How to Grow Potatoes & Why You should
When I tell people that I grow my own potatoes this is what they say:
“Potatoes are cheap…. you should just buy them.”
“Why would you use your garden space for potatoes?”
“A potato is a potato – why grow potatoes?”
These people are good intentioned. I know many gardeners who grow veggies to save money. I know people who grow certain veggies because home grown just tastes better. I know people with limited space (me too) have to cut out some things.
Yeah, potatoes are cheap. Yeah, they take up space.
I grow my own veggies for more reasons than just those.
Why I grow potatoes:
- Fresh, Local, Farm to Table. It goes without saying that the fresher your food is, the more nutritious it is. Food grown local is better, but sometimes even local farmers will pick produce just before it’s peak in order to have some sort of shelf-life. If I grown my own potatoes, I can pick them & eat them at will & there is no travel, storage, loss of nutrition to worry about.
- Pesticides, Chemicals. I know what was sprayed/ not sprayed on my food. Even “organic” veggies can be exposed to chemicals and still be labeled “organic” if the correct chemicals in the correct dilution are used. When I grow my own, there is no question about the gardening techniques. Since potatoes grow underground I am particular about what goes on the plant and on the soil. Potatoes are really marinating in whatever is used on or around the plant. If chemicals are sprayed on a area (up hill from your potatoes) or on the top of the potato plants, those chemicals will end up in the dirt & saturating your spuds.
- Harvesting & Storing. Potatoes can be stored for a loooooooong time. A bag of potatoes from the supermarket could have been harvested up to a year ago. What!? Which is crazy & far from fresh. I’m not scientist, but I’m gonna say that nutritionally speaking a year old potato is probably not full of nutrition. Which leads to my next point: Commercially grown potatoes have been found to be some of the most toxic veggies in the produce section. Ugh. The farmers use pesticides in the field to keep the beetles & blight at bay. They use more sprays to prevent those spuds from sprouting and growing into potato plants while being stored. Yummy.
- They taste better. There is a difference. A potato freshly dug from the ground will not taste like the ones from the store. Fresh potatoes are sweet, soft and full flavored. Not only are they fabulous, they also cook in 1/4 the time you are used to potatoes taking to cook.
- They are cheap to grow. The ROI (return on investment) is amazing. I can plant a piece of a seed potato & reap a crop of 7-12 potatoes from that one piece.
- Harvest as you like. I love this about potatoes. As the plants grow you can dig up potatoes for your dinner table as the mood hits. If you don’t feel like potatoes, just leave them in the ground. The longer they stay in the ground the bigger they’ll get. I start digging in June and pull the very last potatoes out of the ground in late August. There’s no hurry & you can just dig up what you want to eat this week.
Let’s Grow some Potatoes!
Most potatoes are “cool season” crops. This means they grow best in spring and fall when the nights are cool and the days are warm.
If you want to get some potatoes in the ground today (it’s July) and missed the spring window – you still can!
There are many types of potatoes. Some are more heat tolerant than others. If you want to plant potatoes now, try growing: Russet Burbank, Kennebec or Azul Toro. If you can’t find these just look for “heat tolerant” on the information. If you have a long growing season you can plant potatoes in August for a fall harvest. Just dig them up after the first frost.
Another option for growing potatoes in the heat of summer is to plant some sweet potatoes. They love the heat and hate the cold. My sweet potato plants came 26 in a small plastic pot. Each “plant” consisted of a small pink root and a few leaves growing off the stem. Just break the giant clump of sweet potato plants apart & plant root down/ leaves up. 🙂
If you plant potatoes in the heat of summer be sure to water them regularly so they get a good start.
Potato seeds don’t come in little packets. They are actually whole potatoes. If you wanted to replant your own potatoes next year you could just save the potatoes & use them. No seeds.
In order to grow potatoes you must first get your hands on some “seed” potatoes to stick in the ground.
Let’s go to the little, local, hardware store. If they don’t have it… you don’t need it.
Burlap sacks full of seed potatoes. This is what you want to buy. Seed Potatoes. The potatoes from most supermarkets have been sprayed with chemicals to make them not sprout. This is a problem if you want to grow potatoes. We want sprouts. So, be sure to get seed potatoes.
I am growing 2 varieties: Irish Cobbler & Kennebec. A paper sack full of potatoes ran my bill up to a whopping $4.
Preparing Seed Potatoes for Planting
Now that we have a bag of seed potatoes, let’s get ready to plant. You could just plant the whole potato in a hole in the ground & it will grow. However, if you cut them into pieces you can get many more potato plants from each seed potato.
See those eyes? The eyes have what looks like “roots” growing out of them. They are not roots. When these guys are planted, those purple growths will find daylight & become the leafy, top part of the potato plant.
As you cut the potatoes, be sure each piece has at least 2 eyes.
Now, I will let these guys hang out on my counter and dry for 24 hours. If I plant them just after slicing, they could rot in this humid, Kentucky land. I know there are gardeners who slice them & stick them right in the ground. Allowing them to dry will put a protective layer on that newly exposed meat & prevent rotting.
You want to plant your seed potato pieces about 4-6 inches deep and plant so the new growth (eye) is pointing up. If your children drop them in the hole facing the wrong way, it’s OK. Mine always manage to find the sun no matter how my kids bury them.
When the potatoes are in bloom it is a glorious sight. I love potato blossoms! Just leave them alone & let them grow.
I should mention that when you see these blossoms it means that the tubers (the baby potatoes) are growing underground. This is a critical point in a potato life & they need regular water to do well.
After they bloom you will notice a decline in appearance. You did not do anything wrong. This is the life of a potato plant. Let the dying begin!
They are actually not dying…. well, the vines are dying, but the stupendous spuds underground are very much alive and thriving.
One day as you visit your garden you may notice that an earthquake has hit the potato bed and there are cracks in the soil. It was not an earth quake. The soil is parting and crevicing because there are mammoth, beautiful potatoes underground moving the earth.
If you brush aside the mulch & dirt you will find a treasure awaiting. Potatoes! Glory! Eureeka!
You can eat these or cover them back up.
Now that the spuds are getting big and really coming along they are going to need a little protection from you. Sunlight is bad for potatoes, it turns them green, makes them bitter, and causes problems. To protect your baking buddies while they continue to grow, just mound some more dirt over them or cover them with a thick layer of straw (about 6 inches).
Feel free to eat potatoes whenever you want. It’s your garden – please enjoy it. As the summer carries on, the tops of the potato plants (vines) will completely die. Your potato patch will be a desert of nothingness (or weeds if you are me). Yes, this is normal!
Once all the vines die it is time to dig up the potatoes (what you haven’t already eaten). In Kentucky this happens in August.
Tips on digging potatoes:
- Be careful. It’s easy to accidentally stab, impale or slice a perfect potato accidentally.
- Pick a dry day. Potatoes are easier to dig up if the soil is dry.
If you plan to store your potatoes do not wash them. Just brush off the dirt and let them dry in the sun a few hours before storing.
Store in a well ventilated crate in cool area. Do not stack them too deep – if the potatoes on the bottom of the pile get crushed they’ll rot the whole bunch.
Wash any that have blemishes or were inadvertently stabbed during digging & eat this week. Store the rest for meals to come.
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Let the mashing begin!