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Growing potatoes: The eyes of March

Mar 3rd, 2018 | Category: Growing

by Corina Sahlin

Why grow your own potatoes? They’re very easy to grow in a backyard garden or even containers, and you can pick from a huge variety, with different skin color, flesh color, texture, flavor and use. Rose Finn Apple, Desiree, French Fingerling, German Butterball, Russian Banana, Austrian Crescent, Red Bliss All Blue, Purple Majesty, and many more.

March is a popular time for growers to get started with early varieties. Potatoes are very easy to grow. They are pretty forgiving when it comes to soil conditions, but ideally they like slightly acidic soil (PH of 5 to 7) and light, loose, well-drained soil. A single potato plant yields 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, so you should plant 10 to 15 plants per person. PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

March is a popular time for growers to get started with early varieties. Potatoes are very easy to grow. They are pretty forgiving when it comes to soil conditions, but ideally they like slightly acidic soil (PH of 5 to 7) and light, loose, well-drained soil. A single potato plant yields 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, so you should plant 10 to 15 plants per person. PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

Some varieties are better for fresh eating (Red Gold, Rose Gold), some are better for long-time storage (Russet, Carola), and whatever your growing and eating goals, I encourage you to plant some of these tasty tubers.

 

When and how to plant

Potatoes can be planted as soon as you can work the soil in early spring, although they won’t begin to grow until the soil temperature has reached 45 degrees F.  We plant ours two to four weeks before the last frost date. They can deal with a light frost, since the soil will insulate them. However, if the young leaves have popped through the soil and a hard frost threatens, they can get damaged. If a cold snap is in the forecast, you can push soil, mulch, or straw over them, and the leaves will grow back up through it in a few days as if nothing happened.

Start with certified seed potatoes to make sure they are disease free, since these vegetables can suffer from serious fungal and bacterial diseases. You can save some every year and re-plant. But if after a while yields decline, or their foliage looks weird, just start over again with new certified seed potatoes. Don’t use old potatoes, as these may carry disease organisms.

Plant seed potatoes whole if they are small (about the size of a golf ball), or cut the bigger seed potatoes in chunks (2 inches square), and make sure that each piece has two or three buds, or eyes, on it.  Allow the potato chunks to dry for a couple of days before planting so a callous can develop over the cut, which helps prevent rotting.

Some people expose their seed potatoes to light and temperatures between 60 to 70 degrees to encourage sprouting a couple of weeks before planting. With this, they take less time to mature and are less likely to rot. Make sure to plant them when the sprouts are still less than one inch long.

Potatoes are very easy to grow. They are pretty forgiving when it comes to soil conditions, but ideally they like slightly acidic soil (PH of 5 to 7) and light, loose, well-drained soil. We practice crop rotation so they’re not grown in the same garden bed every year. It’s best to wait four years or more until you plant them in the same spot.potato 1

There are several ways to plant spuds. The easiest way is 3 inches deep and 12 inches apart, then keep hilling, or just mulch with compost or straw. Mulching helps keep soil cooler and moister, which benefits potatoes and cuts down on watering and some pests.

Here’s how we plant: We dig a trench that is 8 inches deep. Place each piece of potato with its cut side down and eyes pointing up every 12 inches. Space the rows 3 feet apart. Place 4 inches of soil on top of the potatoes. The plants will begin to grow, and as they do, continue to fill the trench. Eventually, we “hill” the potatoes, meaning we mound the soil around the stems of the potato plants as they grow. This prevents light from reaching the tubers. You don’t want the potatoes exposed to light, since this can make them turn green and produce solanine, a mildly poisonous substance.

Some people don’t even dig trenches, but just loosen soil, throw the potatoes on top, then keep covering and mulching them with straw. This way, they don’t have to dig them up later. However, you get less yield that way, and mice or voles might have a field day in there, munching your crops.

Keep the plants well watered throughout summer, especially while they are flowering, since this is when the plants are creating their tubers.

In late summer, foliage begins to turn yellow and dies back. Stop watering then, since this will help your taters cure in time for harvesting.

 

Growing potatoes in containers

You can plant potatoes in large pots and just keep piling soil onto them as the foliage grows. Or use commercial growing bags (constructed of heavy, dense polypropylene), which is a great alternative on patios or places where there’s no good garden soil. Put a few inches of soil and compost in the bottom of the bag, plant three or four seed potatoes, then cover with three inches of soil. Keep adding soil as the plants grow until the bag is full.When harvest time comes, just dump the bag on its side and grab the potatoes. Make sure you water adequately and deeply enough throughout the growing season. Some people even just use a large plastic garbage bag for this, punched through with a few holes for drainage.

You could also try hardware cloth with 1/4-inch mesh, or chicken wire, to build these potato towers. Make them into a cylinder about 18 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall. Follow the planting and growing procedure above, and then just lift the cylinder when harvest time arrives.

 

When and how to harvest

Digging up potatoes is like a treasure hunt, and I usually invite my kids and their friends to help with this fun activity. Use a garden fork or shovel to dig, but be careful when you dig spuds: its easy to spear them. Make sure you get every single one, otherwise they’ll overwinter and pop us as “volunteers” the next spring.

You can stick your hand in the soil and sneak baby potatoes 2 or 3 weeks after the plants have finished flowering.

If you want to keep them for storage, wait until they are fully cured, typically 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage has died back.

One trick to tell if your potatoes are ready for harvest is to dig one up, rub your thumb hard on the potato, and if the skin rubs off easily, they are too young to store.  Potatoes with a thicker, tougher skin that won’t rub off will last the longest in storage.

If the weather is dry, we leave the potatoes on the ground for a few hours to dry off. Some people leave them in the field for up to three days to cure them. I don’t like leaving them exposed to light for so long, so I just make sure they are dry before I store them. If you harvest in wet weather, allow the potatoes to cure in a dry, protected area, like a garage or covered porch. Curing for a few days allows the skins to mature, which helps with long storage.

We store our potatoes in cardboard boxes in our dark crawl space, which is like a root cellar. They need to be stored in a well-ventilated, dark and cool place that’s between 35 and 40 degrees F. Stored in this manner, we often eat our own potatoes until it’s time to plant the next crop in spring.

 

How much to plant

A single potato plant yields 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, so you should plant 10 to 15 plants per person.  5 to 8 pounds of seed potatoes will plant a 100 feet row.  You can grow 60 pounds (1 bushel) from a 30-foot row.

 

Corina Sahlin homesteads with her husband and three homeschooled children on five acres in the Upper Skagit Valley. On their homestead, they teach homesteading and wilderness survival skills, and they also lead retreats and summer camps. Corina offers online courses available at www.courses.marblemounthomestead.com.

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