It’s Tater-Plantin’ Time! by Patty Leander

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner – a time for love, roses, wine, romance…and taters!

Plant potatoes now for potato harvest in May or June.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Plant potatoes now for harvest in May or June. Photo by Bruce Leander

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.

Russian Banana fingerling potatoes.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Russian Banana fingerling potatoes. Photo by Bruce Leander

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 ( 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.

Potatoes cut and ready for planting; small potatoes, like these fingerlings, can be planted whole.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Potatoes cut and ready for planting; small potatoes, like these fingerlings, can be planted whole. Photo by Bruce Leander

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.


A row of potatoes growing in bushel baskets.  Photo by Bruce Leander

A row of potatoes growing in bushel baskets. Photo by Bruce Leander

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.

Potato foliage grows very quickly.  The potatoes are ready for harvest after 3 1/2 months.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Potato foliage grows very quickly. The potatoes are ready for harvest after 3 1/2 months. Photo by Bruce Leander

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.

Seed potatoes planted in a bushel basket.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Seed potatoes planted in a bushel basket. Photo by Bruce Leander

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!

The prize – several Kennebec potatoes in the base of the basket.  Photo by Bruce Leander

The prize – several Kennebec potatoes in the base of the basket. Photo by Bruce Leander

Growing Potatoes

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.

My daughter is fueling up on fresh peaches before we started digging the potatoes

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.

Digging with a shovel. I prefer to use a spading fork but this was handy and we didn’t have too many vines to dig.

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.

Freshly dug!

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

Last year I tried growing potatoes in a box. I constantly “hilled them up” with compost. I think the compost gave them too much nitrogen. As you can see I got great vines and exactly one potato.

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.

Some of our “blue” potatoes in my favorite Texas Ware bowl. My wife roasted these with fresh rosemary and thyme from our garden, a little EVOO, salt and pepper. They were awesome!

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.