 2-5 months later when you want to eat potatoes.

Many people say that soil should be mounded up around potato plants.  This is called “hilling” and there are tools to make the job easier (which means it’s lots of work).  I’m partial to gardening methods that require the least amount of effort while yielding maximum results.  Carefully hilling extra dirt around my potato plants every week does not fall into the “least amount of work” category.  Fortunately, potatoes are much easier to grow than all the effort required to build a small mountain around every potato plant.

Growing Potatoes
First, realize that not all potato plants grow the same way:

  • determinate – grow in one layer, so there is no point in mounding soil around the plants; usually produce an early crop (70-90 days)
  • indeterminate – can produce multiple layers, so hilling soil around plants can significantly increase the yield; usually produce a late crop (110-135 days)

Early (determinate) potatoes can be sown about 4″ deep in very loose soil.  After the plant emerges, mulching heavily will help inhibit weeds and will protect the potato tubers from being exposed to sunlight.  Sunlight causes potatoes to turn green and toxic, so mulching is important.

Late (indeterminate) potatoes are good candidates for growing in potato towers/boxes.  The best plans I’ve seen for building a potato box are here.  Put soil down and toss in potatoes; cover with 4″ loose dirt.  When the plants are about six inches high, add three inches of soil or straw or hay or dry leaves (potatoes aren’t picky), leaving part of the plant exposed.  As the potato plant grows, continue adding new layers of soil/straw/leaves; new tubers will grow at every level that soil is added. Note that boxes are not necessary for late potatoes; these spuds can be grown in traditional rows, but you use more space to grow fewer potatoes so it makes sense to grow them in towers.

Fingerling potatoes are determinate, regardless of how many days it takes them to mature.

Harvesting
Unlike beans and zucchini that can get too big and tough if not harvested at exactly the right time, potatoes can be ignored.  When the potato plant is done growing, it will die.  Some people say to wait about two weeks for the potato peels to cure.  Others dig potatoes right away and let them cure in a cool, dry place.  The potatoes don’t care, and I refuse to be a slave to my garden (it serves me; I don’t serve it) so I harvest them whenever it’s convenient.

To harvest potatoes grown in a tower, simply unstack the tower and pick up the potatoes.  When you unstack the tower, it might be a good idea to have containers handy for the extra soil.

To harvest potatoes grown in rows, use a pitchfork to dig well out from where the now-dead plant was growing; gently lift the dirt to look for potatoes.

It’s possible to harvest new potatoes from healthy, green plants, just reach beneath the plant and dig around in the dirt.  I like to grab three or four baby (new) potatoes from every plant, leaving plenty to mature.

Soil
Do not waste manure or good, fresh compost on potatoes.  Doing so will produce fantastic looking leaves, but that is not your objective.  Save the compost for lettuce, corn, and other things that grow above ground.

Older soil (not freshly composted/manured) is great for tubers.  It needs to be loose, not compact (no clay).  It also needs to be well-drained.  Potatos will rot if the ground is too wet.

Seed Potatoes
Most potatoes from the grocery store have been chemically treated to inhibit sprouting.  Even if they get old and sprout, they don’t yield a good potato crop.  Visit a nursery and buy “seed potatoes,” which are untreated potatoes that have begun to sprout.  My favorite nursery sells seed potatoes in April (when it’s time to plant); in mid-May, when potatoes are supposed to already be in the ground, the price on seed potatoes drops to 50% off (and there is no problem with planting them late enough to get the price break).

The potato “seed” that is planted is really a sprouted potato.  At least two eyes are needed.  If you have a larger seed potato with many eyes, you can cut the potato into 2″ chunks and plant the chunks separately.  After cutting, let the potatoes sit for a day before planting; this will give the cut edges time to dry and form a seal so that the seed produces a new potato plant instead of rotting.  I prefer to use tiny seed potatoes that can be planted whole; it’s easier than cutting potatoes into chunks and having to wait a day to plant them.  I’m all about easier.

Which Kind to Plant
Choose potato varieties based on what you want to cook.

  • Baked potatoes, mashed, fried:  Choose potatoes with a very high starch content and low moisture content, which makes them ideal for baked and fried potatoes but mushy in potato salad.  These are known as “mealy” potatoes.  These potatoes tend to have a coarse-appearing skin and include Russets, Butte, Rose Gold, and Mountain Rose (to name a few).
  • Soup, potato salad, casseroles, scalloped potatoes:  Choose potatoes with a low starch and high moisture content.  These are perfect for boiling because they don’t absorb much of the cooking liquid.  Low-starch potatoes are known as “waxy.”  The moisture content is too high to make good bakers or fries.  Waxy potatoes tend to have a very smooth skin.  Varieties include Purple Viking, All Blue, Onaway, and Red Norland.

All-purpose potatoes have an in-between moisture and starch content.  Experiment to see which varieties you prefer. Yukon Gold, Peruvian Blue, German Butterball, Yellow Finn, Superior, Kennebec, Red Cloud, Bintje, Elbe, Caribe, and Katahdin are a few of the all-purpose varieties.

