It Seems As If Spuds Have Been Around Almost Forever!
Potato gardens have been universally cultivated for a long, long time – anywhere from 7 to 10 millennia. That means they go back to between 5000 and 8000 BC. Now, that’s really a stretch of the imagination, isn’t it?
Potato growing began and, was especially prevalent, near Lake Titicaca – situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Because of its starchy, filling properties and multitude of applications, it didn’t take long for potato consumption to become popular worldwide. Fast forward to today and the world produces almost 400 million tons of these tubers every year!
If you aren’t eating rice, you are probably eating potatoes.
I’m a living witness to how popular potatoes are in the U.S.A. I spent many a day peeling them while on K.P. (kitchen police) during my Army days!
What’s In Them Tators?
They have an endless list of nutrients. At 130 calories, a small potato (170g) is 79% water. High in starchy carbohydrates, spuds yield a host of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Given their low cost, it’s no wonder that they have become a daily staple on almost every table in the world – out gunned only by rice.
So Many Ways To Enjoy Potatoes!
I don’t think I can list them all – but – I’ll give it a try…
- Baked, boiled, mashed, scalloped, roasted, shoestring, hasselbacking (scored baked potatoes), latkes (potato pancakes), potato chips
- Hash browns, home fries, steak fries, French fries, potato skins, tater tots, gnocchi, fritters
- Soups, sauces, stews, salads, casseroles
I’m sure I overlooked some.
By the way, have you ever eaten “patatas a la brava?” It is fried potato wedges served with a spicy tomato sauce or aioli (mayonnaise or olive oil seasoned with garlic) – a very popular Spanish appetizer or snack, usually ordered along with drinks in a bar or “restaurante.”
And, don’t forget bacon – cheddar – potato croquettes. “They are to die for…”
Growing Potatoes In A Home Garden – So Very Easy
What’s Your Favorite Potato?
Here are some of mine. For more detailed descriptions and ordering information, visit Certified Organic Seed Potatoes From Stargazer Perennials.
Yukon Gold – If I don’t grow anything else, I will definitely grow some of these golden, yellow flesh beauties. They are the most flavorful, especially for making potato chips. And, they are versatile enough to complement any dish. Determinate.
Red Pontiac – These red potatoes are my second choice for potato chips and my first choice for making homemade potato salad. They are another great all-around spud to use for just about anything. Determinate.
Burbank Russet – My odds-on favorite for great baked potatoes (heavily smothered in butter and sour cream with chives, of course). Indeterminate.
Let’s Get To Plantin’
You can plant store bought potatoes that have already sprouted.
A Word Of Caution
Chances are spuds from the supermarket will carry diseases that can infest not only the potato plants but also other plants in your garden. So, if you choose to use these, keep them far away from everything else in a small garden area of their own.
In my opinion, it’s much better to buy “certified seed potatoes” either online or from the local feed store – because they are certified to be disease free.
When To Plant?
Well, since I buy certified seed potatoes, I plant these tubers as early in the spring as possible. As a general rule, I put them in the ground shortly after buying them. Since potatoes like cool weather, I’ll have those tubers popping up out of the ground well before the last expected frost. And, in my neck of the woods, the last frost is usually in mid-April.
Are You Chitting?
Yep, I spelled it right. Chitting. With a “C”…
The term describes the process of preparing seed potatoes for planting and the sprouts (chits) that grow from the potato eyes.
Place the seed potatoes, with most of the eyes pointing up, in a tray (I use egg cartons.) and let them sit in the light. Keep them cool, around 50 oF (10 oC), and watch for sprouts to emerge from the eyes. This can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks.
When the sprouts are about an inch long, the seed potatoes are ready for planting in the garden.
TIP: If, after a couple of weeks, there is no chitting (i.e. no sprouts coming out of the eyes), take some seed potatoes and place them in some potting soil for several weeks. They may chit even better than they would have if they just went through the standard chitting process. In the picture, the seed potatoes on the left spent 2 weeks in potting soil in the dark and the ones on the right stayed in the egg carton in the light.
Where To Plant?
Just like other home garden veggies, potatoes like a lot of sun, moisture, and nutrient dense dirt.
Another Word Of Caution
Don’t plant tators in an area where they were grown last year. And, don’t plant them where tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant were grown last year. Soil diseases lie dormant over the winter and if last year’s crop was infected, those diseases will still be there waiting to thaw out and attack this year’s harvest.
Also resist the urge to plant them in any areas with freshly turned grass sod. There is a good chance that sod loving wireworms will attack the potatoes in force.
How To Plant?
- Till the soil to 8 inches deep and take out any rocks, grass clumps, weeds, etc.
