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Posts Tagged ‘plant potatoes’

Nine Tips for Growing Potatoes

20 gallon potato planters

These are some of my potato planters. There’s about 2 inches of soil in each. I set seed potatoes ON the soil, and then cover them over with straw or hay. That’s enough for the plants to thrive and produce a new harvest.

With the Internet, you can learn all about growing potatoes: garbage can potatoes, potatoes in towers, potatoes in buckets, potatoes in straw bales… Of course, the old fashioned way, used by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of agriculture, was to bury a potato and harvest more, fresher potatoes from the same spot once potato plants had grown and withered. That STILL works! Feel free to give it a whirl.

Agriculture evolves, and there’s a boatload of stuff you can bring to potato-growing that could improve your results—or at least simplify the job. Here are nine things I’ve learned that you might find useful… or at least amusing:

eager potato sprouts

I lost interest in the purple potatoes I harvested last season (the skins are unpleasantly thick for a relatively small potato) and left about two dozen small potatoes in a shopping bag in the corner of my basement. With no added water and no soil from which to draw nutrients, the potatoes sprouted and sent stems a full two feet up so the tops emerged from the bag.

1. Plant certified seed potatoes. Grocery store and farmers’ market potatoes will most likely grow for you, as will potatoes you harvested last year but haven’t yet eaten. The chance that any of these potatoes harbors disease is greater than the chance that certified seed potatoes harbor disease. The world would rather you grow disease-free potatoes (potato diseases can grow with the plants and spread on the wind), so try to oblige it. But, in truth, you don’t need certified seed potatoes to grow potatoes.

2. Acidify your soil. Potatoes prefer acidic soil, so you can help them by knowing your soil’s PH, and pushing it toward the low side—5 is good, and definitely keep the PH below 6. Fertilizers made specifically for hydrangeas are good also for potatoes.

3. Potatoes are OK with raw horse manure. You can till manure into the soil before planting potatoes, and the potatoes will do fine. Horse manure is acidic, so you most likely won’t need other additives to lower your soil’s PH. Potatoes also like cow manure, but it’s not likely to change the soil’s PH.

tiny purple potato

Purple potato sprouts that grew in a shopping bag for seven months in my basement actually started growing potatoes! Despite having decided I was done with this variety, their tenacity led me to bury the long sprouts in my garden. Healthy plants have emerged and I look forward to harvesting more overly-thick-skinned small purple potatoes.

4. Potatoes don’t need soil to grow. You already know this. Who hasn’t left a few spuds in the bag so long that the spuds’ eyes popped? Amazingly, if you find a way to provide moisture, sunlight, and a bit of nutrition, those freelancing potato plants will make more potatoes. You can drop a potato on soil, cover it with six inches of loose straw or hay, water it to get things started, and it will grow into a potato-producing plant.

5. Potatoes really, really want to grow. Leave a bag of potatoes at room temperature long enough, and they’ll try to climb out of the bag! I’ve had potatoes try so hard under the most unlikely conditions that it was a bit creepy.

Seed potato chunk

This is, perhaps, one third of a seed potato. The day before I shot the photo, I had cut up my seed potatoes into chunks having two or more eyes each. The potatoes had sat out overnight to develop a protective coating over the cut faces.

6. Some potato plant diseases can survive the winter in buried potatoes. Because of this, it’s important to remove every bit of potato from your garden in the fall—and not throw any into your compost heap. It also helps to wait three years before growing potatoes or any of their kin—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—in the same area.

7. Long season potatoes produce more if you bury the stems. With late season potatoes, when the plants reach about 4 inches, work soil in around them, heaping it until only the top inch of each stem is above ground. Later, when the above ground stems are about 4 inches long, work soil in around them again until just the top inch of each shows. Repeat this four or five times (it’s easier to keep the soil on top of the growing potato plants if you grow the potatoes in containers), and then let the plants mature and die back before harvesting.

Harvesting red potatoes

Harvesting potatoes is a bit like an Easter egg hunt. Here I’ve moved aside the straw and spotted a small, early potato partially embedded in the thin soil. An advantage of growing in containers is that you can easily scrape through the soil and find every spec of potato.

