February is here and now is the time to start another crop few of you have tried before, potatoes. Growing potatoes can be fun and if you have never grown them before than this is one crop you just have to try growing. If you have grown them before let the kids give this one a try because they will surely be gratified. This article will give you the “easy” way to grow and enjoy potatoes in your landscape. We will also cover the soil conditions needed, the fertilization requirements, and the harvesting instructions you will need to fill your basket with pounds of potatoes for your enjoyment. Potatoes grow fast and are simple to work with so let’s get in the garden.
Normal spacing for potatoes is thirty inches between the rows and twelve inches between the plants in each row. To make this garden work you will need a space that is five feet wide by five feet long. Although we could scale this garden down to be a little smaller, I want you to have enough potatoes at the end of the season. If you only plant a few plants you will not have enough potatoes and the reward will not be worth the effort. If you follow my instructions you should be happy with your results.
Now that you have the spot in the garden picked out that gets full sun or at least afternoon sun, let us start by improving the soil. The richer the soil is and the more nutrients that are available to your plants, the better your final yield will be. Because potatoes need good drainage and most of our soils are sandy, you will only need to add enough compost and peat to make a soil mixture that will easily hold its shape when compressed in your hand. For most people this will be a couple bags of Black Kow and two or three bags of a good potting soil. You will also need three to four pounds of a good 8-2-10 fertilizer spread evenly over the top of the new garden. Next you will need to work these items into the soil to a depth of one foot with a shovel. If you are working a raised garden then this will be even easier.
This is the important part! Mix all these ingredients into the soil and spend your time loosening the soil with each turn of the shovel. Depending on the amount of sand in your garden plot, you may need to add additional potting soil. Keep turning the soil until all ingredients have been thoroughly mixed. Next, even out the soil over the entire garden. Because you added additional potting soil and Black Kow, this area will be higher than the soil where you started. This is normal and will give you better potatoes.
Because potatoes need to be kept out of standing water, I like to plant my potatoes on mounds. Some growers will plant their potatoes on flat ground and as the plants grow, they will pull dirt up to the base of the plants making mounds. This is a lot of work to do while the plants are growing and sometimes causes damage to the plants so I prefer to do this while the earth is fresh and easy to work with. You may still need to add additional dirt around the base of the new plants once they start growing but this is to protect the tubers (potatoes) from sunscald. If needed, you can easily cover any exposed tubers with additional potting soil as they develop. Your garden will have two rows (mounds), one on each side of the plot with a low spot in the center.
The two mounds will be built using dirt from the center of the garden and the sides of the garden. Find the center of the garden and using your shovel or a hoe, pull the dirt from the center and create a row mound on each side of the garden. The center of the row mounds should be a minimum of twenty eight inches apart. Be sure to pull dirt from the edges of the garden as well. Do not make the mound too high or pointed, rather your mounds should be wide with a low spot in the middle which you will use for watering later. When you are finished, your mounds will be approximately twelve inches high from the lowest part in the center of the garden. This will give you plenty of room for the potato development. If you properly tilled or turned your garden as noted above, this procedure should only take a few minutes because all the soil should be loose and easy to move.
Now we are ready to prepare some potatoes for planting in our new garden. First you should have an idea of which kinds of potatoes you want to grow. I know some people like to plant potatoes they have found in the grocery stores but please resist this temptation. Grocery store potatoes may have been treated with a sprout inhibitor or may carry harmful potato diseases which may harm your crop. Your best bet is to contact your local garden center for “seed” potatoes or order them online. Remember to keep track of the variety of potato seed you have chosen as you may wish to purchase the same variety for your next planting season. When you have picked out the variety of potato you wish to plant do not worry about the size of the “seed” as we will address that in a moment. I also prefer to pick only one variety of potato per garden, so no mixing please. Later on you may want to experiment with different varieties so be sure to keep track of the varieties you have selected.
Now that you have your potato “seeds” (seed potatoes are regular potatoes grown for use as seed potatoes) you may notice some may be large or small. You will want to slice your potato into approximate two inch cubes. Fat potatoes can be quartered and long skinny potatoes can be cut into four pieces. Small potatoes can be used as is with no cutting. If the potatoes you have purchased need cutting then the pieces should be left to cure in a cool dry spot for three to four days. Curing will help to prevent diseases from entering the seed from the cut end. Because the garden we are planting is small you will only need eight to ten potatoes up to two inches in size.
Each row should be approximately five feet long. The potato needs to be inserted into the soil to a depth of four inches. Make sure you are planting them in the center of the row to allow development of the tubers and your spacing should be about ten inches apart for average sized potatoes. If you have chosen a larger variety of potato, you may space your plants at twelve inches apart. This means each row will take four to five of the seed potatoes. Plant each row so that the seeds are inserted at the same place on each row. As the plants grow each row should look even. If your pieces were cut from large potatoes, you will need to plant the cut edge down. Be sure the eyes or sunken spots on the seeds are pointed up. Be sure to cover the newly planted potatoes with a soil and pat down lightly. Once planted, you can lightly water the mounds.
Next, we wait for the foliage to grow and fill in our garden. The more foliage produced the more energy that will go into tuber production. Be sure to water your plants regularly and fertilize them with additional fertilizers such as Peters or Miracle Grow at one-half strength every two weeks. Check for pests regularly and treat as necessary. Once the plants begin to flower (about forty to fifty days) your potatoes will be almost ready. After the plants flower, the plants will begin to die, this is natural. Once the foliage is almost all dead your potatoes will start the hardening off process. Allow at least two full weeks after the plants die before digging your potatoes. This allows your new potatoes to thicken their skin and this will reduce the injury to the potato caused by harvesting.
I know there is a lot of information here for you to absorb but gardening and growing plants should both be fun and a good learning experience. I hope you will have both. Enjoy your new potatoes and as always remember, without plants we would not be here.