If you want to be growing food that you eat, grow potatoes. It is a high yield, easy to grow crop. Plus, potatoes store well for months. A must-have in the garden.
We do not share the view that potatoes are bad for you, just because they are starchy. Potatoes are yummy and good for you. Since potatoes are on the dirty dozen list, it is worth it to grow them at home.
To write up a how-to guide on growing potatoes is almost impossible. There are so many ways to grow potatoes, it really depends on your preference and situation. Find what works best for you and grow potatoes.
In a supermarket you can get the impression that there are just two potato varieties: red or white. In reality there are many very different varieties in color, texture, and taste. Also early, mid season, and late. Some store better than others. To get inspired take a look at Eagle Creek, a potato seed farm just north of us, offering over 40 different potato varieties that all grow well in a short growing season.
Norland potatoes – an early variety, grow well here in our short summers and store well.
Purple Caribe – known as a mid season, ripens sometimes even before Norland. It has a satiny blue-purple skin; whiter-than-white flesh. Mmm!
German Butterball – a late variety. Fantastic buttery flavor in these oval heirloom potatoes. Great for eating fresh or for storing throughout the winter.
Yukon Gold – mid-season variety is another great potato.
Also, a great yellow potato is Bintje, it was my father’s favorite.
If you want something really exotic, grow Russian Blue. Those dark purple potatoes taste just like a good potato should but will sure be a conversation topic at your dinner table. Plus there is an Anti-Inflammatory effects of purple potatoes.
As you see, there are lots of exciting potatoes to grow and to enjoy.
Potatoes love to grow. Whenever they get even a bit of light, they start growing those long shoots. You did not know? Well, that’s because you have been eating heavily treated potatoes. Those do not grow. But a real potato is a seed and wants to grow.
Yes, every potato by design is a seed potato. But since not every potato has been grown naturally, it is a good idea to get good seed potatoes.
You can easily save your own seed potato. Healthy, medium-sized potatoes make great seed potatoes. Also, green potatoes, that are not good for food but store well, make good seed potatoes. Every few years, if the production decreases, you can bring in new seed potatoes.
Seed potatoes can be prepared by laying them out into a bright location and let them grow sprouts. Also, if you have big potatoes, cut them beforehand, so the cut dries over and does not start to rot in the ground. This is not a must but can help.
Potatoes can be grown in many ways. In fact, I do not think there is a right or wrong way to grow potatoes. It mostly depends on your possibilities and preference.
Traditionally potatoes are planted in rows 3ft (ca. 91 cm) apart. The space between potatoes within a row depends on the variety. Early varieties can be planted close together (6″-10″), as they tend to have a low number of tubers per hill. Mid season varieties are generally planted 8″ to 12″ apart. Late Season Varieties & Fingerling Varieties should be planted 12″ apart or more.
Once or twice during the growing season pull soil up around the stems of the potato plants to hill them. The loose soil helps the developing tubers to expand easily and prevent the potatoes from getting “green” from the sun.
Potatoes can also be hilled with straw, leaves, or soil building material. The pioneer in this easy mulching method was Ruth Stout, here’s her book: Gardening Without Work. However, to bury the seed potatoes a couple of inches into the soil seems to work better than just placing them on the soil and covering them with a thick layer of hay or straw. You can read all about it at Better hens and gardens.
There is no limit to the mulch that can be used to hill potatoes, as long as it is organic. Some gardeners even hill them with garden waste, turn the potato bed into a passive compost pile. The potatoes grow tall and cover the mess nicely.
Potatoes can also be grown in containers. The idea is to fill the container half full, plant potatoes and fill up the soil as the potatoes grow. See this enormous harvest of container grown potatoes. All kinds of containers, bags, or tires can be used.
The Old World Garden Farms adapted the growing of potatoes “container style” to a more natural way. They created Potato Crates from non-treated pallet wood – and were very surprised with the results! Read about it here.
Last but not least, the simplest way to grow potatoes is under wood chips (See link, start at 10:38). Under wood chip mulch, potatoes do not need to be hilled, or weeded, or dug up. Everything is done by hand. It is even possible to be harvesting and planting potatoes the same day if you are in a more temperate climate.
Potato scab is one of the most common potato diseases. In common language it might also be known as blight. However, scab and blight are not the same. Scab is a bacterial disease that only affects the outer skin of the potato. It looks worse than it is. Potatoes are still edible and even store well with scab. Scab occurs if the soil is to dry, or if there is too much nitrogen rich fertilizer. Read more about the disease and varieties that are resistant to it here.
Potato blight, on the other hand, is a fungus, the worse disease a potato grower can have. Blight develops in warm and humid conditions and is not common in our climate.
Other problems are white Spots on Potatoes Lenticels & Potato Stem Rot.
Colorado Potato Beetle
Thankfully we do not have to deal with this problem here at Northern Homestead. But, we did make some experiences with CPB in our year living in Virginia. Spraying the beetles was part of Jakobs job in the summer. It was not our garden, so Jakob just did what he was told to do, but could clearly see that it did not work. The potatoes died before the beetles did.
We visited a great gardener in the next town and ware amazed to see that her garden didn’t have the beetle problem. She simply was knocking the larva off the plants, instead of picking or spraying them. It seemed that she got them early on (you can easily judge the larval stage they’re at by appearance), they’d have a hard to impossible time of getting back on the plants. In the morning she would quickly shake out rows of plants, and not see a return of Colorado potato beetles.
As soon as potato plants start to flower (by the way, those are beautiful flowers, and first potato plants were known only as flowers before people knew that the tubers are so yummy), there are some young potatoes underneath that can be harvested. You can pull those potatoes, without killing the plant.
Young potatoes have very thin skin. The thicker skin develops as the plant stops growing and starts to die back. In our short growing season, this often happens by frost. Light frost kills the plant and stops the growing, the potatoes can mature.
When the plant starts to die back, the potatoes are ready to be harvested for storage. At this stage, the skin has developed and the tubers will store for months.
If possible, choose a dry period to harvest potatoes. Now it really does make a difference what method was used to grow them. The traditional method will involve hard work to dig all those potatoes up. Maybe that is the reason why so many easier ways have been developed, to eliminate all the back breaking digging. No matter how you get them out, try not to stab any.
Here an 800g (1.76 pounds) potato, and a 250g (o,55 pounds) carrot that we grew at the farm garden.
Let the tubers dry out a bit (just for an hour or two as needed to dry), before storing them. Do not leave potatoes for days in bright light, even worse under sunlight. They will get green.
Also, do not wash the potatoes, they will store better for you if you don’t. Give them a week or two for drying or “curing” in a warmish (about 60F) but a dark place. This will help to heal any cuts or bruises and make the skin stronger for long time storage. This often happens naturally for us, since our storage room tends to be warmer before winter conditions set in.
After the curing, potatoes need a cool (35 -40F) dark place. Even though we find, that the dark is more important than the temperature.
When potatoes start sprouting, and they will, take those sprouts off. It will help them to stay firm longer. I often go twice through all the potatoes to get rid of unwanted sprouts.
Potatoes are yummy and nutritious vegetables as long as you do not boil them out in lots of salty water. Think about it, if you brew yourself some tea, you drink the tea and throw out the leaves. If you cook yourself some potatoes, you eat the potatoes and throw out the water. What is the difference? How much do you think gets lost if you boil something for 20 minutes? Just like other vegetables, potatoes do taste best steamed. See how to steam vegetables without a steamer.
What is your favourite way to grow potatoes?