- Rake loose dirt smooth and make a 6 inch deep by 8 inch wide trench in the row, keeping rows 2 feet apart.
- Add an inch layer of my 50/50 soil mixture* to the bottom of the trench and, if the seed potato is smaller than an egg (“one drops”), plant the whole thing. Don’t cut it up. If you have larger seed potatoes, cut them into pieces, ensure that there are 2 to 3 “eyes” per piece, and “harden” them in indirect sunlight for a couple of days before planting.
- Space tubers about a foot apart in the trench with the cut side down. Then cover them with a couple inches of 50/50 soil mixture*.
*Jim’s 50/50 soil mixture: In a 5-gallon bucket, I prepare a 50/50 mixture of dirt and potting soil and add a couple of tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer.
- Water well and continue giving them an inch or two of water every week. This is especially important when the plants are flowering. Uneven watering or too much drought will cause knobby, sick looking, cracked, hollow tubers.
If the weatherman issues a frost warning, cover the plants with some garden fabric until temperatures return to above freezing.
You will begin to see the plants poking up out of the soil in 4 to 6 weeks.
Hill Those Spuds!
Keep an eye on your potato plants and when they get about 6 inches tall, start pushing dirt up the sides of the plants leaving just a couple inches of green plant above the soil. This helps them stay cool and keeps them from seeing the light. If they don’t stay in the dark, underground, potatoes will get sunscald and turn green. The green portion will contain the poison solanine typically found in plants of the nightshade family of which tomatoes and eggplant are also members.
Those hills will also help keep the weeds at bay and direct the roots deeper into the soil where they will find more moisture.
Continue hilling every couple of weeks throughout the growing process.
Hilling is a necessity for indeterminate potatoes such as the Burbank Russet variety because potatoes will sprout all along the stem and must be kept out of the light to prevent them from turning green. Since determinate potatoes such as Yukon Gold and Red Pontiac sprout below the main seed potato, hilling isn’t nearly as important. However, I suggest hilling ALL potatoes as a matter of standard practice.
- If air temperatures warm the tubers above 80 oF (27 oC), they will stop growing so, keep them covered and cooler by hilling constantly.
- Remove those weeds that are sneaking up on your tator plants. Pull them – and mulch around the plants. Weeds will take the water and nutrients away from your veggies! The less competition – the better.
- Use soaker hoses if you can – to concentrate the water at the base of the plant. If you must water with a sprinkler, do it in the morning so the leaves have a chance to dry out before evening. Wet leaves are a haven for plant diseases.
- Sprinkle a few tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer every 20 feet of row – once or twice a month after you start hilling the potatoes. When they are about a foot tall, they’ll begin to flower – then change to a high potassium fertilizer like 0-0-60.
- Companion planting with green beans, garlic, thyme, or marigolds can help potatoes. But, don’t plant them next to carrots, cucumbers, raspberries, spinach, squash, tomatoes, or sunflowers.
When Can You Dig Them Up?
You can gather immature potatoes (new potatoes) within a couple of weeks after the plants start flowering – 65 to 70 days after planting. Just take what you need for the next day or two because these spuds should be used without delay. Waiting longer will affect flavor and nutrient levels.
When the soil is fairly dry, tenderly remove the top layer of dirt with a trowel. Remove a few new potatoes from the plants – and replace the top soil – firming it up and mulching around the plants. Be gentle and try not to disturb the plants.
The rest of the potatoes should be fully mature and completely ready for harvest in about 15 weeks. Several weeks after the plants begin turn yellow and die is a good time to get all those tators out of the ground.
Again – be gentle – and try not to damage the potatoes during the final harvest. Pick a sunny day and start working the dry soil with a garden fork along the outside of the row – moving inward towards the plants – carefully turning the soil to feel for the spuds.
Some folks use a small hand garden fork and get down on their knees to gently probe for the potatoes so they can find them easier without damaging them. But, since this is the final harvest, I dig them up with a standard size garden fork. It makes the process go faster and I can still remove the spuds without hurting them too much.
- Brush the dirt off the tubers – don’t wash them. Then lay them out on the ground to dry for an hour or so.
- Next, put them in a darkened area at about 70 oF (21 oC) for a week or 2.
- Finally, refrigerate them. But continue to keep them from being exposed to light.
DO NOT EAT POTATO LEAVES! They contain high levels of solanine and are poisonous to both us and our animals! Also, if you find any green spots on the tubers, when you harvest, cut them out because they will have a bitter taste due to being mildly poisonous.
