Valentine’s Day is just around the corner – a time for love, roses, wine, romance…and taters!
The traditional time for planting potatoes in Central Texas is right around Valentine’s Day or President’s Day. Gardeners in North and West Texas should wait and plant in early March and gardeners in South Texas should plant right away. Potatoes are like people – they are most comfortable and perform their best at room temperature, so in order to keep potatoes happy, we need to plant them so they can grow in our mild spring temperatures (a pretty narrow window, I know) and mature before those hot summer days arrive.
Seed potatoes can be purchased at many local nurseries and feed stores, or they can be ordered through the mail (but you’d have to hurry at this point as planting time is near). My favorite mail order source for certified seed potatoes is Potato Garden (www.potatogarden.com). Avoid the temptation to use potatoes from the grocery store – they have often been treated with a sprout inhibitor and you don’t always know what variety they are. They could also carry disease organisms that could be transferred to the soil. Seed potatoes purchased from a reputable source are certified to be disease free.
A few tried and true varieties for Central Texas gardeners are Red Pontiac, Red La Soda, Kennebec and Yukon Gold. But don’t be afraid to try some new varieties, just try to avoid the late-season types that take too long to mature. I have had good success with Mountain Rose and Purple Viking as well as some of the fingerlings including Austrian Crescent, Russian Banana and Red Thumb.
Cut potatoes into pieces about the size of an egg, making sure each piece has one or two “eyes”. Allow the cut pieces to cure in a warm location for 2-4 days before planting. Some gardeners dust their seed potatoes with sulfur to help prevent soil borne disease. Remember that potatoes belong to the nightshade family, so try not to plant them where you have grown tomatoes, eggplant or peppers in the past.
Prepare your soil a week or two before planting by mixing in a layer of well-rotted compost and 1 pound of organic fertilizer per 20 feet of row. When you are ready to plant dig a trench about 4-6” deep and plant the potato pieces in moist (not wet) soil 8-12” apart. Cover them with 2-4” of soil, pressing down firmly to ensure good soil contact over and around the potato piece. You will be amazed at how fast they grow. Before you know it, they will have grown 5-6” and it will be time to “hill” the potatoes. Do this by piling soil or mulch around the potato stems until only the top two inches of the leaves are showing. You’ll do this again in 3-4 weeks. The ultimate goal is to have several inches of soil above the seed piece so that the tubers will develop below the soil and will not be exposed to sunlight (which causes them to turn green).
Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in June when the tops begin to turn yellow, but I start feeling around for tender new potatoes in mid-May. When the time does come for harvesting, dig the potatoes gently to prevent damage and let them air dry 1-2 hours in a warm, shady spot. Wipe the dirt off carefully and store potatoes in a cool, dark location.
Growing potatoes above ground is fun to do, especially for kids. My young niece and nephew were visiting from out of state last Thanksgiving and they were delighted to harvest potatoes growing in a bushel basket in my garden. Bushel baskets are cheap and easy to work with and they last two or three seasons, but a wire cage or any open-ended container will work. Start by cutting the bottom off each basket. Plant potato pieces 2-3 inches deep in soil that has been loosened and amended with garden fertilizer (use 2-3 tablespoons for each basket). Don’t overcrowd the basket – two or three potato pieces per basket is good. As the plants grow, gradually fill the baskets with compost, mulch or straw, leaving a little bit of the leafy tops showing. When harvest time rolls around just pull the basket up and harvest the spuds from the base of the basket. This is for you, Jack and Ava – let me know how many you harvest!