“Never take a knife to your potato,” my father said as he showed me how to gently and deliberately split the holy baked spud with a fork. Add butter and maybe some salt and you have a masterpiece! You see, my great grandfather was Secretary of Agriculture in the state of Maine. And since Maine grows a ‘wicked good’ potato, the Irish delicacy held a reverence in our house that no other vegetable did.
This vegetable, a tuber (root structure that stores nutrients), is a powerhouse in the subsistence garden. It is easy to grow, its culture can be modified for small spaces and containers and it’s a delightful meal fresh from the earth or stored for later. We sell what are called ‘seed potatoes’, not technically seeds but potatoes ideal for beginning new plants in your own garden.
Potatoes like cool weather. An old timer I used to know said to plant potatoes on Good Friday, but depending on the date this could be early or late. The best time in WNC to plant potatoes is between the first or second week of March and the third week of April. They like well amended and well drained soil.
In order to plant the potatoes they are cut into 2 inch cubes each containing at least one eye. These can be planted as soon as they are cut, 12 inches apart in rows about 30” apart. If you are planting a 100’ row with 1- 1 1/2 ounce cubes spaced 12” apart you will need 9 -12 pounds of seed potatoes. Plant the cubed potatoes about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches deep.
Hilling, Straw-Method and Containers for Potatoes
Hilling is the method of piling soil on top of the potatoes as they grow. Personally, I’m not a fan of hilling, in part because it takes precious time and energy from a busy spring schedule.
I use the straw method. You plant your row of potatoes and mulch heavily with good quality straw 6” deep. This method prevents tubers close to the surface from receiving light that will ruin them by turning them green, it minimizes weeds, conserves moisture and prevents disease. Why not do it this way?!
However, if you are an urban gardener you have many options as well! You can plant potatoes in old coffee sacks or 5-gallon containers. You can grow a Potato Tower by creating a box with hardware wire and filling it with compost or soil. In this method the tower is partially filled with compost and the potatoes are planted in the bottom. As the plants grow, more soil is added until the entire tower is full. The buried stems of the potato will make new spuds vertically. Although I have not tried this, I think the biggest challenge of this method is likely keeping it well watered all the way through the tower. If you try this method with our potatoes write us and let us know how it works!
Potato Pests and Diseases
Keep an eye out for the orange potato beetle and late blight. Both the insect and the disease are easy to identify. Beetles and their brightly colored yellow eggs can be smushed regularly. Late Blight can be prevented by planting your potatoes in a place with good air circulation and not over fertilizing.
Finally, potatoes can be harvested when the vines die back. Waiting two weeks after the vines dies back helps cure the skins. Some folks will leave potatoes in the ground to harvest over time but I like to dig them up lest small furry mammals or other pests discover them. They should be cure in a dark, cool place with good air circulation and high humidity before storing them for longer.