A 21st Century Homemaker's Castings on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Whatever Necessity Requires
When it comes to potatoes, aren’t we all a bit Irish? I adore the earthy orbs, baked, boiled, steamed, or fried; and I’d be quite content to eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When I ate my first homegrown ones though — little baby spring taters robbed from the plants that morning and then steamed tender and drenched in butter — I knew not only was I Irish, I’d be a Potato Farmer for life.
What follows is our family’s guide to growing Irish potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, in the Piedmont of North Carolina. If the geographic emphasis in the title doesn’t give the clue: planting Irish potatoes is heavily location specific. These ideas work for us, here in Durham, N.C. For planting in your neck of the woods, take care to research tips specific to your region.
1. Set your intention to grow potatoes. Do not make the buying of seed potatoes your first step. Not only does your garden require preparation to accept the potatoes, but you too must open your life to them. A single crop of taters takes months to produce, and you must also go in with eyes wide open to the fact that homegrown taters are addicting. Your first season may well be the start of years and years of garden labor!
2. Decide where you are going to plant. Potatoes need a constant water supply, medium-full sun, and plenty of room. Seeds are generally sown 12 inches apart and each plant will produce about 4-6 potatoes. Because of the insects that potatoes attract, it’s a good idea to never plant them in consecutive years in the same place. Tomatoes and eggplant also are blessed with similar insect pests, so you’ll also need to figure them into your crop rotation, keeping them separate in the same year and not planting potatoes where tomatoes or eggplant grew last year.
3. Prepare the earth. Potatoes grow best in soil that is loose enough to allow them to expand. Around these parts, where red clay reigns, that means that the most labor intensive part of growing potatoes is adding organic matter to the earth. We begin by tilling the ground in September or October with our trusty Troy-Bilt tiller to a depth of 6-8 inches. We will also till in at this time any grass clippings, dead leaves and well-decayed wood mulch we have available. (Braver and stronger souls can do the tilling and breaking of ground by hand with a pick axe, shovel and hoe.) Then we sow a cover crop, typically of Wren’s Abruzzi Winter Rye and Hairy Vetch. This grows throughout the winter and in early February we till all that lovely green matter directly into the soil. Soil preparation and maintenance is an ongoing part of our garden work, and every year our soil gets happier and our potatoes grow larger. In soil that’s already ready to receive taters, you may consider following the alternate Fall planting idea, detailed in #14 below.
4. Select a seed potato vendor. Note first off that seed potatoes are simply potatoes: each of the “eyes” on a potato has the potential to grow into a new potato plant. While you can, and we do for our Fall planting, grow from a prior harvest, because of potatoes tendency to blight and other diseases, I recommend purchasing your seed potatoes from a certified source. We have purchased from Maine’s Fedco Seeds Moose Tubers and from Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange. Fedco was more cost effective, but the earliest they can ship is April 12th, a very late planting time for us. We’d love to hear where you obtain your seed potatoes — please leave a note in the comments!
5. Place your seed potato order. This is the fun part. When we first ordered, I was blown away by the vast array of tubers available. Our grocery stores do not do the potato justice in this arena. Mostly this step is personal taste and aesthetics. Do you like blue, red, yellow or white? Do you want a gourmet French Fingerling or a creamy German Butterball? Perhaps a simple white Kennebec or Red Maria will satisfy. Do consider selecting at least one each of an early season, mid-season and late-season variety. That will lengthen your growing season and thus your eating season. Also consider varieties known to grow well in your region; and I’m always in favor of ones called “Good Keepers,” which means they will store well after harvest. The amount to order depends on how much room you have allocated. Each seed potato can usually be cut in half to make two “seeds;” and again, seeds should be planted 12″ apart. Last year we planted 45 pounds of seed potatoes and we ate them as much as we wanted from May through October — not nearly long enough in my humble opinion. This year I think we’ll go for 60 pounds — 15 pounds per person — which will still net us less than the roughly 125 pounds per person we Americans are supposed to consume yearly.
6. Prepare potato hills. This is not the fun part. We grow our potatoes in hilled rows as we grow our other vegetables. We do try, however, to space our potato rows a little more apart than those for other veggies. We want to be able to run our tiller between the rows and to have enough soil between to hill up over the plants later in the growing season. Decide where your row is going to go and then start hilling. If you aren’t working in recently tilled and loose soil, you may want to till again or use a pick axe to break up the soil along your row. Using a garden hoe or rake with strong, thick, metal tines, pull the soil up into a mound. Go down an entire row doing this. Then turn around, face the row from the other side and repeat. You may need to duplicate the process of breaking up more soil and mounding it up a few times on each row — my kids call these our mini mountain ranges. Potatoes need to be planted at a depth of about 6 inches, so build the hill accordingly. If you aren’t planting immediately, leave the row’s summit in a peak. This will allow any rainfall to roll down the side rather than compact the earth.
7. Prepare your seed potatoes. Until planting, seed potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place with plenty of ventilation. A few days to a week before planting, place your seed potatoes in a sunny, humid and warm location. This will encourage their eyes to begin sprouting. Also at this time, use a kitchen knife to cut into pieces any potatoes that contain multiple eyes and enough ancillary flesh to support root and plant growth. We generally make sure each piece is about 2-3 inches square and contains at least 2 eyes. Leaving the cut seed potatoes out for a few days prior to planting will allow any exposed flesh to callus over, added protection against possible soil rot.
