Whether you call them potatoes, taters or spuds, potatoes are a staple in the diet of many people all across the planet. This nutritious starchy vegetable is also incredibly easy to grow. But before you run out to the garden with your shovel and hoe, there are a few things to know about planting potatoes.
You may have heard the old saying that planting potatoes should always be done on Good Friday. This is an old wives' tale that should be forgotten. Good Friday does not fall on the same calendar date each year and many parts of the country are still deeply buried under snow at that time.
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Be patient and don't begin planting potatoes too early while the ground is still icy. Potatoes do tolerate cool soil and a light frost, but not much growth will take place until the soil warms up a bit.
You won't find potato seedlings or packets of potato seeds for sale at your local garden center. Instead, potatoes are most often grown from seed potatoes. A seed potato is nothing more than an ordinary potato with at least one eye or sprout. Garden centers and seed catalogs offer an amazing variety of seed potatoes, from all-purpose Kennebecs, to delightful French Fingerlings or red skin varieties such as Rose Gold.
If you plan on planting potatoes in your garden each year, you can save some unblemished potatoes from the previous season and use those as your seed potatoes. This is how gardeners and farmers have traditionally grown potatoes for centuries.
Seed potatoes may be planted whole or cut into pieces with at least one eye per piece. Seed potatoes with more eyes will grow to produce a larger quantity of smaller potatoes, while seed potatoes with fewer eyes will produce fewer, but larger potatoes.
If you choose to cut your seed potatoes into smaller pieces, divide them the day before planting your potatoes. This will allow the cut to slightly heal which helps to prevent soil-borne diseases from infecting your potato crop. Always choose seed potatoes that are free from blemishes or insect damage.
Plant your seed potatoes two to three inches deep in good, rich soil. Rows of potatoes should be about three feet apart and the potatoes within the row should be about a foot apart. To prevent scab on your potatoes, toss a handful of dry pine needles in each hole with the seed potato. Scab is a soil-borne disease that causes ugly scab-like blemishes on the potato skins. Planting your potatoes in a different area of your garden each year will also help prevent scab.
Depending on the warmth of the soil, potato plants grown from seed potatoes will begin to emerge one to three weeks after planting. When the plants are about a foot tall, use your hoe to mound six to eight inches of soil against the potato plants. This is called "hilling" and it ensures the little potatoes will stay out of the sunlight that causes them to become bitter and green.
You may see small round fruits developing amongst the foliage after a potato plant flowers. These little berries contain true potato seed. While it is possible to grow a new potato plant from true potato seeds, it isn't often done in the home garden. Potato plants that are grown from true potato seeds will produce fewer potatoes than those grown from seed potatoes, and the potatoes also tend to be smaller.
Not every potato plant will develop berries after flowering, but when they do, those berries contain hundreds of very tiny seeds. If you want to experiment with planting potatoes from true potato seed, gather the berries when they have matured and become soft, with a texture like a ripe tomato. Place the berries into a blender with a bit of water and give them a whirl, just enough to break up the berries.
Then pour the mixture into a bowl and let it sit for a day. The seeds will sink while the pulp floats to the top. Rinse the seeds several times to remove any remaining pulp and spread the clean seeds onto a newspaper or paper plate to dry. In the spring, about a month before it's time for planting potatoes, plant the seeds in a flat indoors to give them a head start.
When planting potatoes from true potato seeds, you don't need to be concerned with safely storing seed potatoes over winter, but the process is a bit more complicated than saving and planting seed potatoes.
If you do not plan on saving seeds from the berries produced by your potato plants, the berries should be clipped from the plant as soon as they appear. This will allow the plant to put all of its energy into growing more potatoes.
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No matter how you start your potato plants, keep them evenly watered during the growing season. Once the plants have bloomed, you can begin to harvest little new potatoes. Use a garden fork rather than a spade to carefully lift the soil, beginning about a foot from the edge of the plant. You're less likely to accidentally damage the potatoes if a garden fork is used to lift the tubers.
Once the foliage has begun to dry and die back, the entire crop can be dug. Just like planting potatoes, harvesting them is something the whole family will enjoy. Kids especially love to harvest potatoes, searching through the soil as if they were hunting Easter eggs. Once they are all dug, allow the potatoes to dry for a day or two out of direct sunlight before storing them in a cool, dry and dark place.
Freshly dug potatoes taste so much better than any you can buy at a supermarket. Grow some yourself and discover how easy and fun it is to produce a staple crop of delicious potatoes for your family.