Grow Your Own Potatoes With the Trench & Hill Method

potatoes

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.

grow your own potatoes
Potatoes growing at Runamuk!

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”

potato eyes
The eyes of a potato grow up to be potato plants!

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

curing seed potatoes
I cut my seed potatoes a few days prior to planting.

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

planting seed potatoes
We measured a stick to 12-inches and used it as a guide when planting our seed potatoes.

 

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!

potato beetle larvae
Potato beetle larvae.

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

fresh-dug-potatoes
Freshly dug spuds at Runamuk.

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.

potatoes
Red Norland and Adirondak Blue potatoes, fresh from the garden!

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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grow your own potatoes

Garden Update

With the sowing of green beans on Friday, the garden is finally complete. If I weren’t moving this fall it wouldn’t be “done”, I would continue with succession sowings, planning for fall crops and cold-frames to carry us into the winter with hardy greens. But things being what they are, the green beans are it for this year.

potato patch 2016
Some sexy-looking potato plants!

The garden turned out to be about 120 feet by 30, broken up into 3 sections. The greens, legumes, and root crops in the first third of the garden, tomatoes and peppers in half of the next third, and the “squash neighborhood”─consisting of not just summer and winter squashes, but also cucumbers and some pie-pumpkins, in the other half of that section. And finally a full third of the garden is planted with potatoes. Everything is looking really great!

My commitment to being able to produce the food needed to feed my family was one of the driving forces behind Runamuk, and one of the main reasons I conceded to give up Jim’s farm. It’s hugely important to me to be able to produce my own food for my family and to be able to serve my community as a local farmer. Making a deal with Dirt Capital Partners wouldn’t have left me time for either.

So far this season Paul and I have harvested head and leaf lettuce (decided I don’t want to play with leaf lettuces anymore─pretty but too tedious!), spinach, arugula, kale, snap peas and garlic scapes from the garden. I’ve sold extra head lettuces, garlic scapes and parted with a couple pounds of my snap peas at the Madison Farmers’ Market, but the rest we’ve eaten or stored for winter.

Rhubarb sauce on hot pancakes!
Rhubarb sauce on hot pancakes!

We’ve also done some foraging and harvesting to feed ourselves: fiddleheads grow along the riverbanks, and Paul caught us a couple of bass from the Sandy River, Jim had a well-established patch of asparagus, which we gorged on and even sold or bartered some at the farmers’ market, and the farm supports a beautiful rhubarb patch that fed us too. We ate rhubarb til we were sick of it, sold a little at market, and sold 30 pounds to North Star Orchards.

Note: When I worked at the orchard last fall and winter I helped the Dimmock family package their holiday gift boxes, which were  artfully assembled with a variety of apples, farm-produced jams, and locally produced food products like cheeses, maple syrup , and chocolates. The rhubarb will be made into jams that the Dimmocks sell in their farm-store, or in these gift-boxes. Check it out!

Processing snap-peas for freezing.
Processing snap-peas for freezing.

It’s as important to make time to process the food, as it is to make time to grow it in the first place, but I’ve made a start on it. I’ve put 3 quarts of blanched and frozen snap peas in the freezer (decided to try stringless snap peas next year), and made 3 quarts of scape-vinegar (2 made with apple cider vinegar, and 1 with kombucha vinegar).

The stirrup-hoe knocks down over-grown weeds in a flash!
The stirrup-hoe knocks down over-grown weeds in a flash!

Everything has had at least one dose of fish-fertilizer following transplanting, and the tomatoes have been staked and pruned─they’re looking fabulous; mostly paste tomatoes to be put up for the winter. I love the heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, but with my commitment to producing my own food the need to ensure a harvest has compelled me to take on some hybrid crops. Several varieties of hybrid tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes bred for improved disease resistance and/or increased production have made it into my garden along with my favorite heirlooms.

Now we’re on to the weed-and-water stage of the season, where maintaining it all becomes crucial. I haven’t done too bad keeping the weeds at bay. Sometimes they get tall in the aisles, but I can whack it all into shape rather quickly with my stirrup hoe. Othertimes it’s a more painstaking and time-consuming process, as when it came to weeding the carrot-bed recently.

Things are growing strong─I’ll post again soon to keep you informed; stay tuned folks!

Managing beetles in the organic garden

If you miss the chance to take preventative action, such as in applying neem oil to the leaves and stems of your tomato plants–all in not lost.  In the organic garden, keeping up with the pests who would make a meal of your crops is a never-ending chore.  I go to great lengths to avoid having to cause harm to another living creature–that’s why I utilize companion planting, crop rotation, and practice tolerance of other species.  Even still, at times when nature threatens to overtake the food I’ve grown for human consumption, leaving me with nothing, I must take action.  To avoid injustice to the innocent, I take measures to reduce the numbers of only the troublesome population. Read more