8. Sow. I like this step. In North Carolina, we start sowing potatoes in late February and can plant until early April, though that’s pushing it, particularly if we have a very warm spring. The timing is definitely Easter-ific and I can’t help but think of the seeds as Easter eggs that will eventually produce the very best Easter Egg Hunt we’ll have all year. Using your garden hoe, touch up your hill by mounding soil into a peak again. Then run the hoe flat across the top of the hill to smooth it flat. Then using the edge of the hoe, drag it back down the middle of the row, pushing in to create a crevice 4-6 inches deep. Place the seeds eyes-up in the middle of the row, 12 inches apart. Use your hoe to draw dirt back over the seeds to cover and then to loosely tamp down the soil on top of the row. Move on to the next row and keep going until you’ve planted all of your seeds.
9. Water, weed, top, and hill up again and again. Potatoes need significant amounts of water to grow, at least 1 inch per week. But while they love water, they are also susceptible to rot, so take care not to over water them. We try to keep our potato hills well weeded: what plant doesn’t love not having to compete for sunlight, water and nutrients? Weeding them goes naturally hand in hand with keeping dirt well hilled up around the plants. Several times during the growing season we till between rows and then hoe up the fresh dirt around the plants. It’s okay even to re-bury the green shoots — they’ll keep growing out of the earth as they did originally. We also top our plants a few times to encourage them to exert more energy into their roots (the tubers we’ll be eating soon) than into their leafy tops. Look for where an upper stem branches and cut just below the branch on an angle sloping toward the ground. Do not top the plants if blossoms have begun to appear.
10. Rob the plants for some early incentive to do Step #9 one more time. Once the potato plant has started putting out blossoms, you can gently check to see if tubers have begun to form. Choose a time when the soil has been loosened by a recent rain, but isn’t sopping wet. Using your hands or a small trowel or rake, gently move soil away from the base of a plant. Most potatoes grow close to the main stalk and you shouldn’t have to dig far. Harvest only a few potatoes per plant and recover the roots with soil when you’re done. New potatoes can be tiny, tend to have thin skins and are delicious when boiled or steamed whole.
11. Harvest. Potatoes are ready for harvest when the top of the plants die off. They can be left in the field after this happens as long as the soil isn’t too wet or warm. My kids are very fond of harvesting potatoes, making of it a fabulous hunt for pirate treasure. Using a shovel I loosen the soil on either side of and slightly under the plant, taking care not to gouge any tubers in the process. Then, grasping the root stalk firmly in both hands, I pull out the plant. Sometimes the stalk breaks and then we scrabble through the earth with our hands to get the tubers out. Other times the stalk lifts out easily and we pull the tubers off like large grapes. Take your time with this process and go over your hills thoroughly: treasure hides everywhere! We collect our potatoes in cardboard boxes, woven baskets or buckets, whatever is free. Harvest in the morning of a day that portends sunny skies. Lay the potatoes out in the sun for the day to harden off before storing them. Take care to remove from your garden all plant matter, including the tops of the potato plants and any rotted tubers. Compost them away from the garden for a long time. This will help keep your garden free of the pesky insects that love taters.
12. Sort. Cull through the potatoes and separate out any that show signs of rot or are soft and pliable to the touch. Cook these immediately as they won’t store. I also sort potatoes by size as I find that larger ones tend to last longer than smaller ones. Having them sorted makes it easier to eat the littlest ones first.
13. Store. Yes, I do long for a root cellar. But in North Carolina, you’re lucky if you even get a crawl space, so in the absence of a cellar, choose a dark, well-ventilated location that stays cool. Official recommendations offer that the best storage will be at 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit and with a relative humidity of 90 percent. We store ours in grocery store brown bags in the bottom drawer of a large wooden chest. They do great there while the A/C is on, but as soon as the wood stove heats, up, they sprout and have to be moved to cooler climbs, that is if there are any left by then! We open the bags at least once a week to circulate air and remove any rotting taters, which can corrupt an entire stored bag. You can store taters in the veggie drawer of your fridge, but note that will cause an increase in their sugar content and alter their taste: a decision that’s purely a personal taste preference.
14. Begin the cycle again with a Fall or early Winter planting. If you have stored potatoes that have broken your heart and seeded out, making them no longer edible, consider a Fall planting, using them as your seed. Whole, small potatoes about the size of an egg work best for this type of planting. You must also plant in a location where you do not routinely get frozen ground from September through May and where twenty-feet of snow isn’t likely to fall, though a little is just fine. Follow the above steps to create a hill for the seeds, digging yourself a slightly deeper crevasse in the middle than with spring plantings. Line the bottom of the seed bed with dead leaves and wood mulch, then lay the seed potatoes on top, 12 inches apart as usual. Cover the seeds with more organic matter and then hill up dirt with your hoe as you’d normally do. Then wait. The organic matter in the seed bed will decay throughout the winter, producing heat. This heat will encourage early root growth and thus early top plant growth. For a great guide on Fall or Winter potato planting in North Carolina, check out this Backwoods Home Magazine article written by Robert L. Williams.
Today’s post is offered as part of the SOP for Our 43,560 project.
© Jennifer S. and harvestliberty.net, 2012.