QUESTION: I’d like to take a first stab this year at growing potatoes. When do I plant these? Is this the right time of year? Any tips or pointers? – Anne-Marie Farmer
The time to plant potatoes is now. And what a great thing to try if you’ve never done it before! Freshly-dug potatoes, washed and then cooked and served with a little butter, a little salt and pepper, are a real treat.
Potatoes grow best in soil that drains well, so if you need to improve the drainage in your garden bed, add organic matter in the form of compost or rotted manure and till it in. In their book Guide to Tennessee Vegetable Gardening, garden experts Felder Rushing and Walter Reeves suggest spreading a complete fertilizer (1 pound of 10-10-10 per square foot). Till or spade the bed to a depth of 6 or 8 inches, remove any roots and rocks and break up any clods.
You probably already know that what you plant is not seeds, but seed pieces – sections of potatoes cut in such a way that each piece contains one or two “eyes.” Be sure to use certified seed potatoes, not potatoes from the grocery store (which have been treated with inhibitors that keep them from sprouting too soon). If the seed potato has already sprouted, you have a head start. Cut the tuber into pieces and spread them out to dry a couple of days before you plant them.
When you plant in rows, place the seed pieces 12 to 15 inches apart, with 24 inches between rows. In a bed, space the pieces 18 to 24 inches apart. Plant them 2 to 3 inches deep with the eyes up, and cover them with soil.
Now here’s where a little care and attention pays off: When the sprouts reach about 6 inches, pile soil from between the rows up around the plants. Potatoes develop in the dark, and this covers the tubers growing underground. The hills of soil should end up being about 6 inches high. If we don’t get regular rain, provide about an inch of water a week to the potato bed because dry weather hampers potato production.
Eventually, the plants will open pretty little flowers, and small potatoes are usually ready when those first flowers appear. You’ll find them 4 to 6 inches below the top of the soil, so dig carefully to find those little gems. When the vines begin to turn yellow, dig the potatoes that are left in the ground.
There are other potato growing methods that are more unusual. If your soil is poor, you can grow potatoes above ground by pushing them into the soil surface and covering them with 6 inches of clean straw. The seed pieces will root into the soil, but the potatoes will grow at the soil surface. Add more straw as the tubers develop.
There are also potato-growing containers available. Gardener’s Supply Company has polypropylene grow bags that they say make it possible to grow potatoes in any sunny location. (A side note: I tried two grow bags for potatoes last year, but had better luck growing potatoes in the ground).
There are dozens of potato varieties available. The advantage of growing your own, of course, is that you can try varieties that you won’t normally find in the grocery store.
Potatoes – Solanum tuberosum