As a hobby gardener, potatoes are among my favorite crops to grow. In this post, Part 1 of 4 total, I will touch on some general information on how to get started on growing potatoes and share some of my own experiences. In the upcoming parts, Choosing Seed Potatoes and Preparation (for planting) in Part 2; Planting and Growing Potatoes in Part 3; and in Part 4, Harvesting and Storing Potatoes, I will go into detail on what I do during the process of growing and harvesting potatoes.
In the process of learning about potato growing I have absolutely fallen in love with this rewarding crop! I mean, what is there not to love about it? Really! Just look at this one:
This plant is a little bit different from other vegetable plants, but once you know what to do you will find that they really are quite easy to grow, and the excitement is on an all-time high once harvest time comes along! Once they are ready to be harvested, we usually dig only what’s needed for that day’s dinner. I’ll typically send one of the kids out to the garden come dinner time or I’ll go myself with a pitch fork. Fresh out of the ground, the potatoes are firm and crisp like a fresh apple; in fact, in certain areas of Norway they call them “earth apples.” Perhaps from the crispness of the freshly dug potatoes, closely resembling that of apples? Commercially grown potatoes are often sprayed with chemicals to speed up the process of maturing, for an earlier harvest. This is not needed in the home garden, so we can feel good about eating them free from these nasty chemicals.
Some growing requirements include full sun and well drained soil, though they do like regular watering, especially during flowering. Being that they are a cold weather crop, they do tolerate a light frost, although young plants should be covered during hard frost. You may not want to plant potatoes too early in the spring as they won’t grow until the day time temperatures stay over 45°.
One of the things I find fascinating about potatoes is that you really don’t know what’s happening underground until you actually start harvesting. The plants grow, produce flowers, start wilting, and all along you wonder what’s going on out of sight. When the time comes to start digging you have no idea what to expect; will there be one or two tiny potatoes underneath the plant, a couple of dinners’ worth, or none at all? Each plant is different, so there may be a lot underneath one and none under another. It is such a treasure hunt to dig for them and so exciting when several potatoes roll out of the pile you just turned!
Potatoes like soil rich in compost but can also thrive in poor soil. So even if you don’t have compost to provide they will still do just fine with some fertilizer added early on. Heavy clay soil can get water logged and cause some problems with formation of the tubers or rotting, but with some extra care and preparations (such as adding gypsum) it can still be done.
Critters will usually leave potato plants alone as the leaves and stems are poisonous. Because of this, many people will grow their potatoes on the outside of their fenced-in gardens. But you can’t always count on it though as some animals at times will dig up the tubers to eat.
Potatoes should be planted on a 3-4 year (or more) rotation plan; in other words, don’t plant them in the same place two years in a row. Wait 3-4 years before using the same spot again in order to prevent disease from earlier crops. Pathogens can still be present in the soil, so rotation will benefit both your potatoes and most other crops as well. Potatoes are susceptible to every disease under the sun, seems like, and some people choose to treat their potato plants with a variety of chemicals to try to keep their plants healthy. Even though it’s hard to know whether a potato plant will yield for you or not, regardless of disease, in my limited experience I have found that the spuds often are of good quality even if the leaves and stems are affected by disease. That won’t always be the case as some diseases do affect the tubers. But I choose not to treat at this point as I have been very happy with my harvest even when leaves look diseased.
I once read (before I had planted potatoes myself) that potato plants are among the least attractive of all vegetable plants. When my own plants started growing and really taking off, they were a deep, dark green, and after a while they developed light purple flowers. I could not understand what was so ugly about potato plants; dark green leaves with purple flowers? I thought they were pretty!
That’s when things began turning… and I started understanding more and finding myself gradually agreeing that potato plants are, indeed, very unattractive! The leaves started yellowing more and more, they got spots all over and then started wilting. They looked like they had blight and fungus… and eaten by bugs and otherwise any other nasty disease you can think of. And perhaps they did have a few diseases, that could very well be. At any rate, it was disturbing to me in the beginning to see this, so I brought leaf samples with me to our local nursery to inquire, took home some chemicals to treat them, but to no avail.
They ended up very pitiful looking after a while, until they drastically took another turn for the worse, leaving “pitiful” to be desired! They started wilting and withering away, turning more and more brown until they were dead as could be!
I mean… seriously??? My beautiful, lush, dark green flowering plants, looking like this? It was downright scary and I didn’t think too highly of myself as a gardener at the time! Me, growing potatoes??? I wasn’t so sure anymore…
Though I had read about potato plants dying back before harvest, this particular information had become a distant memory and I could not connect the dots for a while. Even though there might have been some diseases present, this wilting was, of course, the natural process to be expected a while after blooming! This is when the plants die back, which is a sure-fire sign that the potatoes are, or will be ready for digging very soon. When I finally decided to dig, was I ever surprised to find that my ugly plants has produced a wonderful crop of real potatoes, as nice as could be!
So when your own plants are dead and without any hope of recovery, you might as well do a little digging to see what might be going on in the ground beneath them; the damage has already been done, so you may as well face your fears and go for it. That’s when you go from what you see in the pictures above, fearing the worst, to finding this under ground; and that’s when you realize it was all worth it in the end:
And in the process of harvesting these treasures, you pierce two or three, stab a few others, and skin some, slicing a couple in half… But all in all you realize it has been a lot of fun; the whole process has brought fourth some excitement, a mini-thrill-ride, a few emotional ups and downs. But at the end of the day, when you sit down for dinner eating tasty potatoes dug that very day, knowing you did this, it is ALL WORTH IT and you’ll wanna do it all over again! Yes, potatoes, warts and all, is definitely worth planting! Growing potatoes is a rewarding process and getting started in the spring is the beginning of much fun!