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Potatoes
(Solanum tuberosum)


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Cultivars

Potato plant.

One could probably not survive eating nothing but potatoes, but it might be fun to try. There can scarcely be a more fundamental vegetable to grow. Gardeners often grow different varieties for baking and for boiling (as for use in salad) since the qualities that make a potato excel for one purpose differ from those wanted for the other purpose; there are, though, some pretty good multi-purpose spud types.

Because both climate suitability and—in this commercial potato-growing area—resistance to diseases are important, we need to be careful. We need to look for earliness, keeping qualities, heat tolerance, productivity, and disease resistance, as well as, of course, flavor and best uses.

After extensive research, it looks to us as if there is a clear winner: Yukon Gem, a significantly improved descendant of the already classic “Yukon Gold”, with substantially improved yields and significantly more disease resistance (including resistance to blight). The penalty (vs. Gold) is a small one: about 10 extra days of growing time, making it an 80- to 100-day crop; but, as potatoes (despite being Solanaceae) are a cool-weather crop, that’s not a big deal. The Yukons are medium-sized spuds with a yellow flesh (which retains that color in cooking) and a flavor often described as “buttery” (whether that is actual or a psychological effect of their color is uncertain, but the comment is common). They are well suited for all potato uses (though perhaps less then ideal for frying as chips, still quite usable).


Planting and Growing

Potatoes are always grown from cut-up bits of potato. In theory, one could buy a potato at the local supermarket, cut it up, plant it, and get potato plants; the theory more or less works, but is a very bad way to go about growing potatoes. The only right way is to buy “seed potato” (whole potatoes grown for use as “seed”) from a thoroughly reputable (and state-certified) seed-potato supplier, preferably a specialist (there are several who deal with the home-gardening market). The greatest risk otherwise is disease, which an apparently sound potato can carry. Ideally, one prefers seed potatoes grown in certain climates, those in which the diseases to which potatoes are prone are rare; generally, that is in the north (which is why all the northern-tier states, from Maine to Idaho to Washington, are the major potato-producing states).

(Sellers of certified seed potato can be found fairly easily by using a search engine and appropriate search terms, possibly including your State’s name. You really, really want to buy from the closest available seed house, preferably one specializing in potatoes.)

Timing

Choose carefully when you intend to plant, for seed potatoes are living things, not dried seeds in a packet, and need to be delivered only shortly before planting time. The chief rule is that potato vines should not be exposed to frost—they’ll usually grow back, but will always yield less. Potatoes do best when planted after the soil temperature has reliably reached at least 50° F., but the problem is that as a rule they have to be ordered well in advance—though many suppliers will hold your order (in deep-cold storage) till you want it, so you can try keeping an eye on the soil temperatures and asking for shipment just as soon as it hits that 50° (“just as soon” because your shipment will take a few days and then you need to chit the seed potatoes for a few more days). Remember, though, that seed potatoes are rather perishable in warmth, so shipments in May or later can be problems if they are not going just a short distance (yet another reason to shop locally). Your very best bet is to consult with someone at the place you order from and take what advice they give you. (And if you live in a northern-tier state, just find out when the local professional growers put their ’taters in.)

The ideal potato growing air-temperature range is said to be 45° to 80°F. In our climate, those temperatures prevail (as always, on average) from early March to late June, some 109 days; that is adequate for our needs, as growing times for Yukon Gem are variously listed, but none over 100 days. If we take a June 20 date, the last hereabouts when the daily high is below 80°, and work back a conservative 100 days, we get March 12 as the planting-out date. That matches up well with the classic “as soon as the soil can be worked” apothegm. (Obviously, you adjust for your own weather data.)

(We use air temperatures because that’s the detailed data we have; the better measure is soil temparature: you don’t want to plant your spuds till the soil temperature reaches at least 45°. Monitor it closely, because you want to get them in the ground as soon as you can without risking rot at the start or heat burn at the end.

