“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! My great grandfather was the Secretary of Agriculture in the state of Maine. Maine grows a ‘wicked good’ potato, so the Irish delicacy held a reverence in our house that no other vegetable did.
This 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. It’s a delightful meal fresh from the earth or stored for later. At Sow True Seed, we sell what are called ‘seed potatoes,’ which are not technically seeds but potatoes ideal for beginning new plants in your own garden.
How To Plant And Grow Potatoes
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, cut them into 2 inch cubes each containing at least one eye. Plant these after a few days to make sure the exposed flesh does not mold, and instead has made a thin skin over the newly cut part. Plant them 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 is the method of piling soil on top of the potatoes as they grow. Potatoes will create new roots from the stem when you hill them up, creating more opportunity to create tubers off of those roots. This is a great method for small spaces to maximize your yield with height.
I use the straw method. 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.
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, partially fill the tower with compost. Plant potatoes in the bottom. As the plants grow, add soil until the entire tower is full. The buried stems of the potato will make new spuds vertically.
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. Avoid over-fertilizing.
Harvest potatoes 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.