8. You can turn one seed potato into several. The day before planting, a farmer cuts seed potatoes into pieces—each having at least two eyes. You might divide a large potato into three or four pieces which should sit for a day before planting so a “skin” forms over the cut surfaces. In my experience, you buy seed potatoes by the pound. So, when buying seed potatoes, I examine each one, and select either very small potatoes with two or more eyes, or large potatoes that it’s clear I can cut into even-sized pieces each with several eyes. Of course, if you can’t hand-select your seed potatoes, examine them before planting and cut up what you can.

9. Potato plants prefer cool weather. Plant them in early spring—perhaps a few weeks before your average last frost date. If plants emerge and get hit by frost, they may freeze off to the soil line, but they’ll quickly put up new shoots. Early potatoes do best in spring, but you can plant them in early summer—mid-to-late July—so they’re ready to harvest as autumn cold shuts down your garden. Be careful not to let the soil dry out around them; they’ll likely struggle in summer heat.

Purple potato harvest

From, perhaps, two planters each starting with four seed potato parts, I harvested enough purple potatoes to fill a large colander. This variety is delicious, but it has unpleasantly thick skin. I’m done with it. Well… I’m done with it after this summer.

 

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Potato Tower Update from Your Small Kitchen Garden

Growing potatoes in towers—garbage cans—is supposed to increase yield. My garbage can potato plants grew strong, but I wasn’t impressed by the harvest.

In May of 2010 I reported about potato towers I installed in my small kitchen garden. You might have heard of these as garbage can potatoes. I had a very large carpet tube that I cut into sections, and I planted potatoes in them.

Potato Tower Scheme

The point of growing potatoes in a garbage can is to trick the plants into producing more potatoes than they would if grown under “normal” circumstances. The original post, Garbage Can Potatoes in Your Small Kitchen Garden explains how this is supposed to work.

I was impressed at how quickly potato plants grow. After sprouts appeared, I added topsoil and compost every two or three days! I learned a few things about growing potatoes in towers:

  • Shoveling enough soil to fill three garbage cans—or their equivalent—is a lot of work.
  • You need a lot of soil on hand to be able to keep up with one can much less with three
  • I need to learn more about growing potatoes in towers.

It took less than a month for plants to grow from the seed potatoes at the bottoms of the carpet tubes to the tops of the tubes—more than three feet. I added compost-enriched topsoil every two or three days until each container was about 7/8 filled.

 

When I stopped adding soil, the potato plants continued to grow, eventually flowering (left) and then dying back. Experts recommend that you harvest potatoes within 30 days of the tops collapsing. I waited closer to two months to harvest. The potatoes didn’t care.

Potato Tower Disappointment

After I filled the carpet tubes to within a foot of their tops, the potato plants did, in fact, continue to grow. They produced healthy tops that eventually flowered and died back. I was excited to harvest them and I invited my neighbor to watch as he had expressed interest in the project.

I laid a tarp out on the lawn and pushed one of the carpet tubes over onto the tarp. There was a modest clutch of small potatoes at the bottom of the tube and I eagerly peeled back the cardboard and dug through the column of soil.

Nothing! I had already found the only potatoes in the tube.

When I tipped over the first cylinder, I was happy to see a bunch of potatoes at the bottom. I expected to find a lot more, but there was only a handful. The potatoes on the tarp (right) are the entire harvest from two carpet cylinders.

What Went Wrong?

Did something go wrong with my potato towers? The towers didn’t work out as I’d hoped, but I’m not discouraged. I’ve two hypotheses as to why they didn’t produce a glut of potatoes:

  1. Carpet tubes may not be conducive to growing potatoes. Perhaps chemicals in the glue or the cardboard inhibited the production of potatoes.
  2. Maybe I used the wrong type of potatoes. Since planting, I heard that it’s best to use a late harvest variety of potato when you plant them in towers. I’d used a mid-season potato.

Honestly, I’m very suspicious of the whole garbage can potato thing… but I’ve heard from enough people who claim it works that I’ll probably give it another try.

