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The world is changing. We can see it in the grocery store and feel it in the air. Shortages are still a thing, and the prices on the available things are outrageous! Being a forward-looking person who’s trying to adapt to the new normal, you’ve decided to grow at least some of your own food. Congratulations! Every bite that you can grow can only help. The food will taste better and is likely to be more nutritious. And growing potatoes can be one of the best choices for your garden!
While food from the garden isn’t free, trading time and effort is quite likely a benefit to your finances. There are a number of ways to garden in the city. There are a ton of resources on this site discussing everything from water efficiency to kitchen scrap gardening to community garden plots to gardening in arid environments and apartments. The Search feature will be very helpful here.
But what about growing specific items? Vegetables are much like people in the sense that they prefer different conditions in order to be happy and produce food. In this article, I’ll discuss growing potatoes. They’re awesome for preppers because you get a lot of caloric bang for your buck.
Selecting what kind of potatoes to grow
Potatoes come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Red, white, blue, purple, waxy, and fingerling to name a few. These don’t lend themselves well to hydroponics because the tuber will often shatter the reservoir or sit in the nutrient solution, becoming wet and mushy. They can, however, be grown both in the ground and in containers. I’ve grown them successfully both ways. I’ve also learned a few lessons the hard way, which I’ll share.
Did you know that potatoes come in both determinant and indeterminate varieties? I didn’t for many years, and this information isn’t listed on the bag tag, at least not where I buy them. So what’s the difference and why does it matter? SF Gate explains:
“Determinate potatoes are considered fast-growing and produce tubers at the soil depth just above where the seed was planted. Indeterminate potatoes are classified as slow-growing and produce tubers all along the stem where soil exists. Indeterminate potato varieties are preferred for bag growing so the yield is worth the the effort.”
Potatoes are also classified as early, mid-season, and late growers. This matters if you have a short growing season, as I do in Zone 5B. Determinant varieties tend to work well for me and that’s what my local garden center stocks. Those with longer growing seasons might find indeterminate varieties in their local garden center. This year I’m growing mine in raised beds exclusively, so the spreading growth habit will work well. I’ve grown determinants in bags and it’ll work, just not as well because there won’t be any tubers growing along the entire space of the vine.
Last year I doubled my investment, getting 2 pounds of potatoes for 1 pound of seed. This really isn’t the best yield. I’ll typically get 30 pounds of potatoes for 5 pounds of seed in my raised beds, which is much better! Between the low yield and the high price of potting soil, I decided to forgo container potatoes entirely. Raised beds it is! Consider this in your selection.
How does one determine which the available varieties are? You’ll have to look each one up. I kid you not, I’ve stood in the store looking up every available variety! Here’s a good list, but it’s not all-inclusive.
Another good reason for researching varieties is disease. Potatoes are susceptible to a great many things, from early/late blights to scab to dry rot to pink rot, canker, and mosaic virus. Some varieties are resistant to some of these diseases, others are susceptible. While resistance doesn’t mean your potatoes won’t get the disease, at least resistance will help.
While choosing my new varieties, I also considered this factor and declined the varieties that were susceptible in favor of resistance. If I’m stuck buying new seed, I want to get good seed! Also, buying certified seed potatoes ensures that the seed won’t be diseased when you get it. Many organisms can overwinter in the tuber, thus ensuring problems will happen. Buying certified seed means starting out clean. Clean is good. That won’t stop your average chipmunk, but at least it’s a good start.
Ideal conditions for growing potatoes
Another factor in growing potatoes is temperature, both soil and air. Potatoes are frost-tolerant, meaning that air temperatures in the 40s won’t bother them. A hard freeze will kill them, however, which is defined as temperatures below 30F.
Soil temperature is a HUGE factor! The soil temperature must be at least 50F at planting, and it needs to stay that way. Otherwise, the plants will be stunted if they grow at all. I learned the hard way that 48F won’t cut it! I’ve also learned the hard way that if the soil temperatures drop after planting, the seed is very likely to rot.
Potatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they take a great deal of nutrition from the soil. Therefore, fertilizer is a necessity. But how much and of what? A good soil test, such as Soil Savvy, will tell you how your soil is down to the micronutrients. Your local Extension office may offer soil testing but that’s usually for NPK and pH, which is important but not the entire story. RapiTests can give a general idea but aren’t as accurate as lab testing. Fertilizing willy-nilly isn’t good because the plants will use some nutrients, such as nitrogen, more quickly than others, such as phosphorus. To complicate matters even further, the plants won’t just use the nutrients they need and leave the rest.
One year I added too much nitrogen to my potato beds. I had the most lovely plants, green and lush! However, when I went to dig my treasures, there was not one tuber to be found. Upon doing some research I discovered that too much nitrogen will do that when you’re growing potatoes. Lesson learned. Now I soil test every year, either a RapiTest or lab test, and fertilize accordingly. The latter really only needs to be done every 3-5 years, especially given the expense. I fertilize every month during the growing season accordingly.
My own compost will only help! Last year I purchased compost locally, which turned out to be surprisingly nutrient-poor. I expected better for what I paid, but I have what I have, and I need to act accordingly. Azomite is a good choice for remineralizing soil. Milorganite is very high in nitrogen, while Azomite contains all of the necessary micronutrients and then some.
This year’s mishap
I planted my seed this year during a lovely week. The soil temperature 6” down, where the potatoes are planted, was 56F. The weather forecast called for two days of cool and rainy weather, so I thought things would be fine. Those two days turned into two weeks! Things were NOT fine. I found one seed potato on top, rotted, mushy, and chewed. I was off to the garden center for fresh seed soon after!
This was my own saved seed too. I shudder to imagine what might have happened had I not been able to obtain more! I have a few gardener neighbors & friends and might have been able to trade for more seed. Or not. I’ve found buying online is outrageous, although I do get a small amount of the more exotic varieties I’m partial to that way. Buying locally will get you solid varieties that do well in your area for a much more reasonable price. Additionally, you’ll shorten your supply chain and support your local economy. I prefer these things.
How to plant seed potatoes
So how is seed potato planted? Dig a hole 6” deep, put your seed in, and cover, making sure the potato is in contact with dirt. If you’ve cut up your seed to make it go further, each piece needs to have at least 1-2 eyes. It also helps to let pieces sit for a few days so the cut edge develops a skin, which acts as a barrier to disease.
Since I use a drip system, I lay the hose on planting day and plant between, then bury the hose. Burying the hose saves water and helps ensure the water is going to the roots, rather than evaporating. Your plants should emerge in a few weeks. Use the finger test to determine watering schedule and fertilize once per month at most. Flowers don’t need to be pollinated in order to produce tubers, and the fruits they produce are toxic. Don’t eat them.
When to harvest your potatoes
Potatoes are harvested in fall by digging. The plants will look as though they’re dying back, becoming yellow/brown with the leaves dying. I cut my plants back, then dig by hand to avoid damaging the tuber. Farmers do this differently because their fields are huge.
My potato area consists of two raised beds, 4’x4’ each. I view this as digging for treasure and find it rather enjoyable. Dig all through the area and a few inches down to get all of your harvests. I weigh mine by standing on my bathroom scale with a bag full, then subtract my own weight to get the weight of the potatoes. Store in a cool, dry area, and be sure to save some seed for next year!
Have you had good luck growing potatoes?
Do you grow your own potatoes? How do you grow them? Do you save seed? Do you have any cautionary tales or advice?
Let’s talk taters in the comments section.
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.