Monday, 27 January 2014

#1 How To Grow Great Potatoes!

 
This photo from Pinterest and hgtv.com

Here are some tips for how to grow the tastiest, healthiest crop of spuds ever... and a bumper crop, to boot.

1. Soil

The perfect soil for growing potatoes is rich, loose and friable (crumbly), kind of sandy, plus a bit on the acidic side.

If this is not your existing soil, here are some ideas and tips for how to amend and create perfect soil for fabulous spuds...

To make it rich and friable....
- You want to add great compostable matter such as leaves, leaf mould, compost, pine needles, straw, etc.. to the beds to add friability and to retain moisture. Do not add large amounts at one time, as highs amount of organic matter will give you scabby spuds while it breaks down.
- Or... Throw in a handful of red wigglers with your organic material, they will break down the organics and amend your soil!
- Add well rotted manure or compost, however do not place these directly onto the spud, mix with soil first.

Good to know... 
- If you have heavy clay, do not add sand as it will become concrete! The clay sticks to the grains of sand and makes the soil worse than ever.
- Slightly acidic soil (pH of 5 -5.5) grows the best spuds, so do not add lime or wood ashes to your beds, both of which will sweeten the soil and give you scabby spuds.
- Peat moss is a naturally acidic soil amendment that will help you to achieve the loose and friable, slightly acidic soil that you need and to break up the heavy clay. However, keep in mind, that it is not usually recommended as an Eco-friendly product due to the fact that is considered a non-sustainable product.  
- Sandy soil will grow great potatoes, but keep it moist or you may get scabby spuds.
- Rotate to a new area or bed every 4th year.

Interesting fact...
You can absolutely grow spuds in heavy soil, even in heavy clay soil. This is a tried and true way to loosen up heavy soil in preparation for lawns or garden beds. It works well, is organic, easy to do, cheap, and gives you potatoes! I grew up in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario where it seems the entire population was, and still is, either Finnish or Italian. Back in those days (oh so long ago!) I remember seeing many a front yard consisting of mostly green potato plants. This was usually done for several years in a row, loosening up the soil in preparation for a nice, happy lawn. Though in all probability, they also needed the space out front to grow the spuds, as the backyards were full of stunning tomatoes and basil ; )

However, having said all that... planting in heavy soils will not get you the best results if you are looking for a high yield of great spuds, though it will give you better, more friable, soil.

2. Choosing The Right Seed Potato

Potatoes come in early, mid-season, and late season varieties. Choosing the right one for you may be important in order for you to get what you want from your potatoes...

The Early's - These are the ones that you want to grow if you are looking for early, baby potatoes. They are quick to grow and bulk up, therefore ready to harvest about 60 days after planting. If you leave them in the ground longer, they will bulk up into really nice, great big, potatoes. Grow early's if you have had any disease issues as they are not in the ground long enough to be bothered by most diseases. This is not the one you want to grow if you are looking to grow lots and lots of spuds per plant as they tend to have smaller yields. They are generally not good storage spuds. For early's, you are looking at Norland, Superior, Seiglinde, Warba ...

The Mid-Season's - These guys will be ready a couple of weeks later than the early's, say about 90 days from planting, as a general rule of thumb. With this type you will have higher yields of lovely, medium sized spuds. Some mid-seasons to look for are Kennebec, Sangre, and the super popular Yukon Gold. 

The Late's - These guys are left in the ground till late summer, even into early frosts. They tend to give the highest yields of spuds, though may be a bit smaller in size. Think German Butterball, Desiree, Russian Blue, and my personal favourites, the fingerling's ( French Red and Banana).

Storage - All three season types will have varieties that are good storage spuds and ones that are not. If you plan to eat to pick and eat through the summer this will not be important to you. However, if you want to store them, make sure you get a potato that stores well. For good keepers look for German Butterball, Seiglinde, Sangre, and Caribe, plus others.

If you plan to store them, leave in the ground for a couple of weeks after the stems have died back, this will make for a thicker skin. Lift carefully to avoid any bruises or wounds, let cure on top of the soil or on a table, etc.. for a few hours before storing.   

