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People have been growing potatoes for at least three thousand years. Potatoes were first grown by the Inca an Maya civilizations in South and Central America. European explorers introduced them to their home countries, and they then came back to the Americas during colonization. They have been a staple crop ever since.
I can remember my grandparents growing rows of potatoes in their garden every year. My parents grew potatoes as well when I was small. I don't think we ever bought potatoes until we moved to town when I was a teenager. Our favorite variety was Kennebec, and I still grow them today. Potatoes are durable, cold hardy, nutritious and keep well in storage. If you have ever considered growing potatoes, and have an extra row or two in your garden, give it a try. They are easy to grow, and will reward your efforts with loads of home grown potatoes.
Planting potatoes is done in the early spring, but because they take a while to mature, you won't harvest them until the summer. Depending on the variety you decide to plant it can take from 2-4 months from planting to harvest.
Traditional potato planting time here in Southern Indiana is around St. Patrick's Day (March 17th), which is around a month before the average last frost date. Potatoes will not begin to grow until the soil temperature reaches 45°F.
If you have a late winter it's best to hold off a couple of extra weeks to plant. Any Spring planting is of course also limited by narrow windows of opportunity when your soil is dry enough to actually work up with a fork or tiller.
Potatoes grow and produce best in light sandy soil, but will produce in heavier clay soil. Light sandy soil also makes digging them infinitely easier at harvest time.
Potato plants are grown from "seed" potatoes that can be purchased from local nurseries and seed sellers, as well as from seed catalogs.
These are potatoes produced and treated especially for growing more potatoes. Commercially grown seed potatoes are treated with fungicide,and cut into pieces. Each piece of seed potato should have at least one eye on it. The eye is where the new plant sprouts from, so no eye means no plant. The seed potato provides nutrients for the new plant until it gets fully established.
OR - if you grow heirloom varieties, you can save some small potatoes from the previous year, and use them for seed. This is my preference. I have maintained the same line of Kennebec potatoes for the last 9 or 10 years using this method. Store your potatoes is a cool, dark, and relatively dry place to overwinter them.
Plant potatoes in a hilled row about 12-16 inches wide by 12-16 inches high. Till the soil deep, and rake or shovel it into hills. A hilling attachment on a tiller makes this job much quicker and easier.
Before planting, lay out your seed potatoes on top of the hilled
row. This lets you see that your spacings are even before you plant. If you are a few potatoes short or have a few extra, you can stretch or compress spacing a a little to make everything fit evenly.
potatoes about 12 inches apart - give or take a couple of inches. If you are using purchased seed potatoes, you'll plant them with the cut portion down. If you're using your own carried over potatoes, it's likely that they will have already sprouted, so plant them so that the sprouts are oriented up.
Plant seed potatoes 3-4 inches deep. If they have sprouts, leave them sticking above the soil if they are long enough. This isn't critical, but it seems to help the new shoots find the surface quicker.
Many of the white shoots that are already on the potatoes will die back in a week or two, but will sprout green growth just below the ground. New shoots will also come directly from the potato, and follow along next to the white shoots to the surface.
After potato plants are about 8 inches high, it's a good idea to rake additional soil up around your potatoes. Hill the soil up so that only an 3 to 4
inches of the plant is left above the soil. New potatoes will grow on
roots in or just below this hilled soil. If you don't hill the soil up,
potatoes forming close to the surface may turn green from sunlight.
It's also a good idea to mulch the hilled soil around the potato plants as well. Straw, or dry grass clippings work well for this purpose. This will help control weeds around the plants as well as assist in keeping sunlight off of shallow growing potatoes.
When potato plants reach mature size, they will begin bloom. Not long after that, the potato plants will begin to die back. This is early to mid July in my area. Once the plants have died back, give them a couple more weeks for the potatoes to mature to fullest size.
Harvesting potatoes is a fairly simple thing although it requires a bit of physical labor. The best tool to use is a potato fork, which is not the same as a pitch or hay fork. Potato forks have tines that are about 3/4 inch wide, and the entire 4 tined tool is only about a foot wide.
Step the fork into the soil about a foot or more away from the base of the potato plant, and rock the handle back towards the ground, until the plant comes up with the soil. You may have to repeat the process on the other side of the plant.
If your soil is sandy and loose the potatoes should just fall away from the soil, and are easily picked up at that time. In a good year, you can expect to harvest around 40-50 pounds of potatoes from a 30 foot row.
Cellaring or Cold Storage - If your plan for growing potatoes includes more than a couple of plants, you need to prepare for storing them after harvest as well. Potatoes are best kept in a cool dark place. A basement or root cellar is the best option, but a cool room will work as well. I keep our potatoes and sweet potatoes in covered bushel baskets in a room on our basement that always seems to be cooler than the rest of the house.
Potatoes kept cool, dark and dry will keep into the winter and early spring. They will become somewhat soft as they slowly loose moisture during the winter. Soft potatoes are still good to eat, as long as they don't turn dark on the inside. Check through your potatoes occasionally to make sure that none are going bad. Discard or use any that are beginning to go bad.
Left over potatoes can be used for seed the following year.
Canning Potatoes - Storing Potatoes can
be accomplished by canning them as well. Because potatoes are low in
acid you have to use the pressure canning method. Most canning recipes call for peeling potatoes. I never peel small potatoes that will be canned whole or only cut into a couple of pieces. These are very tasty when drained, sprinkled with herbs and spices and roasted in the oven. Since they are already cooked, they only need to be baked until they brown off a bit.
The biggest pests of potatoes are Colorado Potato Beetles. They are common pests, and left unattended will strip the leaves of your growing potato patch down to the stems. Potato Beetle damage can reduce your potato crop size, or even kill entire plants. Both the larvae and adult beetles eat the plant. A pesticide spraying routine is the easiest and most effective way to control them. Talk to a garden center or local extension agent to find out what is best (and legal) in your area.
Here is a link from the University of Kentucky that gives more information on Colorado Potato Beetles and other insect pests of potatoes:
Mice, Voles and Moles can tunnel into your potato hill and set up shop. Moles seldom do much damage other than to make tunnels in search of earthworms. Mice and voles do most of the damage by following a mole tunnel. They will actually eat entire potatoes, and leave only the skin.
Growing potatoes can be a great way to improve your food self
sufficiency. Although potatoes can be purchased fairly inexpensively,
it's still a good idea to know how to grow your own. Every single food
skill you can learn gives you that much more control over your own
destiny. There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of potatoes
available for cultivation, of different colors, sizes, and flavors, that
you will never have the opportunity to taste unless you grow them