Around here, St. Patrick’s Day means more than just a good ‘ol fashioned Irish celebration (even though Karin is part Irish). That day is synonymous with potato planting. Historically, the first day of spring usually falls around St. Paddy’s Day; it’s just a good mark to hit for one of our first rounds of planting for the season. Any time in the spring, though, is good for planting potatoes. We got ours in on March 31st year.
Potatoes were introduced to Ireland by the British back in the 1600’s as the ideal food source. Basically, it was a cheap and easy-to-grow food for the poor people of Britain’s first colony. The plan backfired, though. By the 1840’s, the potato had helped the Irish become stronger than their British rulers!
Unfortunately, the Great Potato Famine destroyed potato crops across the country soon after. That famine, though, is credited with boosting plant breeding programs to find disease-resistant varieties and showing us the benefits of crop rotation. And the potato is still among the easiest vegetables to grow.
Whether you’ve got a large space to work with or your garden consists of a few pots on your balcony, anyone can grow potatoes.
No matter how you plant potatoes, the rewards are pretty great. One pound of seed potatoes can yield around 10 lbs of new ones! Find seed potatoes online, from your local farm, farmers markets or garden centers.
To increase your yield, cut larger seed potatoes into halves or thirds; just be sure each piece has 2 or 3 “eyes” in it. Those eyes will turn into sprouts for forming new tubers. Let them sit out for a day or two to harden the cut edge before planting to prevent them rotting in the ground.
In the Ground
The usual way to plant potatoes is to till the ground until it’s nice and loose, place the seed potatoes into the ground and cover with a good amount of soil. Later, as the plants get larger, continue mounding the soil up around the vine to encourage new growth, which will result in more tubers. This can be a small space or several acres; the procedure is the same. Once the plants die back and it’s time to harvest, the soil is loosened (usually with a potato fork or mechanical implement) and the potatoes are dug up.
We choose an alternative to this method. Rather than tilling the ground, we choose an area that’s already had its soil loosened by a thick layer of straw mulch the previous season. Then, we simply lay the seed potatoes out on the ground in nice rows and cover them with a deep layer of composted manure and straw from our chicken coops and pig pens. We’ve got great nutrients built into the straw and a good start for the potatoes. Once the plants poke their heads through the straw, we mound more up on top. If the straw seems to be letting in too much light (green potatoes are bad), we can add some compost or sawdust to block it out. This method, for us, is much easier and leaves the soil below pretty much undisturbed. Harvesting simply involves pulling back the layers of straw to reveal the potatoes … no digging required!
An easy, space-saving (and back saving!) way to grow potatoes is in containers. This method is also effective for preventing pests that may plague your crop, like voles or grubs. You can use buckets or barrels or even burlap sacks.
The size of your containers will determine the size of your harvest. Nancy at http://homefront.prudentliving.com/ gets about a pound per bucket.
Whatever container you use, make sure there’s good drainage at the bottom. Drill or cut a few holes in the bottom, then add some rocks or broken clay pots so the holes don’t get clogged with soil. Add about 2” of good soil or compost. Place a few seed potatoes about 4” to 6” apart; 3 should fit in a 5-gallon bucket. Layer on about 2” of soil, then water well.
Once you see sprouts push through the soil, keep an eye on them. When they are about 4” tall, put in more soil, compost, straw or sawdust, leaving the top 1” of the sprout above the soil. The growing medium doesn’t matter much at this point, so long as it’s thick enough to block sunlight from getting through to the bottom and the new tubers have something to sprout into. The plants will send out tubers along the buried stem portion. Repeat this process until the bucket is full of your growing medium, and then let the sprouts grow up and out of the container.
Water your potatoes whenever the soil is dry 1” below the surface. If you use something other than compost as your growing medium, fertilize with compost or manure tea every few weeks to keep the nutrients coming.
The potato plants will flower when tubers are growing. Once the plants begin to dry up and die, your potatoes are ready to harvest. Simply turn the container over and sift through for your lovely potatoes!
Planting in wire cylinders uses the same concept as the containers above; however, it removes the need to pile on the planting medium as the plants grow.
Use the straw to form a “bowl” and keep layering your potatoes.
Using chicken wire or any wire mesh with spaces around 2”, form a cylinder shape similar to a 55-gallon drum. Fasten the wire together and use a stake along the open edge for support. Place a thick layer of straw in a bowl shape in the bottom, add 2” of soil or compost, layer your seed potatoes around the outer edge, then add another 2” of soil. Repeat this all the way to the top. Now, your potato plants will sprout out the sides of your cylinder, and across the top. This method requires a few more seed potatoes than in containers, but reduces the need to check back with the plants to see if they need more soil. It’s a good option if you don’t want to have to pay attention to the potatoes that often!
Follow the same watering and fertilizing instructions as for containers. Again, the plants will die back when the potatoes are ready to harvest. Tip over your cylinder and reap the rewards!
Growing your own potatoes is easy and there are plenty of varieties to choose from. Pick a couple different ones to try and harvest some as young “new” potatoes and others once they’re fully mature to store for the winter.