So potatoes, there are the Russets, Reds and Yukon Golds. These are the most popular around here anyway. Heirloom varieties are coming back making them much easier to find and it’s about time! I can’t wait to plant some blue skin/ blue flesh potatoes! This season check out a new (old) variety in addition to the usual.
When preparing you plot for potatoes keep a few things in mind: Potatoes need deeply cultivated soil. This allows the roots and potatoes to more easily develop. They also grow the best in acidic soil. (If you remember from the “Compost” article wood ashes will give your soil more alkaline properties, so when you add your compost be sure to use the pile that you haven’t been putting ash into.)
Potatoes can be planted in the early spring because they can handle a light frost and can stay in the ground in the fall through a frost as well. A cooler growing season is perfect to get a great harvest.
Potatoes do flower and produce tiny little seeds, however these don’t make for a good planting seed. You will want to start with seed potatoes. Each potato has multiple “eyes”, which are little dents that if left in a cool place will sprout. The eyes tend to be very dense at one end of the potato and spread thinner over the rest. To plant your potatoes, cut a seed potato so that each piece has at least one eye. I would recommend doing this yourself as well as getting your seed locally. If they come pre-cut they are treated with chemical which you don’t want; do you?
There are a couple common ways to sow your potatoes. My dad would dig a hole 3 inches deep after the last frost or 6 inches deep before the last frost, about 18 inches apart (maybe a little more). Us kids would follow behind placing the seed potato in each hole, eyes up. It is very important the eye is up when you plant. Then cover with dirt. In years past I have had very limited garden space so I began by digging a trench, same depth as before and placing my seed about 6 inches apart. Then cover with dirt. You can also plant your potatoes by placing the seed on top of the soil, cover with at least a foot of straw and water well. All ways will show sprouts in 3 to 4 weeks. If you plant in straw you won’t get as great of a yield but they are much easier to dig, because all you need to do is rake away the straw.
Hilling the potato plants is not necessary but will increase your harvest. By this I mean when the plant gets about a foot tall or so take your hoe and pull soil up around the stem/stalk up to the leaves. I usually do this twice during the growing season. Potatoes grow from the root vines under the plant, adding soil up the stem will encourage more root vines to grow. When planting close together in a trench hill the row as a whole. The soil will fall between the plants, then you won’t risk harming neighboring plants if you hoe between.
To harvest potatoes simply dig. This sounds like a pretty easy task, but is really a lot of work too. They are fully grown when to stem and leaves have dried and turned brown. They can be dug and eaten before full maturity, these are known as new potatoes. I use a pitch fork to dig. I stick it in the ground at the bottom of each potato hill and lift. The bigger potatoes will be resting between the tines. A little extra digging may be needed to get any smaller ones left behind. Any small ones I miss our lab mutt, Diesel, finds. He digs each hole behind me and eats what he finds no matter how many times I try to chase him out of the garden. (He really likes “helping” pick green beans too)
Before you store your potatoes for the winter they should be sorted. The very little ones, can be used right away as “new potatoes”. Any ones that I “got” with the pitch fork go to the kitchen right away and are used first, whether we eat them fresh or clean them up for canning or dehydrating. Then the rest are spread out on thee floor of the root cellar, basement or garage and allowed to cure and dry for about 2 weeks before they are put in the potato bins for storage.
If you’ve got a lot going on and just don’t have time to process one more crop, potato bins in a cool basement or root cellar it the best way to keep your potatoes. They can be canned I have with no problem. Just be sure they are very clean. Canning is not recommended by the USDA ( I don’t believe many of their regulations) and it is said they can only be canned in a pressure cooker. So I will leave that up to you. Dehydrating potatoes is very easy too. Slice into 1/8 inch slices or dice them into small pieces, blanch them in salt water and spread thin on your drying trays. I use a dehydrator rather than open air or the oven because I can get more done at one time and I don’t have to worry about somehow stealing them (he has been found with potatoes from the bins and I’m not sure how he does this yet).
Sweet potatoes are grown like potatoes but are actually not related. They love warm weather, opposite of potatoes. They come in a variety of colors from the deep orange that we are most familiar with, to red, white, yellow and brown.
Sweet potatoes do not have eyes, but if you keep them long enough they will sprout, these are called “slips”. You can then grow the slips in a hot bed, buried about 3 inches apart, only covered halfway. They need at least a foot deep of soil if you are doing this indoors. This can also be done in a tray of water. Either way they need a constant temperature of 75-80 degrees.
Once the slips are at least 8 inches longs and have little roots growing from them, they can be carefully plucked from the original root and planted in the garden. If your not able to keep them at least 75 degrees in the garden, transfer them to a hotbed first. These should be planted 3 inches deep and 3 inches apart in a hot bed. When in the garden give about 3 feet between plants.
Once the plants are growing well and have vines at least 3 feet long you can take a cutting from it, about 8 inches long or so and plant the cutting. Plant all but the top couple inches. When doing this again watch the temperature as well and make sure they have plenty of water.
To harvest the sweet potatoes don’t wait for the tops to dry. If the tops get hit with a frost and turn black the potatoes need to be dug immediately because this will affect the taste and it’s not good. The best way to know if the potatoes are of picking size is to dig up a plant and check. Digging these is done in the same manner as potatoes.
Before storing these they need to be set out to cure as well. This is the hard part in the north, they need to cure in a place with a temperature of 80-90 degrees for about 2 weeks. They are usually not ready to be harvested until October… See the problem? If you have an indoor wood stove that will heat the area, this will work, assuming you are ready to start burning wood that early in the season. Once they are cured they can be stored like potatoes. Be careful not to bruise them during the process, this can cause them to mold much quicker and if one molds it can easily spread to others.