This weekend I had one of those experiences that remind me again why I love to garden. My daughter Heather came out for Father’s Day. Since she loves going into the garden with me I always make sure she has something to pick. This weekend, I saved her a special treat; blue fingerling potatoes.
Of all of the things I harvest in the garden, potatoes are my absolute favorite. Each time I dig them it reminds me of an Easter egg hunt. I get so excited when I stick my fork in the ground and turn over the soil and find all of those spuds. Since I like doing this so much, I knew she would too. And, since they were blue, I knew it would make our dig a little more like an Easter egg hunt for her as well.
I have absolutely no idea what type of potatoes we harvested. I got them from my mentor Cynthia Mueller last fall. I tried to grow them in my potato box and they didn’t seem to make. However, this March, I looked in the box and I saw several little potato vines popping up so I immediately dug them up and moved them to my row garden.
Potatoes of all sorts are pretty easy to grow. There are well over 800 varieties of potatoes in the world so there is a variety that will grow in just about any condition. Basically, potatoes come in three maturity types; short season, mid-season and long season maturation types. To determine which ones are best for you, pick one that will mature between a planting date of three to four weeks before your last freeze and a harvest date before temperatures get up into the 90s. Potatoes can take some cold but they shut down completely in high heat. Since it gets so hot so quickly where we are, the mid length maturation types seem to do best. The two I most often grow are Kennebec whites and La Soda reds.
The rule for planting potatoes is three to four weeks before your last frost date. In reality, here in the Gulf South, we can plant our potatoes anytime after Christmas. In fact, a friend of mine grew up next to an older gentleman that “planted” his potatoes on December 26 each year. I say “planted”, because he would scatter his seed potatoes on top of the ground and then cover them in about a foot of spoiled hay. I tell that story for two reasons. One, it shows that you really can plant potatoes very early here and it also says something about how adaptable potatoes are.
I have heard people say that you have to plant potatoes in sandy soil. Not true. While sandy soil allows potatoes to grow a little bigger and makes them a whole lot easier to harvest, you can grow them in clay (or on top of the ground heavily mulched in hay). Potatoes have just about everything they need to grow stored in that tuber so if you can figure out a way to get them covered and watered, they are usually going to produce something for you
For best results when you plant your potatoes, plant them in loose, well worked soil. If your soil has a good amount of organic material in it, don’t worry about adding any supplemental fertilizer. While they appreciate nitrogen as much as any plant, too much of it will cut your tuber production. Too much nitrogen will result in great big healthy looking vines but very few potatoes.
When your plants get about a foot tall, you should “hill” them by pulling soil or mulch up over the base of the plant. Cover leaves and everything but leave at least half of the plant exposed. Continue to do this until your plant is about 2’ tall. Hilling does a couple of things. First, if your variety is the type that will produce potatoes all along the submerged stem then hilling will increase your yield. This works great for some varieties and not so well for others. However, no matter what type of tater you have, it is good to keep sunlight away from the developing tubers that try to grow at or above the surface of the soil. If sunlight hits these developing tubers they develop a green “rind” under the skin. This rind is full of solanine. Solanine is a toxic substance that can give you a tummy ache in small amounts, or kill you in large amounts. There is not enough in a potato to hurt you but it is a good idea to peel that green layer off before you eat it. BTW, potatoes are not the only plant to produce solanine. All members of the genus Solnum produce it. Members of this family include potatoes, tomatoes, egg plants and the deadly Night Shade.
Very few vegetables are as productive and easy to grow as potatoes. Plus they are incredibly good for you. If you have a milk cow and pile of potatoes you can keep yourself and your family alive indefinitely. With so many varieties out there, and their adaptability to soil types and pH, there is surely one out there for you to grow.