Potatoes are a food staple that are easy to grow in garden beds or containers as long as they are planted on a schedule that avoids damaging frost and summer heat.
Gardeners in Southern states can plant potatoes as early as mid-late February during a mild winter and harvest them in late spring. By the time the stems and leaves are up, the danger from heavy frosts should be past (potatoes can tolerate a light frost). In northern states, potatoes can be planted in the spring and should grow well throughout the warm summer months. They will be ready to harvest with the first frosts of fall.
Here is a step-by-step guide for how to grow potatoes.
This is a critical first step for two reasons: One, the potatoes must be organic. Non-organic potatoes sold in groceries tend to be treated to keep them from sprouting. You can, of course, buy organic potatoes in many groceries. But, unless you know where the potatoes were grown, they may not be ideal for growing in your area’s soil and climate. Two, local garden centers or farmer’s markets will have the best selections because the varieties they sell likely will be locally grown and appropriate for your region.
Preparing the potatoes
Three things to keep in mind: this is not an exact science, it doesn’t have to be pretty and it’s a case where the “eyes” have it.
Cut the potatoes into chunks of at least one-and-a-half inches on all sides. The chunks can be larger, but they shouldn’t be smaller. Each chunk must also have at least one “eye.” The eye is the “dimple” in the potato where new shoots will form.
Cut the potatoes into chunks the day before you are going to plant them. This will allow the freshly cut portion to form a protective skin that will help prevent it from rotting when planted (at right). Small potatoes can be planted whole.
Preparing the soil
Potatoes prefer a light, loose and well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. For those who measure their soil pH, many gardeners consider a range of 5.0-5.8 ideal. Fortunately, potatoes will often grow well in any good garden soil. For the casual gardener who doesn’t measure soil pH, don’t fertilize with lime because it “sweetens” the soil.
Creativity may be the only limit to how gardeners plant potatoes. One method is to dig a trench approximately four inches deep and dot the trench with the potatoes, setting them about 18 inches apart. It is best if the potato chunks are placed with the eyes facing up, but that’s not critical. Shoots from downward-facing eyes will find their way to the surface.
Cover the trench with garden soil. Some people like to simply place the potato chunks on the soil surface and cover them with a few inches of soil or mulch. This is not a good choice if you’ve had a problem with raccoons, squirrels or other critters. It’s better to mound soil around the shoots as the plants grow because potatoes will form along the plant stems.
Potatoes can also be grown by apartment or condo dwellers in containers ranging from grocery store cloth sacks — the kind that are replacing plastic and paper bags — to burlap bags to whiskey barrels.
For container growing, place six inches of soil in the bottom of the container, set the potatoes on the surface and cover them with a few inches of soil. Keep adding soil or wheat straw to the container as the shoots grow, and the container will fill up with potatoes!
Growing the potatoes
Potatoes require little care. Just water them once a week if it doesn’t rain and mound soil around the plant stems.
The potatoes are ready to harvest about the time flowers form on the vegetative growth. The potatoes will even keep fine in the ground (and continue growing) after the leaves start to turn yellow or even after the plant has completely died to the ground. Take care in digging up the potatoes as they are aggressive rooters.
They will store for long periods if kept in a cool dry place. Leaving the dirt on them until you are ready to cook them will help prolong their shelf life. If you are happy with the selection of potatoes you purchased in the spring, save some for next spring’s garden.
Best of all, enjoy. Home-grown potatoes are some of the sweetest and most tender vegetables the home gardener can grow.
Photo: Tom Oder