Planting Out

Using a Bed

In our opinion, it would be fatuous of us to set forth the somewhat complicated and detailed instructions for dealing with potato-growing when excellent information is already available on line. Here, for one, is a link to the on-line potato-growing information from Seed Savers Exchange. We can augment that information a bit: in a deep-dug bed, and especially with fairly early potatoes (which don’t grow as large as later-season types), the spacing between plants can be as little as 9", so in a 4-foot-wide bed you could set them five across. Also, the planting depth is probably better at 9", rather than the 6" to 8" mentioned. And for watering, the 1" to 2" a week works out to about 1 to 2 gallons per hundred square feet of surface to be watered (more exactly, to 1.117 to 2.234 gallons); you can pro-rate that by the actual area of your potato bed. One gardener remarks that “I achieve an enormous harvest—enough to feed two for nearly a year—by planting potatoes in two 4'-x-8' raised beds.” (Or one 4' x 16'.)

The calculation: 100 square feet is 14,400 square inches; a 1" depth of water is thus 14,400 cubic inches, which is 8.333 cubic feet. Water is 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, so a one-inch depth of water over 100 square feet is 1.117 gallons.

(Or here’s another good set of instructions, illustrated with photos.)

But that information, copious as it is, still leaves the gardener one other decision to make. That decision is how much seed potato is wanted for the number of plants to be grown, for seed potatoes are sold by weight, not count. A conservative figure might be 8 to 10 pieces (plants) to the pound; our own experience has been that 8 pounds plants out 100 plants just about right, which is more like 12 or 13 to the pound. Since you do your own cutting-up of the seed potatoes, the count is to some extent under your control. We say “to some extent” because as a rule the larger the seed piece, the larger the crop, by count of potatoes and by weight, from that plant—but the larger the seed pieces, the smaller the coverage. If you’re new to potato-growing, figure on 10 plants to the pound of seed potatoes, cut as seems right to you, then adjust your subsequent years’ orders to your experience. (It is highly ill-advised to try keeping some of your own potatoes for the next year’s seed: some do it, and with success, but it’s like running STOP signs—sooner or later, ill fortune will blindside you.)

Of course, you also need to know how many plants you have room for. Jeavons, in his deep-bed book, set 9 inches as the spacing, as noted above. More conventional advice, for gardeners who do not use deep-dug or raised beds, is 10 to 14 inches of spacing in rows a couple of feet apart. (That may give you a clue as to why deep-bed gardening is so much more productive for the square footage of garden.) If, for example, you are dedicating a 4' x 16' bed to potatoes, you can plant 5 across in a row, and 21 rows down the bed, for 105 plants; which would be 8 to 13 pounds of seed potato, depending on your per-pound rate. The thing to do your first year would be (for a bed that size—pro-rate for your bed’s size) buy 10 pounds, see how many plantable eyes that yields you, and space the plantings evenly to accomodate that number; then, in future, adjust your order so as to get the wanted number of plantable eyes.

Using Containers

For the space-challenged, there are other ways of growing potatoes: some form of what is often called a “potato barrel”, though the actual container is rarely an actual barrel.

There are about as many variants of this method as there are growers using it: we have seen some built of old tires! Here are some links to details on how to go about it (or just do a search for growing potatoes in containers):

Do be aware that while this is a great space saver, most sources feel that the yields per eye seed do not match those available using a real bed.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


Odds and Ends

Biology

Potatoes are of the wonderful Solanaceae (or nightshade) family, as are peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes, and eggplants, among others.

History

The history of the potato is long, complex, and quite important. Here are three excellent and fascinating essays, each rewarding reading:

Envoi

Tomatoes and potatoes are so close botanically that someone once (in the ’70s) developed a cross—the pomato—that bore tomatoes above ground and potatoes underground. Sad to say, the quality of both was fairly poor, and the thing never caught on. But it’s a tribute to ingenuity.

A fascinating review of the world of potatoes is available at The Potato Museum.


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