Potatoes get a bad rap. Sadly, when many people think of spuds they think of a bland, deep-fried variety contributing to our addiction to bad-for-us fast junk food. But there are many types of potatoes in numerous colors, flavors, and shapes--and they all dazzle in diverse recipes. And yes, potatoes can be a healthy food, too. Read on for tips and tricks for growing potatoes in your own backyard.
Variety is the spice of life!
Purple, gold, and red potatoes delight both the eyes and the palate. Cut into an all-blue variety and you may be surprised to see that the meat of the potato--not just the skin--is a brilliant blue. The cranberry red variety has cranberry skin with a baby pink meat. And the Russian banana variety looks, you guessed it, like a banana.
Russet and Yukon gold varieties are tried and true classics, but don't be afraid to experiment with heirloom varieties.
Aside from color, when choosing the variety to plant, consider when you're planting. Potatoes are grouped into early, mid, and late season varieties. The early season potatoes mature faster than the late season varieties. So, if you have a shorter growing season consider an early season variety.
Want more? I love how comprehensive this guide to potatoes varieties is.
How to grow potatoes
Potatoes are grown from seed potatoes, which look exactly like the potatoes you see in your local grocery store. The big difference is that seed potatoes haven't been treated with growth inhibiting chemicals (Maleic hydrazide) and they have not gone through a proper dormancy period. This is why you never want to plant a potato you bought at the grocery store; plant only seed potatoes from a reputable nursery.
Now that you have your seed potatoes, cut them into chunks that are about the size of an ice cube or golf ball. Aim to have 2-3 eyes on each chunk.
Place these cut chunks in the refrigerator for a few days prior to planting. Some gardeners dust the chunks with sulfur at this point to protect them from rot and other soil-borne diseases. I don't dust mine before planting because I never have sulfur on hand, and because I (thankfully) don't have a problem with soil-borne disease. If you dust your chunks, let them dry for a day or two before planting.
There are many options for planting potatoes
If you have a large garden, then seed potatoes can go in well-tilled soil. Plant them 4-6 inches deep and 6-12 inches apart. As the sprouts grow higher, mound dirt around them. You do this to support their growth, provide nutrients, and shield from sunlight.
Other options for planting include a large (i.e. 30 liter) container, a wire cage, a box, or even car tires. Of these choices, I believe the large container and wire cage are the best choices. In order to successfully grow potatoes in a box the sides should be removable, and most of us don't have such a contraption on hand. The tire idea is a cool recycling idea, but I don't have extra tires hanging around.
Whether you choose the large container or wire cage, both follow the same principals for planting.
photo of potatoes in container via Shutterstock
How to plant potatoes in a container in 5 easy steps:
- If you're using a container, drill drainage holes into the bottom. If you have a couple of cinder blocks or bricks on hand, then place the container on top of them for better drainage.
- Layer the bottom of the container with a 4-6 inches of high quality soil and compost. If you didn't dust your potato seed chunks with sulfur, you might want to amend the soil with sulfur. This will protect the spuds from rot in moist soil, deter potato bugs, and acidify the soil.
- Place the seed potato chunks on the soil. They should not touch, and the cut side should be down with the eyes pointing up.
- Put another few inches of soil and compost on top of the potatoes. At this point your container will be mostly empty. Don't worry; it will fill up soon enough.
- In about two weeks you should see sprouts emerging from the soil. When these sprouts are about 6-8 inches long add another layer of soil and compost around the sprouts. As the potato sprouts continue to grow, mound dirt around them. The more the sprouts grow, the more soil you add. By the end of the growing season your container will be filled with soil and potatoes.
No matter how you grow your potatoes--in a garden or container--be mindful of their moisture level. They want to be evenly moist but not wet.
When to plant potatoes
For those of us in colder climates, plant potatoes when the soil temperature is about 45 degrees. For most gardeners, this will be a few weeks before the last frost of the spring.
In warmer climates, such as southern California and Florida, potatoes can be grown year round. Plan for planting a crop in the fall for a spring harvest, and plant another crop in the spring for a fall harvest.
Soil and fertilizer
A successful potato harvest begins with high quality soil. Potatoes want soft, fluffy soil. Many potato growers amend their soil with peat moss to neutralize the pH. Additionally, some gardeners also add azomite, a trace mineral fertilizer, and expanded shale to make the soil lighter.
As with other areas of your garden, potatoes appreciate compost and manure for nutrients. If you have it on hand, potatoes really enjoy the easily absorbed nutrients found in compost tea. Seaweed, bone, and blood meal also make great soil amendments.
photo of potatoes in field via Shutterstock
Once the potato sprouts are dry and wilted, wait an additional week or two before harvesting potatoes.
If you planted them in your garden, then use a spade or cultivator to harvest. It's important to not damage the spuds during harvest, so begin digging about a foot away from the wilted sprouts.
If you grew potatoes in a container or wire cage, then simply overturn it on to a tarp. Use your hands to dig for the potatoes. Save the soil to be amended and reused.
Do not remove all of the dirt from the potatoes. This dirt will help the spuds to survive a long time in storage.
Potatoes want to be kept dry, dark, and relatively cool once harvested. I keep my potatoes in a brown paper grocery bag in a dark corner of my basement. A pantry or garage (not freezing) are also good storage locations.
Potatoes will be too hot and moist stored under a sink, and will be too moist stored in a refrigerator.
Generations ago, potatoes were stored in root cellars. Sadly, most modern homes don't have root cellars. However, it's helpful to know about them in order to provide your potatoes (and other root veggies) with optimal storage conditions.
Is it safe?
You can eat green eggs and ham, but steer clear of green potatoes. If a potato has turned green that means that it contains the toxin solanine, which is very dangerous. Also, discard any potatoes that are shrunken and wrinkled.
As long as it looks firm and healthy, you can eat a potato that has sprouted (just trim off the sprouts).
Show off your potato growing skills with these recipes that celebrate spuds:
image of potatoes Hasselback via Karissa Bowers
I love how these potatoes Hasselback are crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Oh, and they're vegan too!
image of roasted potatoes via Ally Jane Grossan
For me, roasted potatoes are a comfort food. But adding zaatar gives them a warm Middle Eastern flavor.
Mashed potatoes are popular for a reason--they're so good! Feel like broadening your horizons? Try mashing different seasonal vegetables along with your spuds.
Have you grown potatoes? Share your tips and tricks on our Facebook page or Tweet at us @organicauthorit.
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photo of potatoes in bag via Shutterstock