Seed Potato Basics
by Rob Sproule
Okay, we all know that we’re never going to see a potato plant on the cover of a glossy gardening magazine. They’re never going to be the “next big thing.” That being said, they’ve been a staple in our lives since South American peoples started cultivating it about 10,000 years ago.
While admittedly not the sexiest vegetable around, few days go by when we don’t eat at least a little. In 2013 the average North American ate 73 pound worth of spuds. That’s a lot of French fries!
It’s tremendously easy to grow your own potatoes but, because it’s a different process than growing tomatoes or lettuce, many well-intentioned get spooked. Here are the basics so you can start tasting how good a garden-grown spud tastes.
Buying and Preparing Seed Spuds
It would make sense to just grow new potatoes by using our left-over old ones, but unfortunately, most grocery stores apply a chemical treatment to them so they won’t sprout. The best seed spuds are still at Garden Centers alongside the other seeds.
Buy them as you would fruit. Avoid any wrinkling (too old and dry) or mushy/ rotten spuds. The more “eyes” they have, the more sprouts will grow (an eye is a growing node, you’ll know it when you see it).
Cut large spud into pieces with 2-3 good eyes per piece. You can either let them heal over for a day (some say it prevents disease) or, as our expert Linda says, “cut ‘n’ chuck” them into the hole as you cut them.
How to Plant Them
Slightly acidic soil will help prevent potato scab, so blend in a healthy amount of peat moss before planting. Peat is light and well-draining, which is ideal for tubers to grow easily. Consider sprinkling a small handful of spruce needles into the mix, as well.
Try to plant your spuds in the same place for more than 1 season. Ideally, plant them where legumes grew the year before (peas and beans) as they would have added much-needed nitrogen to the soil. Avoid planting where other members of the Solanum family grew (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes), as pests and diseases tend to infect by family.
A touch of sulfur dust may help prevent disease. While wearing gloves, put the pieces in a freezer bag with a dash of sulfur and, like shake-and-bake, toss them together. Make sure not to break any emerging sprouts.
There’ nothing fancy to planting. Dig a hole a shade-shovel deep and drop in potato seeds. Cover and repeat; it’s just that easy. Plants should be about 18″ apart to allow for good-sized hills.
Planting around Mothers’ Day will give a great yield, although there’s always the risk of an end-May frost (as there is for all plants). You can plant as soon as you can work the soil, but wait a few days if it’s overly waterlogged.
Sprinkle a quarter cup of bone meal in the bottom of each hole for extra nutrients. Potatoes like fertilizer with a high middle number (potassium) but will only give you leaves if you fertilize with a high first number (nitrogen).
It’s important to mound your potatoes throughout the season. Whenever the emerging shoot reaches about 6″, mound it over with looses, well-draining soil. The larger the mound, the more the spuds.
Stop mounding when the plant starts to flower and cultivate patience. As long as the plant is green and healthy it’s still making spuds. As soon as it starts to die back in the Fall, dig into the mound, turn the BBQ on, and break out the butter!