The Irish know a thing or two about potatoes.
Like the old wisdom of planting potatoes on Good Friday. Whether doing so actually brings luck, I can’t tell you. But it’s usually our goal to start getting our potatoes in the ground by then.
What about you? Will you be planting potatoes this year?
Growing potatoes is easy and is something every homesteader or market gardener should consider. They store well, can be cooked and served in many ways, and usually sell well at the farmer’s market.
We grow a variety of potatoes for the market and for our own usage. Although I completely understand when people tell me they’re a little nervous to try to grow their own. I was the same way several years ago.
Here are some things that will help take the mystery out of growing potatoes.
Selecting Your Varieties
Here’s a good list of the basic categories most potato varieties fall in. Click on the link and you’ll find many to choose from, available from the Potato Association of America.
A couple of things to consider before choosing which variety you’re going to plant:
- Determine which varieties grow well in your climate.
- Will you grow early potatoes? Bakers? Mashers? Will you store them? Knowing your end game goes a long way before you plant the first spud.
- If growing potatoes to sell, know what your market will support. Each market is different. What will separate you from the competition (including the grocery store?)
- Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Prepping Your Seed Bed
Potatoes thrive in loose, fertile soil that is more on the sandy loam side. They won’t do very well in heavy clay soil. Your pH should be between 6 and 6.5, which is considered slightly acidic.
As soon as the soil is workable, till or work the ground at least 6 inches deep, then apply a heavy amount of finished compost. We usually go 3-4 inches deep on our compost application. This adds rich organic matter that is crucial to plant health, especially if you’re planting in sandy soils that aren’t very nutrient dense.
Potatoes are shallow rooted and are heavy feeders, needing a good amount of nitrogen and potassium available throughout development, in addition to lower amounts of phosphorus, calcium and other nutrients. Always start with a soil test, and then add amendments as needed. You can incorporate a 10-10-5 fertilizer, or mix in well-rotted chicken or steer manure with your compost. If you are using organic methods, you can use 5-7lbs of bone meal per 100 square feet instead of synthetic fertilizer.
Make sure your seed bed is raked clean of rocks and other debris.
When marking out rows, you can either choose to hill your potato bed or not. I haven’t seen enough evidence that either method is better than the other. I think it comes down to grower preference.
We hill our potatoes, starting with a clean, well prepared seed bed and layering soil to form a 6 inch rise. Our beds are 20 inches wide and 100 feet long, with a 20 inch wide path in between each bed. We use a Hoss double wheel hoe with a plow attachment to shape our beds. We use the same tool to create a furrow 4 inches deep in the center of each bed, but a good hand-held hoe will do the trick.
Seed potatoes can come in all sizes. Larger potatoes should be cut into pieces with at least 2-3 eyes on each. If you cut your seeds into pieces, it’s a good idea to let them sit for a couple days to allow the flesh to scab. This will protect them from rotting in the soil. Small seeds can be planted whole.
Place each piece or seed, eyes up, at the bottom of the furrow about 8-12 inches apart. Then cover with a rake.
When plants grow and begin to flower, we’ll run the wheel hoe along both sides of the bed again to “throw” dirt along the base of the plant. This is what’s called hilling. Since potatoes are shallow rooted, the top tubers will start to poke out of the dirt, exposing themselves to the sun and elements. This will harden the potato and turn the skin green (called greening), and eating green potatoes can be dangerous due toxins in the skin. Building up the soil, or hilling, at various stages during development will keep your tubers well protected from the sun and external pests that might like to snack on young potatoes.
Weed And Pest Protection
Mulch, mulch, mulch!
We don’t spray herbicides on any of our crops. Instead, we’ve learned to adopt other preventative methods when it comes to weeds, methods that we feel are better for our soil and our plants. When it comes to potatoes, mulching with straw seems to be the best approach.
Straw offers multiple benefits to the potato beds. 3-4 inches of straw mulch will hold weeds at bay, but it will also keep your soil cooler during hot summer days and allow it to retain moisture longer. As the straw breaks down, it adds organic matter to your soil that feeds worms and other beneficial microbiological life. That’s a win win in our book!