 

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Plant Potato Towers in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Growing potatoes the old fashioned way is a silly undertaking in a small kitchen garden. However, planting in a garbage can (or something like a garbage can) could produce far more potatoes in a smaller footprint.

Growing potatoes isn’t a great use of space in a small kitchen garden. A single potato plant can sprawl over a four-foot-diameter circle and it might produce only a pound or two of potatoes. What’s more, if you can buy from a potato grower, you might get ungraded potatoes at amazingly low prices; I usually buy a 20 pound bag of ungraded potatoes for three dollars.

The other side of that coin is: growing your own potatoes is fun. Over the years, I’ve squeezed in a few potato plants, and I’ve always enjoyed the little Easter egg hunt of digging for potatoes when the plants’ stems die back. This year, I’m trying something different.

Garbage Can Potatoes (almost)

Potatoes aren’t particular about their growing conditions. When I was very young, I heard often of the “rocky soil of Maine” as ideal for growing potatoes. The neighbor farmer who plowed my family’s kitchen garden each spring told us we could put potatoes on the ground and cover them with straw, and they’d produce spuds. So, unless you get late blight in your garden, you’ll probably get a few keepers however you plant potatoes.

I bought the smallest seed potatoes I could find, but each had enough eyes that I could cut it into at least two pieces. Some, I cut into three pieces, trying to leave ample material behind each eye.

But some years ago, neighbors told my parents about garbage can potatoes and I’m trying this growing method in 2010.

The idea is: you put a few inches of soil into a garbage can, set seed potatoes on the soil, then cover the potatoes with a few more inches of soil. When the potato sprouts reach about eight inches above the soil, you add more soil, leaving just the top few leaves sticking out. As the plants grow, you add soil periodically until you’ve filled the garbage can. At that point, you let the plants go and they finish up naturally: setting flowers and then seeds, and then they dry up.

At that point, you dump the garbage can and, supposedly, you find it filled from bottom-to-top with potatoes… maybe five pounds or more from a single seed potato.

Stretch Your Seed Potatoes

After a day, the cut faces of the seed potatoes skin over. This protects them from infection when you plant them. They’ll keep for several more weeks, though you need to plant them before they dry out completely. I crowded the seed potatoes in my makeshift garbage can planter. It wasn’t really a garbage can; I used 3.6 foot sections of a large cardboard carpet tube. With 4 seed potatoes in each 20-inch diameter tube, the plants will be tight. I’ll use a lot of compost as I fill the tubes because I expect the plants to argue with each other over resources in such crowded quarters.

Seed potatoes usually sell by the pound. This may be frustrating when you want to set ten plants and the garden store’s potatoes are large: ten seed potatoes might weigh three or four pounds.

The good news is: you don’t need ten potatoes to start ten potato plants. You can cut each  seed potato into pieces… ideally leaving three or more eyes in each piece, though a potato piece with only one eye can grow into a productive plant.

In any case, to start ten potato plants, buy three or four seed potatoes at the store and cut them up at least a day before you intend to plant. Let them sit in the open air so the cut surfaces skin over before you put them in the ground. (Some growers suggest that you dip the cut faces of seed potatoes in sulfur—it kills microbes and adds a bit of acid; potatoes prefer acidic soil.)

Food Potatoes will Grow

The more you read about planting potatoes, the more you’ll read that you should never plant potatoes packaged for eating; always buy certified seed potatoes. This is good advice, but it’s a dogmatic overstatement. Of course food potatoes can grow into productive adult plants.

Here’s the deal: To produce certified seed potatoes, growers must raise plants under the watchful eyes of government certification agencies. The intent is to ensure you don’t plant bacteria, viruses, and fungus in your small kitchen garden. Potatoes grown for food have no such oversight; even the best-looking food potatoes can introduce pathogens into your planting beds.

So, you can grow potatoes from your food stores, but there is greater risk than if you hold out for certified seed potatoes. If you’re a hobbyist, and you won’t be sad about losing a handful of plants, experiment. However, if you’re counting on a decent potato harvest—and especially if you’re planting a large patch, follow the dogmatists and stick with certified seed potato.

 

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