Tater talk, or growing potatoes

One of my most successful crops at Belly Acres Farm last year was potatoes. Given the limited success I’d had growing them before, I consider that a bit of a breakthrough.

Apparently Mom did, too.

Before she saw (and later tasted) the potatoes I grew last year, she was clearly a little ashamed of my efforts at vegetable gardening. I’ve written previously about her efforts to help me “do better”–or to get her friends to fix my garden for me.

But last year the subtle disapproval changed to frequent comments about “all the good food” we’ve had out of “our” garden. The change happened pretty suddenly after she had cooked up a few batches of potatoes I had grown.

I have to admit they were the best tasting potatoes I’ve ever eaten. The best of all were Kennbec, was a variety Dad grew in the same garden before his death in 1994. His grew well, but never as well as these. Based on our informal “tests” over the last 20 or so years, I think I have it figured out.

I’ve planted another crop of Kennbec this year, along with some Yukon Gold. I’ll let you know if my optimism is warranted when tater digging time comes later this year.

But for now, here’s what I’ve figured out about growing potatoes:

  1. Buy seed potatoes. Many of my relatives (and people offering advice on the Internet and on TV) say you can grow any potato from the grocery store, but my results with grocery store taters were mixed at best. Some varieties were slow to sprout, probably because they were treated to improve storage. Others grew well but tasted bad or rotted quickly. To be sure what you have, get potatoes grown and sold for seed by a reputable source.
  2. Enrich the soil. At Belly Acre farm, the soil is naturally red clay. I’ve been adding organic matter for several years now. Each year the soil is a little more crumbly and lighter. Each year the good part of the garden—the section where crops just grow better—has grown bigger. I think skipping the old 10-10-10 fertilizer that Dad always used has improved the flavor of the potatoes noticeably, although I can’t claim to have proved that scientifically. But I can claim that the potatoes I’ve grown without artificial fertilizer impressed my mother, who thinks this organic stuff is just silly.
  3. Forget the fancy methods. Each year I see people advocating elaborate arrangements of bales of hay, boxes without bottoms, etc., etc., but the folks around here who say they’ve tried that stuff find it’s generally a lot of trouble without a big payoff.
  4. Pile dirt over the base of the plants as they grow. I plant my potatoes in close-spaced rows (about 18” apart), and a couple of times during the growing season I pile up additional dirt along the rows. If you don’t do this, potatoes will form at or near the surface, and the sun will turn them green and hard. A gardener wrote to an online gardening Q&A asking where you get the dirt. That struck me a little like asking the grocer where to find the empty orange juice cans for adding three cans of water, but it is a point to consider. You can’t just dig up your whole garden in search of extra soil. But I found I could dig a shallow trench just outside the rows and get enough to do the job.
  5. Watch for pests. At Belly Acres, Colorado potato beetles are a big threat. The first year I tried to control them with approved organic sprays, like insecticidal soap, but the results were disappointing. After that I realized my thumb and forefinger were the best insecticides. When I want to estimate the population, I may knock them off into a jar of soapy water so I can count them after I’m done, but often I’ll just start squishing. Wear gloves if squished bugs offend you. Look under leaves for the eggs (a cluster of pinhead-sized yellow-orange ovoids) and remove them with the same thumb-and-finger method. You’ll save yourself a lot of bug squishing if you can catch them in the egg stage. Vigilance is the key—check every day or so and you’ll find the population diminishes to a level that’s easy to manage. (click the image to enlarge)

    I found these eggs on the bottom of a beet leaf, but they look like potato beetle eggs.

    Here’s an adult Colorado potato beetle crawling between my potatoes.

    These juvenile potato beetles obviously hatched from eggs at the same time.

  6. Make sure the plants get the right amount of water—an inch or so per week. Gardeners in Dad’s day relied almost totally on

    You can tell by his size and by the chunks missing from the leaves that this Colorado potato beetle is nearing adult size.

    rainfall. I’ve learned that dragging a hose out to the garden can make a big difference when the weather turns dry.

  7. Harvest promptly when the plants wilt and die. Gardeners from northern climates often write that potatoes will store beautifully in the ground. But if you live where the weather is still hot at harvest time, that advice doesn’t hold. Digging isn’t hard, but it does take a little hands-on experience to get the hang of it. I still like the D-handled spading fork I’ve had for years, though there are other tools and methods out there. To use the spading fork, insert it into the mound about a foot from where the plant grew, and pry downward on the handle. That should open the mound and expose the potatoes. Pick them up, knock off any dirt clods, and add them to your bucket or wheelbarrow (gently–fresh-dug potatoes bruise easily). Move around the mound and repeat until you feel confident you’ve uncovered all the taters. If you find you are frequently cutting into a potato with your fork, you’re digging too close. Move back a few inches. The cut potatoes are fine to eat, but they won’t store. Use them right away.
  8. “New” potatoes are a different kind of vegetable from the ones from the grocery store. I like to pick out the smallest ones, then boil them with the skins on. You can easily remove the skins after the potatoes are done.
  9. Potatoes need to be dried slightly before storing. Make sure they are out of the sun or they’ll turn green. After a day or so, they can be stored long-term in a basement or any place that is dark, cool, and relatively humid. Use dry containers or plastic sheeting (I use roofing felt, as Dad did) to keep the potatoes from direct contact with the soil. Inspect them periodically and remove any that show signs of rot or sprouting.

By the way, I’ve decided that late winter or early spring is the best time to plant around here (Zone 7). I’ve read that some people like to plant in the fall. I tried that, making sure I planted the potatoes about 8″ deep, as the instructions stressed. The potatoes kept sprouting and then getting killed back by the cold weather, even during our mild winter. In the end, I was left with only a couple of sick-looking potato plants that seemed to attract more pest than the more robust spring-planted crop.