Another method is to use a living mulch, like clover, in between the potato beds. White or red clover both add a good amount of nitrogen back into the soil, can be mowed easily and walked on and will smother out most weeds when it fills in.
But what about pests?
Wireworm – Did you recently dig up a section of lawn or pasture? Then you might find these little guys underneath the surface. Wireworms and other grubs feed on grass roots and can remain in the soil up to two years after grass has been removed. They will do serious damage to your tubers.
Colorado Potato Beetle – This black and yellow striped bug will do serious damage to your potatoes (as well as your tomatoes, eggplants and peppers). Adults will overwinter in plant debris and emerge in early spring to feed on weeds (keep your potato beds clean!) and young plants. They’ll even burrow underground to get emerging potato foliage. Females will lay up to 500 eggs on potato leaves. When the eggs hatch, larvae will feed on the foliage and can kill the plant.
Aphids – These little green winged pests will swarm a crop and settle on potato leaves to suck out the plant sap. During this time, they are capable of producing a large amount of offspring that will desiccate your crop.
Potato Leafhopper – These guys are tiny, wedge-shaped pests that will suck the sap out of potato leaves. If you see a triangular brown spot at the edge of your leaves, that’s a good sign you have a leafhopper issue.
Flea Beetles – Like sand fleas, these little beetles hop across the surface of your garden looking for food. They’ll emerge early spring when the soil warms and chew holes in potato leaves. They don’t like heat and will usually disappear during warmer days, but they can do a lot of damage to young potato plants (as well as beans, spinach and lettuce).
Mice, rats and other things that chew – If you have potatoes poking out of the ground, these furry creatures won’t turn away from an opportunity at a good midnight snack.
Some pest control options
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – This is a natural occurring soil-borne bacteria used as an organic insecticide. Effective against wireworm and grubs, the potato beetle and aphids.
Pyrethrum – A broad spectrum insecticide made from the Chrysanthemum flower. Best used as a spot spray option. Can be effective against most potato pests, but also harmful against pollinators and beneficial insects.
Crop rotation – Nothing beats good old-fashioned wisdom. Planting potatoes in a different spot every year will discourage heavy pest penetration. Never plant tomatoes, peppers or eggplant after potatoes, as these are all from the same family and attract similar pests. Beans are a good follow-up to potatoes.
Birds – Many of the insects that attack potatoes are a natural food source for birds. Creating a friendly environment for sparrows, bluejays and other birds will help keep grubs, beetles and aphids at bay. You can put up bird houses around the garden to attract the beneficial predators, but be careful. They also like to eat seeds and fruit (protect your berries!)
Interplant – Plant tansy, coriander or catnip with your potatoes to discourage Colorado Potato beetles. Marigolds also work to keep pests confused due their strong scent. Alyssum and petunias attract beneficial predators that will eat potato pests. We love experimenting with planting different plants together to create a polycultural environment in the garden.
New Potatoes – If you’re growing an early variety, wait until the flowers drop to harvest new (baby) potatoes. Potatoes should be about the size of an egg, and they’ll be tender and full of flavor when cooked. Don’t wash until you’re ready to cook, or you’ll damage the skin and encourage deterioration. We love harvesting some of our Yukon Golds early! But note that you’ll get less yield when harvesting young.
Mature Potatoes – Leave potatoes in the ground and they’ll form up to a nice size and their skin will thicken to allow for long-term storage. Wait until the potato plants turn yellow and starts to wither, then cut them back. Let potatoes stand in the ground for at least 10 days or more before harvesting. As long as they’re covered, potatoes can stay in the ground until danger of frost, but beware of pests!
How to harvest – We use a pitch fork or shovel. Gently insert the tines or blade into the ground, starting away from the base of the plant, breaking open the ground as you move closer. Careful not to damage your crop! Brush clean and store in a dry, dark and cool space until ready to use or take to market. If stored properly, potatoes should last for 6 months or more without losing their usefulness.
How to eat a potato – Well, that’s entirely up to you!