I found myself with more personal “me” time this past year and was determined to occupy the “free” time with a new hobby. Enter the world of gardening…oh boy! There’s a lot going on with that word “gardening.” Simple, rewarding, economic, healthy they all said, and yes, while these things are true – there’s so much to this hobby called gardening!
Determined never-the-less, I decided to start my “garden” with some “easy” to grow potatoes. Simple, tasty, and inexpensive (btw, groceries are expensive these days!) …who doesn’t love a good spud?! Potatoes must be one of the most enjoyable crops to grow…right? They require low maintenance, they’re healthy (I learned that the average store potato can have a bunch of pesticides – so, more reason to GYO) and they harvest before the end of spring semester (I’m a student at UNC).
The best part of growing potatoes, though? Eating! Oh, well I meant…Harvesting! Digging in the dirt is so much fun — getting dirt under your nails…well that’s cool too! Finding those spuds is sort of like a treasure hunt each time you dig in and pull one out.
What to buy? Organic Seed Potatoes Of Course!
Potatoes are unique in that instead of planting a seed or a transplant, you plant the potato itself. Oh, and make sure they’re organic! Because remember that pesticide thing from earlier.
The white buds that begin to form on are buds called “eyes.” When you plant these potatoes in the ground, the stems grow upward towards the sun. Once these break the soil, the plant then begins to grow leaves. I was told to cut my seed potato pieces into the size of golf balls (yet another potential hobby). A rule I was told was that smaller pieces will produce fewer, larger potatoes, while large pieces will produce more, smaller sized potatoes (confusing I know, but I found this to be true!). Each piece should be cut so that there are two to three “eyes” (stems) per piece. Remember, the “eyes” are what grows – no eyes, no spud.
What Varieties Should I Grow?
So many darn choices…and they’re all good! Typically, you’ll select between red, yellow, or white potatoes, but there are some cool blue and purple varieties as well.
I chose some traditional varieties Goldrush Russet, Yukon Gold and Dark Red Norland. I selected these mainly because they’re supposed to be early season bloomers. And I Iove mashed or smashed potatoes and baked potatoes! Bring the sour cream and butter please!
When To Plant?
I was told that potatoes will tolerate frost, but that a hard freeze will kill the leaves and likely lead to a rotten experience. I had to do some math here, but I looked at the average last frost date for Chapel Hill and walked back 6-8 weeks. I was also told that soil temperatures needed to be at least 45 degrees for a successful potato crop.
We did have a late freeze last year, about 3 weeks after I planted and it nearly killed my plants, however I took measures into my own and covered the young plants with an old sheet – which seemed to work.
How Do I Plant Potatoes?
You need to plant potatoes in loose, airy soil with good drainage. Before I planted, I was told to let my potatoes “warm up.” Which did not mean putting them in the microwave, but rather place them in a warm window area for a few days after cutting the skin. The “warming” time helps heal the skin and sends a signal to the potato that it is time to grow.
Spacing was “the key”, my potato expert friend said…make sure you give 12 inches of spacing between potato pieces. I planted my potatoes with the eyes facing upwards at a depth of 10-12 inches in fabric grow pots, and it worked great! I’m excited to try my luck with in-ground planting this year too! After covering the potatoes with soil, I added another 3 to 4 inches of compost on top.
PRO TIP: It’s very helpful to mark your garden so you know what you’ve planted and where. I failed to do this and enjoyed potato “treasure” – meaning each time I dug for my potato there was a surprise!
Once you see the first green shoot exposed from the soil, you can get excited knowing your potatoes have started to grow! Once this first sprout emerges, cover them with about 3 inches of soil. After the sprout emerges again, wait until the plant gets about 6 inches and cover half of the sprout with soil. You’ll need to repeat this process of “hilling” until the plant produces a blossom. “Hilling” means that you are literally building a small hill at the plant, this is where the spud (tuber) grows.
Fertilizing along the way is important too. I fertilized every 2 to 2.5 weeks with a dry fertilizer that had higher P-K values (phosphorous and potassium) …this is the “roots and fruits” portion of the important N-P-K nutrients.
Harvesting My Potatoes
Potatoes are sort of tricky to know when to harvest. There’s no single answer, but they do send some signals. Look for tiny white or purple flowers on the plants. These flowers indicate that the potatoes are concentrating their growth on the tuber as opposed to the bloom. I was overanxious last time and dug a few small ones out too early. I realized that patience and another week would allow the spud to grow more fully…but I got delicious new potatoes from the experience.
A fully mature plant will look a little “tired” and perhaps turn yellow, this signals that your potatoes are ready to harvest.
I used my hands to dig the potatoes out of the soil but would recommend using a digging fork or small shovel. Start about 1 foot outside the row, turn over the soil and search for your spuds. Brush the dirt off the potatoes and store them in a dark, cool place (cabinets are fine). Don’t wash the potatoes until you are ready to eat.
Growing potatoes was easy! I found potatoes to be a fun way to enter the world of home gardening! And yes…please pass the sour cream and butter!
Have you had success growing potatoes? What did you learn in the process? Let us know!