Planting Potatoes

Boy, after this winter and all of the snow, we gardeners are more than anxious to get our garden soil ready for the early spring cool season plants and seeds. Unfortunately, most soils are going to be too wet for tilling and preparing a seed bed. How can we tell if our soils are too wet? Go to your garden site and scoop up a small handful of soil, put it in the palm of your hand and squeeze it; if it stays in the palm shape, it is too wet. If, when you open your hand and the soil ball falls apart, that’s good news. Your soil is dry enough to be worked.

One early spring crop that the old timers say needs to be planted by St. Patrick’s Day is potatoes. When I was growing up, planting potatoes was a real family activity.

My dad would till a small space in the garden just for the early crops. He would make a five-inch trench and we would drop in the potatoes, which my mother had cut into planting sizes.

If you are more than ready to do some gardening this spring, here are some tips on growing potatoes:

You can purchase certified seed (potato tubers) potatoes from your local garden supply stores or order them from reliable garden seed catalogs. Varieties recommended for Delaware gardeners are round superior whites – Kennebec, Haig and Katahdin; red skin potatoes - Norland and Lasoda; and russets - russet Burbank and Belrus. In seed catalogs, you may have noticed potato varieties are more than just the white flesh-colored. They come in many colors like theYukon Gold, which has yellowish-colored skin with butter-yellow colored flesh, or Rose Gold that has rosy-red skin and golden-yellow flesh. There are also shades of blue and red. An example of the red flesh is All Red or Cranberry Red, while the All blue has blue flesh. There is also a blue skin variety with pure-white flesh called Caribe. A variety that grew last year and that is going to grow again this year is a white potato called King Harry. This potato has more hairs on the leaf surface and is not a favorite of the Colorado Potato Beetle, which is a major pest to this crop. Last year, I had three plants infested with the Colorado Potato Beetle and one of the plants I handpicked the pests off to destroy the egg masses. If you are thinking about using potatoes purchased in the produce department at your local grocery store, they may not work, as they are usually treated with a sprout-inhibiting product.

As I said, when I was growing up, it was my mom’s job to cut the seed potatoes. She did this the day before planting to allow the cut edges to heal. The cut pieces should be blocky and average about two ounces (approximately two inches by two inches) and should have at least two sprouting eyes. Make sure you have an adequate amount of potato flesh surrounding the eyes because the plant will be using this stored food while sprouting.

Potatoes grow best in acid soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0. They respond to high fertilization and frequent watering. Have your soil tested prior to the gardening season so that you can amend your soil as required. Potato plants will need an additional side dressing of fertilizer (10-10-10) when they are six-inches tall.

To plant your potatoes, dig a trench about five inches deep. Rows should be 36 inches apart. If your garden space is limited, then why not grow them in a bushel basket or two? The seed pieces should be dropped every nine to twelve inches apart in the trench. Fill in the trench with soil. After the young plants have sprouted and are approximately five inches tall, “hill” up the sides of the young plants with soil and mulch with straw. “Hilling” is the process of mounding loose soil around the plants to completely cover the developing tubers. This will help maintain soil moisture and temperature and help prevent “greening” injury of the young potatoes that may be exposed to sunlight at the soil surface. Be sure to hoe or cultivate when the potato plants are young, before rows have closed in.

Potatoes are mature and ready to harvest when the majority of the tops have died. You may use a spade or fork to dig your potatoes, but be careful not to cut or bruise them. Allow the newly dug potatoes to dry as quickly as possible and store them in a cool, dark place.

In the next week or two, when our garden soils have dried out enough to prepare a seed bed, why not consider growing some potatoes? If you would like a fact sheet on potatoes for the home garden, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office in Kent County (302) 730-4000 or (302) 857-6426, or in Sussex County, (302) 856-7303.

Maggie L.Moor-Orth

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