Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and I decided to celebrate in true style by planting this year’s first crop of potatoes. Why, you might ask, would I plant potatoes when I can get them incredibly cheap at the store? Well, for a few reasons:
- Non-organic potatoes are cheap, yes, but organic potatoes (which is what I buy) are, well, less so. But they’re still pretty cheap, so this isn’t my main reason.
- The grocery store generally only carries a few very basic varieties of potatoes: russet, white waxy (waxy = not as starchy as russets, more likely to stay in large chunks when cooked rather than crumble into mush, so better for things like potato salad) potatoes, and red waxy potatoes. Sure, you can get a few of the more interesting varieties at the farmer’s market, but if you plant your own you have many more options! Blue potatoes, even!
- Harvesting potatoes is like digging for buried treasure. Since they grow underground, you never know just how much of a harvest you’re going to get until you do it. And despite potatoes being a stereotypical “peasant food”, there’s something very romantic about a cool, soil-covered potato just unearthed from the ground on a hot summer day.
I picked out three varieties of seed potatoes from the current selection at Mountain Feed: German Butterball, Red LaSoda, and French Fingerling. (Alas! They had no blue potatoes.) Seed potatoes, despite the name, are not actually seeds, but small potatoes themselves. Each package was $4.99 for ten seed potatoes, about 3/4 lb.
Next, I cut each of the larger seed potatoes into two or three smaller pieces, making sure that each piece had at least two eyes. The new potato roots and shoots will grow from these eyes.
Now it was time to prep the growing area. You can certainly plant potatoes directly in the ground, but you will get increased yields if you continually mound soil or straw over the plants through the growing season: the buried stems will grow roots, which will in turn grow more potatoes. Rather than having to dig through a huge mound of soil at the end of the growing season (very labor intensive!) I am instead growing my potatoes upward in wire cages, which I can then simply knock over and sift through at harvest time.
You can see the cages behind me in the above photo. I made these by cutting 6-foot lengths of 5-foot tall concrete reinforcement wire and forming each into a circle, which gives me a cage with an almost-two-foot diameter; a slightly larger-diameter, shorter cage would probably work better for potatoes, but I use these cages as tomato cages and to support my pole beans, as well, and I’d rather have a bunch of cages of the same size than specialized cages for each task. So one size it is.
Once I placed my cages where I’ll be growing my potatoes, I lined the bottom foot of each cage with a thick layer of straw, and then filled in with a mixture of compost and garden soil.
I then laid several pieces of seed potato on top of the soil and then pushed them in, so they were covered by a couple of inches of soil.
(I probably only needed to use half as many potato pieces per cage – I split each pack of seed potatoes into two cages – but I just didn’t want to have twelves cages of potatoes this year!)
Now all I have to do is water the potatoes (it’s supposed to rain later this week, so I’ll just wait for that, and water in a few days if it doesn’t end up raining) and wait. As potato shoots begin to push up above the soil surface, I’ll cover them with straw, leaving just a few inches of green shoots above the surface, and in no time I should have potatoes!