Growing potatoes is very rewarding because, unlike most vegetables that provide garnish, potatoes actually provide meals, which makes them very important to any self-suffciency goal oriented gardener.
When planting potatoes, it is important to plant seed potatoes that have not been treated, like most store bought ones. We think its important to go for organic as well, and varieties that will suit your needs. If you plan to store them: plant good winter keepers! This year we are planting Yukon Golds (notoriously good keepers) and Desiree red potatoes, which do not keep as well, but are delicious. We got our seed potatoes from Peaceful Valley – 7 pounds of Yukon Gold and 3 pounds of Desiree. We plan to get 100 pounds of potatoes, since under good conditions 1 pound yields 10!
Store potatoes around 40 degrees to prevent sprouting, and, conversely, if you desire to “green” them to speed up the process, take them into a warmer place to sprout the eyes a week or two before planting. Make sure to always keep potatoes out of direct sunlight. When you are getting ready to plant, a week or so prior, cut the potatoes into a few pieces at least 2 oz each, making sure each one contains 1-2 eyes. If the potatoes are rather small, its better to keep them whole. Leave the cut pieces for a few days in the storage container so the cuts can heal – this decreases the chances of rotting once planted.
The potato piece with the eye becomes the root base of the potato plant, as the plant grows, it will form potatoes along the stem, however, the potatoes turn green and become toxic when exposed to sunlight. This phenomenon is a natural defense mechanism for potatoes and other members of the nightshade family, to prevent the uncovered fruit from being eaten. The green color is from chlorophyl and is harmless, however, it does indicate the presence of solanine, a poison that can cause nausea, vomiting etc.
To avoid this from happening, we take over the defense of the potatoes, covering the fruit and eliminating the need for the plants to produce solanine 🙂 This is done by “hilling” the potatoes – covering the plants as they grow and preventing the exposure of any fruit as it forms. Once the potatoes are about 3-4″ tall, hill them 2-3″ and continue this process every few weeks until the plant starts to flower and potatoes are ready . You should end up with about 8-10″ of a “hill”.
Taking into consideration the above process, potatoes are usually planted in a trench, which makes the “hilling” process partially a filling up the trench process. A lot of people also grow potatoes in a container, in tire towers etc., which makes both the hilling as well as the harvesting processes easier.
What we have done this year is dug a 2 foot deep trench (this is rather deep for potato planting) and filled about half of it with straw and some loose dirt to help drainage (we have a high clay content in our soil). Then the potatoes were planted (eye or eye sprout on top) about 1-2 feet apart and covered with more straw, loose dirt and some generic organic fertilizer, as potatoes love nutrients, especially potassium. Since our garden is circular this year, so are out trenches and the hills of dirt make it look like a martian landscape 🙂 The hills will be used to fill the trenches with the potatoes back up. The goal is to end up with a fairly flat garden in the end instead of hills, yet still providing the “hilling” service to the potatoes.
We have also put up an experimental 50 gallon drum (previously used as a composter) as a potato container – filled half-way with potting soil, composted manure and straw. It will be exciting to compare the yields and the process in the garden and the container!
It is also a worthy note that potatoes like marigolds, which were planted along the edges of the trenches to provide potatoes companionship once they get to the top. Some other great companions for potatoes are beans, horseradish and cabbage family – but plant away from tomatoes, cucurbit family, sunflowers and raspberries.
The potatoes should be ready in about 100 days, early potatoes at start of bloom and mature potatoes once the plant dies off. Potatoes can be harvested at any point after the blooms start, yet for thicker skins and better keepers, waiting for the plant dying off is better. Potatoes can be even left int he ground and gotten as needed in the milder climates where the ground does not freeze.