Gardening with Lucinda Bailey (Part 2)

How to Grow Potatoes

(White, Yellow, Russian Fingerling, Red, Purple but not Sweet)


Potatoes require full sun to grow. They prefer loose, well-drained, but moisture-retentive loam. They like a pH of between 5.8 to 6.5. Rotate on at least a three year basis, meaning you need 3 or more suitable sites if you want potatoes each year. The soil should be evenly moist, but not wet or soggy. Do not plant in beds which were tomatoes, peanuts, moon flowers, tobacco, peppers or eggplant the previous year because these plants carry similar diseases.

Why You Need to Get Certified, Organic Seed Potatoes Your First Year

Do not use potatoes from the supermarket. Get certified, organic seed potatoes from local nurseries of mail order catalogs as they are disease free and will give you the highest yields. If your local nutrition store doesn’t carry them, you can order them over the internet. Bud Nip or Sprout Nip (or similarly named products) are sprayed on grocery store potatoes to prevent sprouting and buds. Some sources indicate that Chloropropham (Bud Nip) is toxic to honeybees. Today’s non-organic potatoes have been known to have 37 harmful pesticides, many of which are systemic. This means that the chemical is found within the entire plant so washing or peeling will not prevent you for consuming the chemical. Organically grown potatoes are not supposed to have these chemicals—hence, I purchase specialty potatoes (like the delicious purple ones) from my organic nutrition store.

When to Plant

Two weeks before you plan to plant, take your seed potatoes out where they will be exposed to light. The temperature should be between sixty and seventy degrees. This will induce them to begin sprouting. Two days before planting, use a sharp, clean knife and slice the larger potatoes into 2 eyes or buds. Each seed potato should be approximately two inches square. Cure the cut side of the seed potatoes for a day of so because when it formsa thick callous over the cuts this will help prevent rotting once planted. Smaller potatoes, like fingerlings, can be planted whole. 

Potato plants will not begin to grow until the soil temperatures reach at least 45 degrees F. Potatoes can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the early spring. A light frost won’t hurt potatoes, but frost protection is recommended. This could be a loose covering of straw or a temporary plastic tent. Be sure you ventilate the tent on sunny days or you could scorch the tender potato leaves. If you plan to store potatoes through the winter, you can plant a second crop as late as June 15. 




Traditional Planting Methods

Customarily, people grow potatoes in rows. Plant potato “seeds” every 15 inches, with rows between 30 and 36 inches apart. Cultivate the soil one last time before planting. Remove any weeds, rocks or debris. Add a little composted manure and other organic material and carefully work it several inches below the surface of your bed with a hand fork. Too much nitrogen / organic matter in direct contact with the seed potato will cause potato scab, a nasty bacterial infection. While it doesn’t affect the usability of your potatoes, it does make them look like they’ve had a bad case of acne. Work the compost in where the roots can feed to avoid this bacterial infection.

Planting Potatoes in Rows

Dig a shallow trench four inches wide and 6-8 inches deep. The spacing at which you place the seed pieces will determine the size of the potatoes you expect to harvest. Fifteen inches apart will allow some good sized taters. If, however, you want a quick crop of baby potatoes for soups and stews, plant the potato seeds 4 inches apart. After about a month, noodle out a couple of the small potatoes—if they are too small, rebury them and come back in a few weeks. Take care not to disturb the above ground greenery—you don’t want to kill the entire plant in your “robbing” process.

Put the cured potato seeds into the trench, cut side down. Completely cover them with about 2 inches of dirt. Depending on the soil temperature, the sprouts will emerge in about two weeks. Add another 3 to 4 inches of soil. Potatoes form between the seed piece and the surface of the soil. For this reason, when the stems are 8 inches high, bring the level up to half the plant. Keep doing this throughout the season. Don’t get carried away with “hilling up” as you don’t want to bury the potato plant. Covering up too much foliage will decrease your yield. There’s a balance, people.


Unusual Planting Methods

Start with a tire filled with loose loam. Be sure to pack it tightly into the tire, leaving no air pockets. Plant three seed potatoes in the center, one at each of the corners of a triangle. When the plants grow up twelve inches, add another tire. Add dirt in the same manner as before. All you need is 3 inches worth of potato leaves for this top layer. Throughout the season, you’ll add new tire tiers to your potato condo. Four tires, plus 2 pounds of seed potatoes equals twenty to thirty pounds of winter potatoes. When watering, make sure the entire stack is evenly moistened. You can use the tire tower to store your potatoes until you harvest them. You’ll harvest these a little differently. Remove one tire at a time in the fall or winter when you need some additional spuds. Don’t let the potatoes fall to the ground as you don’t want to bruise them. 


Potato bags and stackable potato boxes are other ways that utilize this stacking principle. They are available online, or you can make them. You can also grow potatoes in a garbage pail—start with 8 inches of soil and three seed potatoes. When 8 inches of plant growth occurs, add another six inches of dirt. Soon a beautiful potato vine will spill over the edges of your garbage pail.

Potato Watering and Care

Keep your potato vines well watered throughout the summer, especially when the plants are in flower, and immediately thereafter. This is the time when the plant is creating new tubers so water is critical. Water early in the day so that the foliage has time to dry completely before evening. Wet foliage makes your potato plant susceptible to several diseases. Once the vines have passed the critical watering stage (while they are in flower), they will tolerate a certain amount of drought. Some believe that non-irrigated potatoes are less watery and better for us. However, potato plants which are not watered regularly will produce a much smaller crop.

When and How to Harvest

Two to three weeks after the plants have finished flowering, you may harvest baby potatoes. From this time onward, you can reach down into the loose soil and remove the largest tubers, leaving the smaller ones to continue growing. When foliage turns yellow and dies back, discontinue watering to mature the potatoes for a week or two before harvesting. 

If you want late potatoes for storage, water 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage dies back. Carefully begin digging a foot or so outside of the row. Remove the potatoes as you find them being careful not to bruise or chip the potatoes with your pitchfork or spade. If the weather is dry, allow the potatoes to lay on the soil surface, unwashed, for a couple of days to cure. If rain is expected, move the harvest to a dry, cool place for the drying period. This curing period is necessary to mature the potato skin which will protect the potato during storage. 

If, by the end of the season (say September), the vines haven’t turned yellow, cut and remove all the vines. They make excellent animal fodder for cows and goats. You don’t want the ground to freeze as this can ruin the potatoes. Store the dried potatoes, unwashed, in a cool, well-ventilated area. Wooden boxes are perfect, especially if they have ventilation slats. The potatoes should keep between three and six months. 

Stop back by next week and we will continue with Lucinda...