Pests And Diseases
Below ground, wireworms and white grubs will wreak havoc on the roots and tubers. Suggested preventative maintenance is to apply a soil insecticide to the dirt after soil temperature has climbed to 50 oF (10 oC). With the warmer soil, these critters will have moved up into the “kill zone.”
Above ground pests include:
Colorado potato beetle – This black and yellow striped nuisance is the worst enemy of potatoes. Feeding on potato leaves, these beetles will significantly lower yield at harvest and may kill your plants.
Aphids – These nasty little creatures can invade your potatoes in unimaginable numbers! They suck the sap out of the plants and turn the leaves into a distorted and sticky mess.
Potato leafhopper – The leafhopper is another culprit that likes to suck the juice out of the leaves. They will leave little brown triangle spots especially towards the leaf tips. Leafhoppers tend to feed on the underside of leaves helping them to go unnoticed by even the most eagle-eyed gardeners. They will cause potato leaves to crinkle, curl, and turn brown.
There are some plants that can be grown in close proximity to your potatoes that will ward off some of these pests. For a more complete listing, see my article, Plants That Repel Bad Bugs and Attract Good Bugs.
- Catnip and Coriander (Cilantro) repel aphids and Colorado potato beetles.
- Geraniums and Petunias will keep leafhoppers away.
If these plants don’t keep the critters away, then it’s time to get an insecticide to do the job. Dutifully follow label directions.
Early and late blight can damage stems and leaves starting at the bottom and moving up to the top. This happens most often if the plant is stressed due to drought or poor soil conditions. Late blight was responsible for the famous Irish Potato Famine in 1845 in which over a million people in Ireland died of starvation because of their massive dependency on potatoes as a staple food. Another million Irish people emigrated. And, Ireland’s population was reduced by 25% because of it.
Black scurf is also a common disease affecting tubers. It shows up looking like canker sores on the stems.
There are other diseases that will attack potatoes, too, but, blight and black scurf are the most common and the most feared.
When all else fails, control these diseases with a quality fungicide.
Remember that you should wait about a week after any insecticide or fungicide application before harvesting vegetables. That allows time for the chemicals to leach out of the produce.
Since pests and diseases can over winter in the soil for 2 or 3 years, I strongly recommend using a crop rotation approach to your home gardening plan to nip these problems in the bud!
On A Lighter Note…
My neighbor, Jed, was watching me plant some potatoes the other day and he told me just about the corniest story I’ve ever heard.
He related a yarn about Mr. and Mrs. Potato…
Shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Potato got married, they had a little sweet potato called, Yam.
When she was old enough, they sat her down to educate her on the facts of life. They warned her against going out half-baked, hanging around with a bunch of tater tots, and possibly getting smashed. Because, they didn’t want her being labeled a hot potato.
Yam assured her parents that there was no need to worry. She said, “No spud would get me into the sack and make a rotten potato out of me!”
Furthermore, she espoused, “But, then again, I don’t want to stay home and become a couch potato either. And, I will get plenty of exercise so I don’t get as skinny as my shoestring cousins.”
It wasn’t long before Yam grew up and wanted to see the world. Before she headed to France, Mr. and Mrs. Potato warned her to watch out for France’s greasy gang called, the French Fries.
After her European trip, Yam told her parents that she was going to head out into the wild, wild west and they told her to watch out for hostile Indians. They didn’t want her to get scalloped!
Yam said that she would be careful and she also wouldn’t be swayed by those high class Yukon Golds or associate with any sweet potatoes having loose morals – from the wrong side of the tracks – who advertise themselves on trucks that say, Frito Lay.
When it was time for college, Mr. and Mrs. Potato sent Yam to I.P.U. (Idaho Potato University) and when she graduated, they were certain that she would be in the chips. Yam wanted to go to college but, she wasn’t sure if she should go right away – or wait for a while longer. She had become quite a hezzi-tator.
But, once she got to college she really liked it. Her roommate was very spiritual and taught Yam how to be a medi-tator.
She majored in mathematics and very soon was an accomplished compu-tator.
Yam went to all of IPU’s football games and loved being a spec-tator.
She even joined a radical social justice warrior group – becoming an agi-tator.
One day Yam came home and announced that she was going to marry Tom Brokaw.
“You’re not serious are you? Tom Brokaw? Of all people!” said Mr. Potato. “After everything we have done for you and you go out and marry someone who is just a common-tator?”
Well that’s Jed for you! He’s got an endless supply of anecdotes and tales. Here’s a list of Jed’s Stories found among my many articles – if you don’t believe me!
Well, now – are you ready to grow your own tators? I guarantee that you won’t find store bought ones that taste as good as those you reap from your garden.
Comment below or email me, email@example.com, if you have something to say about Jed or growing potatoes!