If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it may be potatoes. I mean, you can prepare them in so many different ways depending on your mood. It is no wonder they are one of the most consumed crops in America and have played such a vital roll in world history.
The potatoes we eat are actually underground tubers. “A much thickened underground part of a stem or rhizome.” (Wikipedia)
Fact- potatoes originated in the Andes mountains. Why is knowing where a crop originated important? When you know where they cam from then, you can determine what types of conditions the plants need to thrive.
Potatoes come in an array of colors and sizes. Although they appear different, they all like the same growing conditions, the difference between the types is the amount of time before harvest, and how they are commonly prepared. Here are the most well-known varieties:
When to grow
Potatoes are a cool-season crop. They grow best when nighttime temperatures are below 70F. Remember, they originated in the Andes mountains, so there is no way they are meant to be grown in hot, humid temperatures like what we experience in a Houston summer.
For spring crops plant potatoes about 3 weeks before the last spring frost. For fall potatoes plant about 16 weeks before the first frost.
Depending on the variety planted, potatoes take between 85-120 days to grow and mature.
Potatoes do not grow from seeds. In fact, they grow from other tubers called seed potatoes. Buy your seed potatoes from a reputable source. Now you can plant the ones from the grocery store, but I do not recommend it. The potatoes in the grocery store are usually sprayed with a root inhibitor to stop them from growing. Also, they are not pure seed potatoes.
Have you ever bought potatoes from the store, left them on your counter for an extended period, and seen what looked like buds sprouting from the potato? These buds or eyes are what grows into a new potato plant.
Depending on which season you are growing the potatoes, you will treat these seed potatoes differently.
For fall planting, you will plant the entire seed potato. Fall time usually has wetter and colder conditions. This excess moisture in the soil has the potential to cause a cut seed potato to rot before it has time to begin growing. If the seed potato rots, you are out of luck. A way to help avoid the rotting issue is to dust the seed potatoes with sulfur before planting. This will also help with the soil pH, more on that later.
If you are planting spring potatoes, you will cut the seed potatoes into smaller pieces. Each piece must have at least one eye. Remember, these eyes are what help grow into the potatoes. There is no need to plant the entire seed potato, but if that’s what you want to do, don’t let me stop you.
After planting the potatoes, don’t be surprised if it takes a while to see some growth. Potatoes go through a rest period before sprouting. During this time is when the seed potatoes have the tendency to rot.
How to grow
Potatoes are fun to grow. Understanding how they grow and produce more tubers is key to your success. All of the tubers we eat from the plant grow above the seed pice we plant. The new tubers cannot be exposed to light, or else they become inedible. To prevent this from happening, you use a method known as hilling. Plant the seed potato relatively shallow around 4-6” beneath the soil. When you see a sprout growing around 3” above the soil, it is time to either add more soil to the top of the row. Honestly, you do not have to use soil, you could add any kind of mulch to the top. I often use straw or left or leaves I have bagged and saved during the winter. Without hilling, you will have a small harvest.
Where to grow
Make sure you have removed any debris from the soil where you plan to plant. You don’t want the tubers bumping into any rocks while growing.
Potatoes prefer full sun, so plant them in any area that receives such. Loose, well-drained, and slightly acidic soil is where potatoes thrive. Planting in an area with poor drainage will result in rotten potatoes.
Potatoes can be grown in a container or directly in garden beds. The versatility is one of the reasons I can produce them every year despite having a relatively small gardening space. If you are going to use a container, make sure it is at least 10 gallons. I have tried growing in 5-gallon containers, while it will work, the yields are relatively low.
Before planting mix in an all-purpose fertilizer into the soil. If you are planting in rows, you can place the fertilizer between the rows. And I only fertilizer before planting. Potatoes do not need much extra fertilization, another reason why they should be grown. For additional fertilization, try using compost during the hilling process instead of soil or straw.
Pests & Problems
Both early and late blight can affect your potato growth. Do not plant in an area where you have recently dealt with these issues.
Potato beetles and aphids are the only pests that I have ever encountered while growing potatoes. There are insecticides, both organic and non-organic, that can deal with these pests.
Tubers and root crops are not visible, so how do you know when its time to harvest? When the tops begin to die, it is time to harvest the potatoes. If you are growing in a container, then this process is simple. No tools are necessary; turn the container over and pour out the contents onto a table, tarp or wherever. Sift through the soil and remove the potatoes. Discard the seed potato when you come across it.
If you are growing in a bed, I recommend using a digging fork. You can also grab the vine and pull. Use the digging fork to make sure that no potatoes remain in the soil.
Eat them fresh or allow them to dry before storing them in a cool place.