I grow all three as we like to start with the early baby spuds and then eat them all season long, well into the frosty months of October and November.

A well chitted potato

3. Chitting - While this step is not necessary, it will give you edible spuds quite a bit earlier. A few weeks before you intend to plant your spuds, take them out of the bag or box and put them into a bright, warm location, though not in direct sunlight. This will cause your seed potatoes to grow little green nubs all over them. When you plant them out in the warm garden bed, these nubs will sprout into strong vines/plants quite a bit sooner than a non-chitted one will. Chitted potatoes are not the same as, nor do they look anything like the potatoes sprouting in your kitchen cabinet (do not use those!).

4. Planting - Do NOT plant into very damp soil or your seed potato will rot away. Plant when soil is fairly dry and temps are between 5 C and 10 C degrees. In our area (PNW) this usually means sometime in March. A very general guideline is 2 weeks before the last frost date.

If you have a  wire-worm issue, wait to plant till soil is warmer as the larvae thrives in cool soil. Do not worry, you will have loads of time to harvest great spuds! These late planted potatoes will thrive extremely well for you, and some even claim that they actually grow faster and better than those planted in cooler temps.
Turn - Start to turn your soil about 4 to 6 weeks before planting and either pick any larvae that you see or leave on top of the soil for the birds to eat. The larvae live in the top few inches of soil in spring and fall, burrowing deeper in summer as the soil warms up.
Trap - Also, a few weeks before you plant, take a stick and push it through a potato or carrot piece. 'Plant' this trap about 2 inches into the ground. Pull out after 2 or 3 days, hopefully with the wireworms inside, and discard.

An interesting deet ... Did you know that the potatoes do not grow from that piece of seed potato that you pop in the soil? Actually, the seed sends up the green shoots that you see on top of the soil and grows the potato plant itself. As this plant grows, it sends down runners under ground, but ABOVE the seed potato. The new potatoes form and grow along these runners, while the seed potato withers away into a nasty looking, saggy thingie or sometimes completely dissolves. This is why hilling is really important, you will get more potatoes if you hill regularly. However, do not hill after the plant is in flower. The flower means that it is no longer making more spuds but is actually beginning to develop and bulk up.

Click Here for my step by step planting how-to.

4. Watering and Feeding - I only water my spuds about once, maybe twice, a week. I live in an area where we rarely get rainfall of any kind in summer time, but as my soil tends to have a higher clay content and lots of organic material, it also holds moisture longer. However, if you have really sandy soil you will want to water regularly, perhaps even daily, to prevent scab.

To grow great spuds organically, you want to have great soil. This means feeding your soil once or twice a year with compost. If you are adding your compost when planting, you want to mix it really well in with the soil first. To prevent scab, do not place pure compost on top of your seed potatoes. Bone meal is a great feed that you can add to the planting trench while you plant your spuds, plus you can add more around the plant during the growing season. Do not add high nitrogen feeds like blood meal or alfalfa as you will get lots of tops but few spuds.
Planting a green cover crop of legumes before you plant is a good idea, too, which gets chopped into the soil for planting time. Or, plant your spuds where you have grown peas or beans for a few seasons.

5. Preventing Scab Re-cap
Note that scab is a cosmetic thing and does not affect the taste of the potato. They are still very edible, just less attractive.

- High amounts of organic material will give you scab. Do not amend your bed with large amounts of manure or straw all at once.
- Acidic soil is best, neutral or high pH will tend to give you scab. Do not add wood ashes or lime to sweeten your soil.
- Do not have your seed potato come into direct contact with purely organic material, mix into the soil first and then plant.
- Dry soil promotes scab, keep soil moist during dry spells. Sandy soil dries out fast, dry sandy soils will give you scabby potatoes.
- If you tend to have scab all the time, try to grow your spuds in a different bed or location as the scab bacterias are high in that particular area. If it is not possible to grow them elsewhere, maybe grow in potato towers, tires, or bags. Also, some spuds are more resistant to scab, try to choose some of those.