We may not know how to grow potatoes, but we sure do love to eat them. French fries, baked potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, curly fries, steak fries, twice cooked potatoes, the list goes on and on. There’s an ironic twist to how the potato became America’s favorite vegetable.
It’s estimated the first potato was cultivated by the Inca Indians in @ 200 B.C. and was only grown in South America. In 1537 the Spanish Conquistadors invaded Peru, stealing everything they could carry back to Spain, including the potato, which quickly became a favorite food of the upper class. However, it wasn’t until 1621, nearly a 100 years later, the potato was introduced to North America by Spanish and other settlers coming back across the Atlantic Ocean. As they say … the rest is history.
Requirements for How to Grow Potatoes
Potatoes, regardless of variety, require full sun in which to develop, and because they are aggressive rooting plants, light, loose, well-drained loamy soil is the best environment. A slightly acidity soil of pH 5.8 to 6.5 is a plus. Fortunately for us, the novice farmer, potatoes are very adaptable and will produce a crop regardless of conditions, but obviously the better the conditions the more yield. It must be noted potatoes can only be planted in the same location for 3 years, thus you’ll have to have 3 different spaces to plant if you are going to make it a yearly crop.
You can begin planting potatoes as soon as the ground can be worked in early Spring, but unless you plan on trying to grow two crops of potatoes, one for eating or selling, and one for storage over the winter, bide your time in rushing the planting. You can not rush Mother Nature and until the soil reaches a constant temperature of 45 degrees F, the potato will not root.
The soil should be somewhat moist, but not wet or soggy. Planting in conditions too wet will run the risk of the seed being entombed in the mud, or the bulb rotting before it has an opportunity to begin rooting. Should the weather unexpectedly turn sour, potatoes can withstand a mild frost on their own. However, it’s best to throw a thin layer of straw over the plantings.
What to Plant
Unless you have some knowledge of potatoes you may not even know what to plant to grow them. Bulbs, chunks, seedlings, however you describe them are planted in the soil, totally covered. It is possible, I have done it, to take regular potatoes from the grocery store, dice them into 2” or 3” squares or chunks, the potato square must contain a potato eye, preferably more than one, as that is where your potato root will grow from. I don’t recommend this method unless you’re just trying a little experiment or don’t want any cash outlay. Rather I would use Certified seed Potatoes that are 99.9% disease free, will offer the greatest yield and be the easiest to grow. You can buy Certified seed Potatoes at most quality nurseries or garden centers.
A week or so before you decide your planting date, set your seed potatoes somewhere where they will be exposed to warmth, at least 60 to 70 degrees F and lots of light. This will provoke them to begin sprouting, offering a head start to rooting in the ground.
A day or two before planting, use a very sharp clean knife and cut the seed potatoes into small pieces insuring at least 2 eyes, buds, are in each piece. Small seed potatoes can be planted whole without cutting it. There’s no need to worry about rot as the open cut will quickly be covered by a hard callous to protect it.
Getting Them in the Ground
We now know quite a bit about how to grow potatoes, but now comes the manual labor. Traditionally potatoes are grown in rows, planting a seed every 15”, allowing for growth, and in rows 2 ½ to 3 feet apart. (There are other methods we will cover shortly.)
It’s essential that before planting the soil be turned and cultivated one last time in order to loosen the soil, remove weeds, rocks or other debris.
If possible cover the planting area with compost or well composted manure. This will feed your plants making them healthier, more yield and more disease resistant. It’s strongly recommended the manure be mixed in with the cultivated soil prior to planting and not thrown on top of the plants. Too much organic material coming in contact with the potato can cause Potato Scab, which is a bacterial infection which although not actually hurting the edibility of the potato, looks very unappetizing. It would be surprising if anyone, who was not starving, would want to eat it.
Dig a shallow trench about 4 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep. Decide what size potatoes you want to grow because seed placement determines size. Most people plant the seed potato every 15”, but if you desire a quick “miniature” potato for stews and soups, plant them every 4 inches apart.
Regardless of spacing, place the potato seeds into the trench (Cut side down) and cover with about 3” to 4” of soil.
Depending on soil temperature, potato sprouts should emerge in about 2 weeks. When you see these sprouts add another 3 to 4 inches of soil over the sprouts.
It’s important to know the crop of potatoes you are growing will form between the seed piece and the soil surface. That’s why covering and recovering the plants are essential. At this point the stems should be about 8 inches high. Add enough dirt to cover the sprout half way up.
Another adding of dirt will be required in the next 2 – 3 weeks, again building the dirt to half way up the height of the stem. It’s important to add an inch or two of dirt weekly in order to ensure the growing potato is not exposed to sunlight. There is the possibility of new potatoes exposed to sunlight while they are growing and developing, will turn green and may be toxic.
How to Grow Potatoes in Potato Mounds
You can utilize potato mounds if you don’t want to plant your crop in rows or are squeezed for space. Identical to the planting in rows the dirt covering process is the same. The difference is the space required to grow the potatoes.
Cultivate and loosen the soil where you plan to plant. The mound should be @ 3-4 feet in diameter. Plant 6-8 seed potatoes evenly around the circle and cover with about 4 inches of soil. A 3-4 foot diameter mound will support 6 to 8 potato plants.
In order to maximize crop production, keep your potato vines well watered throughout the summer, especially during the time they are flowering, because this is when the plant is creating new tubers and water is critical to accomplish good growth.
Water early in the day, saturating the plants, but allowing them to thoroughly dry before evening. (wet foliage can allow several different types of diseases to form.) When the foliage turns yellow and dies off, stop watering the plants allowing them to mature for a week or two before you harvest.
Reaping the Rewards
It’s now time to harvest your crop. Begin by carefully digging a foot or more outside the row or mound. Be careful to work slowly because the potatoes have no set spacing, you’ll uncover them as you search. If the weather is dry, as you harvest the potatoes place them on the ground unwashed for 2-3 days so they can dry. If the weather presents the possibly of rain, store the potatoes in a cool dry place, like a garage or basement. This drying stage allows the potato skin to mature which protects the potato from injury during storage. As you can see, how to grow potatoes is not that difficult as long as you utilize a little patience and the knowledge you learned here.
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