Potatoes have been part of my life since I can remember. I am not sure that my first solid food wasn’t potato-based.
The reason for that is my grandfather Lamont left County Tyrone in Northern Ireland when he was 15 years old to make his fortune in the United States. Being of Irish heritage, I have grown and eaten my fair share of potatoes: mashed, boiled, fried, scalloped, potato salad, french fries. If all the potatoes weren’t consumed at the evening meal, we would have fried potato cakes the next day.
My grandfather always planted potatoes in his garden, and I thought that the potato would be an excellent candidate for early planting in the garden.
Potatoes are considered a cool-season crop. Any mellow, rich, well-drained soil is suitable for growing potatoes. Try to avoid heavy clay soils, as they can often produce misshapen potatoes.
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There is a school of thought that because scab disease (brown, corky tissue on the surface of tubers) may be a problem with potatoes grown in alkaline or “sweet” soils, the pH should be around 5.0 to 5.5. In the home-garden situation, if your soil pH is around 6.0 or 6.5, you should be OK.
Liberal amounts of fertilizer are required for large yields of potatoes. Ideally, the fertilizer should be placed in continuous bands 2 to 3 inches to each side and slightly below the seed piece. However, many gardeners will broadcast the fertilizer before tilling or spading.Fertilizer rates should be based on results of a soil test: A typical rate would be 2 1/2 to 3 pounds of 8-16-16, 10-20-20 or equivalent per 100 square feet. When plants are 4 to 6 inches tall, band 2 to 3 pounds of fertilizer per 100 feet of row about 6 to 10 inches from the row, especially if growth is not satisfactory and if the foliage is yellowish-green.
Be sure that the seed pieces do not come in direct contact with the fertilizer or you may burn the emerging roots and shoots. You can use fertilizers that will help lower pH of the soil, such as ammonium sulfate, if you can find it.
Use only certified seed. In preparing seed potatoes for planting, cut them in blocky, rather than wedge-shaped, pieces. The cut pieces should weigh about 1 to 1 1/2 ounces and have at least one eye. Buy medium-sized seed potatoes that weigh about 5 to 7 ounces.
Plant early potatoes as soon as weather and soil conditions permit. If you worked your garden soil early in the fall, you can plant the early crop with less danger of delay in the early spring.
The soil temperature threshold for potatoes is 50 degrees. Plant seed pieces 4 inches deep in rows 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart. Space the seed pieces 12 inches apart in the row.
Nine or 10 pounds of seed potatoes, cut into about 100 pieces, will plant a 100-foot row. A 100-foot row can yield 60 pounds or more of potatoes. Plant about 150 feet of row for each member of your family.
Due to the small area involved and the variety of potentially sensitive crops grown in the garden, chemical weed control is not recommended. Control weeds by shallow and frequent cultivation. Deep cultivation may cut potato roots and slow growth. When plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, begin to mound soil around the bases of the plants to start forming a ridge or hill. By the time the plants are 15 to 18 inches tall (at last cultivation), the ridge or hill should be 4 to 5 inches high. “Hilling up” is necessary to prevent greening of shallow tubers.
Potatoes will emerge from the soil in approximately 2 to 3 weeks — the length of time depends on depth of planting, the seed pieces and the temperature of the soil. The warmer the soil, the sooner the potatoes will emerge.
One way to speed the emergence of potatoes in the home garden and control weeds is to plant them through black plastic mulch, just like tomatoes and melons.
If using 4-foot-wide black plastic mulch, plant in double rows 18 to 24 inches apart and 12 inches between seed pieces in the row. This will eliminate hilling and will result in earlier emergence. Drip irrigation also can be used under the plastic mulch between the two rows of potatoes to supply moisture and also soluble fertilizer, if needed.
Although a cold spell may freeze the ground slightly, this is seldom harmful unless the sprouts have emerged. If plants come up too early, they may be damaged by frost, but they usually will grow again from an uninjured part of the stem below the soil surface. The use of a floating row cover may help prevent damage to the young potato sprouts in the event of a light frost.
Wait until the tops turn brown to dig potatoes for storage. Handle the potatoes carefully so that you don’t skin them. Store them in the dark. When stored in the light, they turn green and are not good to eat. Store potatoes where the temperature is 40 to 50 degrees, if possible, but where they will not freeze.
I use my old plywood footlocker from my days in the Navy and have it in an unheated garage.
Potatoes harvested in the fall will keep in storage about four months after harvest.
Good luck with your potato crop.