Potatoes can make an excellent addition to your home garden. They have been a staple of many people’s diets for thousands of years. They are fairly easy to grow, although they do have certain pests and diseases to contend with. There are plenty of varieties that can give you a harvest that lasts from early in the season to late in the fall. Potatoes are also great for storing and eating throughout the winter. With a quick lesson on growing potatoes, you will be ready to start a potato section in your garden.
The potato is a starchy tuber from the nightshade family of plants. The potato plant is an herbaceous perennial that grows around two feet tall. The flowers come in a variety of colors, which are related to the color of the tuber. Bumblebees and other insects cross-pollinate potato plants, but they also pollinate themselves. The fruit that results from the flower of a potato plant resembles a green cherry tomato, but is actually poisonous and inedible. Seeds can be collected from the fruit, but most new plants are grown by burying a tuber called a seed potato.
Potatoes are native to South America, specifically the Andes Mountains area. A staple of the diet there for centuries, the potato was not introduced to the rest of the world until about 400 years ago when the Spanish Conquistadors came to the continent. They took the potato back home, and its use has spread around the world. Potatoes are the world’s fourth largest crop of food. They come after rice, wheat, and maize.
For American supermarket shoppers, this may come as a surprise, but there are literally thousands of different varieties and species of potatoes in the world. Most of us consume a woefully limited selection of most fruits and vegetables, and potatoes are no exception. Look for unique varieties of potatoes that are easy to grow, resistant to certain pests and diseases, and that grow well in your location. Here are some popular varieties:
- Yukon Gold. This classic, large, yellow potato is great for boiling, baking, and mashing, not to mention they store well.
- All Blue. Wow your friends and family with the best blue potato around!
- German Butterball. Excellent, all-purpose variety! Great for Momma’s mashed potatoes.
- Rose Finn Apple. Fingerling potato that stores well.
- Bintje. Probably the most widely grown of yellow flesh potatoes. Great keeper.
Why Grow the Tuber
So why should you consider growing this humble tuber in your garden? Potatoes make an excellent staple of the diet. They are easier to prepare and eat than grains. They provide a good source of calories, carbohydrates, and nutrition. In spite of the recent craze in going low-carb, for those of us living off the grid, food is a matter of survival, not something to avoid when dieting. Potatoes are free of fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and have a lot of C and B vitamins as well as potassium, magnesium, copper, and iron. And if you try different varieties of potatoes, you get a greater variety of nutrients. Potatoes are also a great idea for storage. Kept properly, they can last several months on the shelf.
If you’re convinced, it’s time to make sure you have the right conditions for growing perfect tubers. You will need a location that gets full sun or mostly sun with just a little bit of shade throughout the day. The best soil for potatoes is loose, light, and well drained. Soil with loam, some sand, and organic matter works the best. The looseness of the soil helps the aggressively growing roots of the potato plant do what they need to do. The pH of the soil should be between 5.8 and 6.5, slightly acidic. Scab disease can form on the tubers if the soil is not acidic enough.
Fertilizer helps to increase the crop yield, but use one that is lower in nitrogen and higher in phosphorous, like 10-20-20. Too much nitrogen encourages growth of the greens at the expense of the tubers. The good news is that even if your soil is not perfect for potatoes, you will still get a yield. If you create the best conditions, however, you can drastically increase the number of tubers you get at harvest time.
Potatoes are planted not from seeds, but from a seed potato. This is a tuber, or even just a piece of a tuber, that when planted, sprouts roots from its eyes. You have probably seen this on potatoes that you stored inside for too long. Purchase seed potatoes from a reputable company. They should be certified by the state in which they originate. This certification ensures that the potato is free from disease and that you will not be bringing bacterial or fungal infections to your garden. Even if the seed potatoes are certified, you should check them carefully for signs of disease before planting. Many of the disease agents can live in the soil for years, so take great care. Expect to get four or five tubers from each seed potato that you plant.
There are a few different methods for planting seed potatoes. Traditionally, they are planted in rows, 12 to 15 inches apart. Rows are two to three feet apart. You can also plant the seed potatoes in different arrangements if your space is limited as long as the spacing is correct. They can also be planted in containers. To plant in rows, dig a trench that is about six to eight inches deep and four inches wide. Space the seed potatoes out in the trench and cover with three to four inches of soil. Do not fill up the trench entirely. Put the potatoes in eyes up. You can also cut the potatoes into pieces as long as each piece has at least one eye.
Once your potato plants start growing, you will need to mound them. This is also called hilling. When the sprouts come up after about two weeks, add three to four inches of soil to each plant, creating a hill around it. After another two or three weeks, add more soil and hill it around the plant so that it reaches about halfway up the plant. After this, add one or two inches to the hill each week. The object is to keep the tubers covered without covering too much of the greenery. If the tubers are exposed to sunlight, they can turn green and toxic.
Your potato plants should be well watered, but never over watered. Over-watering leads to black spots and rotting. Erratic watering makes tubers that are knobby. You need to develop a watering schedule and stick to it. Water in the morning so that the foliage has a chance to dry off throughout the day. When the foliage starts to turn yellow and dies back, you can stop watering and give the tubers another week or so to mature.
Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, potatoes are susceptible to several diseases and invading pests. Blight and mildew, which also affect tomatoes, are common with potatoes. To avoid these, plants need to be spaced properly. If one plant becomes too bushy, trim it back to allow for better circulation of air. Scab is a disease that affects the tubers. The best prevention for scab is to buy certified seed potatoes and to make sure the soil drains well.
Potato pests include potato maggots, Colorado potato beetles, aphids, flea beetles, and aphids, among others. Check leaves often and pick off eggs from the potato beetles. They lay eggs in clusters on the underside of the leaves. Introducing ladybugs to your garden can help eliminate aphids. Rotating crops year by year also seems to help minimize pests. Some gardeners swear by pouring rhubarb juice around the plants.
Harvesting and Storing
Potatoes are ready to be harvested between one and three weeks after the flowers have finished blooming and the foliage has started to die back. You can also leave the potatoes in the ground longer and let them grow larger. Dig out tubers with your hands to avoid cutting or bruising them with a garden tool. Discard any potatoes that are green.
Small potatoes are excellent eaten fresh from the garden. For storing larger potatoes for several months, cure them in a dark place that is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cure them for about ten days, and they can be stored in a cellar or pantry for several months without sprouting.