Dirty Hands column: How to grow your own potatoes
May 10, 2013
Growing your own potatoes is an easy and rewarding way to enjoy one of the most popular and versatile food crops in the world. Home-grown potatoes are fresher and more flavorful than store-bought. More vitamins and minerals are retained by reducing the time between harvest and consumption. Growing your own is also the best way to ensure that your potatoes have not been exposed to harmful chemicals and pesticides.
Potatoes require full sun and will produce the best yield when planted in a light, loose, well-drained soil. Potato plants prefer slightly acidic conditions. They can tolerate a light frost, but additional frost protection may be necessary for young plants. Potato plants can become prone to soil-borne diseases if planted in the same spot repeatedly. Potatoes grown in containers solve all these problems. Containers allow a choice of potting mediums. Straw and saw dust are great alternatives to potting mix. Containers are great for small spaces and picking the best location in your space. It takes little effort to apply acidic soil amendment or fertilizer in a container. Frost protection is accomplished by simply placing a frost cloth or blanket over and around the container. Disease prevention is not an issue when using new soil each year!
Prepare the potatoes
To start your potato growing adventure you have to purchase and prepare seed potatoes. Purchase potatoes labeled as seed potatoes. Store-bought potatoes have been treated with chemicals to inhibit growth of the eyes. A week or two prior to planting, place your seed potatoes in a bright and warm (60-70 degrees) to induce sprouting. A day or two before planting, use a sharp, clean knife to slice the seed potato into pieces about 1-2-inch squares and with at least one eye. Let these pieces rest for a day or so, allowing calluses to form over the cuts. Fir Bark Dust is a natural fungicide that aids in drying the fresh cut and preventing the seed from rotting.
Once your potato pieces are ready, you're ready to plant. To plant in your garden, dig trenches 6-10 inches deep, 2-3 feet apart, set seeds 15 inches apart and cover with soil. Or designate a 3-4 foot circle, dug 6-10 inches deep and space seeds evenly around the circle and cover with soil. Container ideas include potato planter bags, nursery pots, trash cans or plastic buckets. Potato planter bags are capable of holding three to five plants and have a "trap door" at the base to make harvesting easy. Pick a large container with good drainage and place approximately 3 inches of potting mix in the container. Add three to five pieces of potato and cover with another 3 inches of potting mix. As the plant grows 8 inches tall, add more potting mix leaving the top 3 inches of the stem of the plant exposed. This process is called "hilling" and significantly increases yield and tuber size. Repeat hilling as often as you like, ensuring that there is enough soil above the forming potatoes to keep them from being exposed to light. Potatoes that are exposed to light during growth will develop unattractive and bitter tasting green spots.
The straw bale solution
Another way to grow potatoes is in straw bales. Straw bales make a great garden for a variety of vegetables. Bales will need to be prepped with bone meal and a 10-10-10 fertilizer over a period of 10 days. This 10 day prep will speed decomposition and create rich compost within the bale. Once prepped, plant potato cuttings 4-6 inches deep, 6-12 inches apart; typically, about four cuttings per bale.
Keep your potatoes well watered through the summer, especially during and right after flowering. Fertilize the container monthly with a time-release, granular formula. Preferably an acidic formula or supplement an all-purpose fertilizer with an acidic amendment. This is especially important as the nutrients are washed out with every watering. You can start to harvest "new" potatoes two to three weeks after the plants have finished flowering. When foliage yellows and dies back, stop watering and allow the tubers to mature for a week or two before starting to harvest. If your plants have not begun to die back by the cold weather of fall, cut off the foliage to ensure that your crop has ample time to mature before the ground freezes. To harvest, simply tip the container over and sift through for your potatoes. The remaining soil can be tossed into your compost pile if there are no signs of bugs or fungus.
If you wish to store your potatoes for future use, then they need to be dried. This drying process thickens the skin, which protects the tuber and retains moisture during storage. If the weather is dry, lay unwashed potatoes on the soil surface for 2-3 days. If it's raining, then move your harvest to a cool, dry area such as a garage or basement for the drying period. Store dried, un-washed and undamaged potatoes in a dark, cool, well-ventilated location where they should keep well for three to six months.
For more information, connect with Colorado Alpines and Wildflower Farm on several social media channels. When connected, you'll receive current news, seasonal tips and exclusive discounts. Colorado Alpines, providing full landscape services, and Wildflower Farm, the valley's only year-round retail garden center, are both located in Edwards on U.S. Highway 6. Reach them at 970-926-5504 or email at email@example.com.