Potatoes are one of the easiest crops to produce and gardeners can grow their own potatoes using the trench and hill method, even in a first-year garden.
I don’t know about your household, but for ours potatoes are a staple in the pantry, and we go through a LOT of potatoes! Thankfully they’re easy to grow, mercifully reliable, and they keep well through the winter. Every year I make sure to dedicate a fair amount of space to potato production. If you’ve never tried it, I’d strongly encourage you to grow your own potatoes and see for yourself!
Step 1: Purchase “Seed Potatoes”
Potatoes are grown from potatoes, not from seed as with most other crops in the garden. The spuds intended for growing are kept in a state of dormancy until the planting season draws nigh, then they are brought out of refrigeration and allowed to start sprouting. Those eyes you pick and peel away from your taters when preparing dinner? Those are what become your potato plants.
If you’ve only ever seen the selection of potatoes offered by your local grocery store you’ve been missing out on some really fantastic varieties of potato. Seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and The Maine Potato Lady offer all the traditional varieties you’d find at the supermarket: the Yukon Gold and Red Norland, but also purple taters, fingerling taters, and many more. And if you don’t want to pay to have them shipped, most local garden centers offer at least a couple of basic varieties of seed potato─go see what they’ve got available.
Some varieties mature earlier, and other mature later. The early varieties such as the Red Norland and the fingerling varieties are great for fresh-eating through the summer, while the later maturing varieties like the Kennebec and the Russets tend to be better for storing through the winter.
Step 2: Chit Your Potatoes
Essentially chitting is pre-sprouting your seed potatoes. In my experience this has already happened by the time you receive your seed-potatoes, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it. However, on the off chance that you were to get your hands on some un-sprouted spuds, all you would need to do is lay the tubers out in a spot that is 50-degrees and sunny. The eyes will begin to sprout, and once they have reached 3/4 to and inch long they are ready.
Note: Avoid planting leftover potatoes brought home from the grocery store. Usually these have been sprayed with some kind of retardant to prevent them from sprouting eyes, and you will not have the best of luck trying to grow a crop with them.
Step 3: Cut and Cure
Not everyone does this, but cutting the potatoes a few days prior to planting allows the potato flesh to cure─effectively drying the skin─which helps to prevent rot or fungal issues. Cut them into pieces so that there are at least 1-2 eyes per piece, and then spread them out to cure for 2-3 days.
I’ve always cut and cured my taters in advance and have had good luck with it; but if time is short and you need to get this crop in the ground, it’s not the end of the world if you skip the curing.
Step 4: Site Preparation
Potatoes prefer a sandy loam soil, but are a forgiving crop and will produce a harvest in just about any type of soil. The trenching, hoeing and digging involved in potato production is especially helpful in a first-year garden. To prepare for planting of your seed potatoes, hoe a trench 6-12 inches deep, mounding the soil on either side of the trench.
Step 5: Planting
Lay your cut and cured potato pieces in the trench about 12-inches apart, with the eyes pointing up to the sky. These will grow up through the soil to become your potato plants.
Standing on one side of your trench, use your hoe to pull the mounded soil from the opposite side of the trench onto the seed potatoes. Ideally you’ll be covering them with about 6-inches of material. For now, leave the mounded soil on the second side of the trench for hilling later on.
Step 6: Hill the Potato Plants
When the potato plants have grown to be 8-12 inches tall take your hoe and pull the remaining mounded soil onto the potato plants, covering the lower 4-6 inches of the plant and creating a rounded hill all the way down the potato bed.
Step 7: Watch Out for the Potato Beetles!
Potatoes can suffer from leafhoppers and aphids, but mostly it’s the Colorado potato beetle that you need to watch out for. These are yellow and black striped beetles that lay their eggs on the underside of your potato leaves, and when the larvae hatches a few days later it begins to feed upon the leaves. Depending upon the degree of infestation, the larvae can cause significant damage to your crop if left unchecked.
Vigilant home gardeners can watch for the beetles and handpick them, drowning them in soapy water. Watch for yellow-orange eggs on the underside of potato leaves─usually laid in batches of 30. Eliminate the eggs by squishing them or scraping them away with your thumb-nail, or just tear that piece of the leaf off and crush it under the heel of your shoe. If you miss some eggs and find larvae eating your plants, pick these off and either feed them to your chickens or drown the larvae in soapy water.
Commercial growers hoping for a crop to sell at market may want to consider using some kind of pesticide for heavy infestations. Johnny’s Selected Seeds carries several products that are approved for use in organic production, such as the Monterey Garden Insect Spray. I’ve used this product myself in the past to knock-down an infestation and save my plants and crop. Just keep in mind that the beetles can develop a tolerance to it and reserve it for emergencies only.
Growers can also use Agribon (also known as row-cover) to keep insects off their plants and avoid the need for pesticides altogether. If you’re not familiar with Agribon or the concept of covering your rows, check out this article I wrote about using Agribon in the Garden.
Step 8: Harvest
Potatoes are ready to harvest once they reach a usable size─about 50 days for the earlier maturing varieties. Scratch at the side of the bed, and remove a few tubers without disturbing the plant. Be sure to replace the soil when you’re done, so that the potatoes can continue to grow.
Those first spuds of the season will be crisp and juicy; their skin so tender that it tears easily. I like nothing better than to cut the fresh taters into chunks, boil them up, and when they’re done cooking I drain them and toss them with plenty of butter and fresh chopped parsley (another staple in my garden). It’s a favorite summer dish that I learned from Linda, my farming mentor, and I think of her whenever I make it.
Typically mature potatoes are harvested in the fall. The plants will begin to brown and die back. Wait a couple of weeks once the plants have died before harvesting, in order to allow the tuber to develop their skins.
Harvest your crop using a spading fork and lifting the entire root system out of the soil. Try to avoid spearing too many of your spuds, and handle the fresh potatoes carefully to avoid tearing their skins, which are delicate at this stage. Potatoes that accidentally get pierced or cut in the harvesting should be eaten first.
Don’t wash the potatoes─simply brush loose soil off and set them in a well-ventilated spot out of the sun for a couple of days to allow the skins to dry and firm up before you trundle them off to storage.
Grow Your Own!
If your family eats potatoes you should definitely consider growing some. They really are one of the easiest crops to produce, and if the trench and hill method doesn’t sound like the right approach for you and the property where you live, there are many other methods you can try to grow your own potatoes.
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