The waxy/mealy categories have no correlation whatsoever to whether the potatoes are determinate/indeterminate.  Ideally, a garden would have a few rows of mealy early potatoes, a few rows of waxy early potatoes, and a tower or two each of mealy & waxy late potatoes.  Throw everything in the ground and cover with about 4″ of soil.  About 3-4 weeks later, mulch rows if you haven’t already.  Add soil to towers every 2-3 weeks after that, depending on how quickly your plants grow.  It takes very little work.

Rambling About the Garden

Do you every have ambitious plans that don’t quite work out?  I had every intention of building potato towers and designing a new trellis system for my peas, but gardening season rolled around this year without those things ever taking place.  I’m having fun with plants, though.

PlanterInstead of hauling an old barbecue to the dump, I turned it into a planter.  There are flowers in the main section of the barbecue, as well as chamomile in the little basket in front.  The hanging baskets hold peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, and variegated lemon balm.  Those plants all tend to be invasive, and I’d hoped that containing them would let me enjoy those herbs without them trying to take over.  I like the look, but have decided that hanging baskets are too labor-intensive because I don’t like having to water them every day.  I also like the look of thyme & oregano in pots on the side-shelves, but the pot on the left has a tendency to fall whenever horses reach over the fence and try to eat the plant.  Once I even found the pot on the ground on one side of the fence, and the thyme plant in a big, unpotted, half-chomped clump on the other side of the fence.  Instead of killing the horse, I moved the flowerpot.

I’ve also been working on some landscaping and more veggies.  In February, I started artichoke and lettuce (romaine & red romaine) seeds in my greenhouse.  Once weather started warming up in March, I moved the lettuce to the center of a raised bed.  Note: nobody needs two 8′ rows of lettuce.

Planting peas on both sides of the lettuce provides shade, which in the past has always kept my lettuce from bolting.  This is the first year that hasn’t worked.

PEAS and LETTUCE

I should know better than to plant peas without having trellis supports already in place, but planted my second bed with supports only down both edges, not in the center.  Oops.  It gives new meaning to the phrase, “a mess of peas.”

PurplePeas

Brussels sprouts went in mid-March, too.  They’re near the sage & rosemary, toward the right of this photo:

Herb Bed

GreenhouseIn April I started corn, pumpkin, zucchini, tomatoes, and acorn squash in my greenhouse.  I even tried staggering the corn, planting one package of seeds per week for a month, thinking that staggering the planting would stagger our harvest this fall.  That might work if you’re direct-sowing, but starting indoors then transplanting out doesn’t appear to work that way.  When I set them out in May, there was an obvious difference in their sizes/ages; now that they’ve been in the ground for six weeks, they’re all about the same size.  Even though I won’t get a staggered harvest, it was much easier planting a little bit every week instead of a ton all at once.

Corn-set outI have three vegetable plots.  The one about a quarter-mile from the house is where I put this year’s corn.  Taking tips from square-foot gardening and companion planting, I made loose-form beds just less than four feet wide, and in every bed planted five rows eight inches apart:  two rows of corn, one row of sunflowers, and two more rows of corn.  The corn is now three feet high and doing well.  Pumpkins and acorn squash are also in this garden plot.

Potatoes, celery, carrots, tomatoes, basil, and zucchini are in the plot behind my house.   This afternoon I stuck my hand under some of the potato plants and pulled out tiny blue potatoes — no need to wait until the plants die to begin harvesting.

Garden by house

The photo on the right show tall potatoes in the back, and very short ones in front.  I hadn’t planned to experiment, but in mid-May, shortly after I moved all my warm-weather starts outside, a local nursery advertised their remaining seed potatoes at 50% off.  I bought a bunch.  If they produce as well as the potatoes started in April, next year I plan to wait until they’re half-price before making my purchase.

A few times I’ve mentioned mulching.  When I set out the squash & celery, I mulched that entire section of the garden quite heavily with grass clippings (about 8-12 inches).  It’s been six weeks now. I have not needed to pull any weeds from the mulched section of garden:

Mulching

TomatoBasilAnother idea I took from companion planting:  tomatoes do well with carrots, and also with basil.  The tomato rows are about one foot wide.  In one, I planted basil between the tomato plants.  In another horizontal row of tomatoes, I made short vertical rows of carrots between the tomato plants.  This conserves space and makes all the plants healthier.

TomatoCarrots

Out in the front yard, I put in some evergreen huckleberry plants.  Once they’re full-sized I should have a nice 4′ hedge.  I’m under-planting the huckleberries with lingonberries.

Future Evergreen Huckleberry HedgeHuckleberries are related to another berry that is supposed to be helpful for RA, so that’s just one more reason to enjoy them!  I also put in five blueberry bushes, and a white currant.

Along the driveway, just beside the currant bush, is a huge row of artichokes.  They should produce for four or five years before needing to be replaced.  I intend to add a few taller bushes to break the monotony, but probably not until next year.

Artichoke

And, if you just scrolled because this post got waaaaaaayyyy too long, it boils down to:  the garden is growing.  I keep playing in the dirt so that I know there aren’t strange pesticides in my family’s food.

Hope life is treating you well.