High Altitude Gardening: Growing potatoes
As spring approaches, my garage is now well above freezing temps. I am just finishing this past year’s potato harvest, plus the last of my carrots and beets, which are stored in my garage. The remaining potatoes, still healthy and alive, are just sending up their new spring shoots out of their winter storage boxes, anxious to be planted again. Those potatoes that I don’t eat by April will probably end up back in the garden to start next year’s crop, with their shoots already growing.
Most root vegetables do well in Colorado’s high altitude climate, (except for sweet potatoes and rutabagas — they like warmer, southern climates). I like to plant lots of beets, carrots and potatoes because they are fun and easy to grow and offer exceptional nutrition, but also because they store so well. They will stay fresh and alive in your garage (or root cellar) for the entire winter, ensuring your kitchen has a regular supply of healthy, organic, home-grown veggies.
Deep in the dirt
Root vegetables like deep, rich soil — at least 12-inches deep. But it is amazing how much can be grown in just a deep planter box, 2 feet by 2 feet. You can also buy growing bags from supply houses such as http://www.gardeners.com that are cheaper and easier than boxes. Be sure your growing area, whether a garden plot, a raised planter box or bag, has at least 10 inches of topsoil. If you have heavy clay soil common in Colorado, it’s a good idea to add a few inches of sand (purchased in bags at Home Depot). The sand helps break up the soil so the root tubers can expand. Also a few inches of peat moss is excellent to help make the soil more acidic (potatoes love acid soil). Then add about 4 to 6 inches of compost (also available in bags) and mix well.
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Good growing soil is the key to any garden. There are many great soil additives at the garden center to enhance your produce. Adding worm castings, or mycorrhizal fungi found in some composts, or compost starter can jump start the bacterial action necessary for healthy gardens. The bacteria are really responsible for feeding your garden plants, so we like to create a good environment for them. Bacteria like warm and moist soil, and they like compost (their main menu). They also like regular feeding from natural fertilizer. There are dozens of ways to feed your plants (more on this in my garden class). Potatoes really like a molasses tea — just a cup of molasses in a few gallons of water each week.
Beets and carrots are grown from seed, but potatoes grow from other potatoes. We call these “seed potatoes.” Any potatoes will do, I’ve even planted store-bought potatoes if they get old and start sending up shoots. But I like to order my seed potatoes from http://www.potatogarden.com in Austin, Colorado, which are organically grown and are more suited for our climate. They also have a huge selection of white, red, pink, yellow and blue potatoes — over 40 varieties. But pick the “early potatoes” for our shorter season. Their catalog also gives excellent ideas and instructions on growing potatoes.
Plant roots soon
All root vegetables can be planted about two to three weeks before the last frost. Depending on your elevation, this means about mid-May in Eagle, earlier in Gypsum, later in Avon and Vail. It is always a good idea to pre-warm the soil. By early May, mix in the compost and cover the garden with clear plastic to create a mini-greenhouse, and cook the soil for a couple weeks, getting it above 50 degrees. Then follow the directions for planting on the package, keeping the seedlings moist throughout the growing season. You can also get a jump on the growing season by ordering your seed potatoes now, and spread them out on trays in a light area in your house, above 70 degrees. In a couple weeks, they will start to grow, sending up green shoots. Be careful when planting not to break these shoots off. If a late spring frost kills the first green leaves that sprout, no worries. The potatoes in the soil are cozy and will send up new shoots.
Root vegetables can take a full season to grow and will just be ready to harvest as the frost arrives and the leaf canopy dies off. But you can leave them in the ground a few more weeks until the first snow. Then dig them all up carefully, sifting with a fork. An unheated garage makes a perfect root cellar to store veggies, as long as it is just above freezing. Simply layer the freshly dug, unwashed veggies in cardboard boxes, covering each layer with light compost, or sand or sawdust. A little sprinkle of water once a month will keep them fresh and alive through the winter.
Lori Russell teaches a class on high altitude gardening at Colorado Mountain. College. She is also a professional landscaper and can be reached at LoriRussell8@gmail.com.