By Catherine Winter and Finn Robinson
Potatoes are vital, staple foods for several reasons. First and foremost, they’re nutritious and filling, and can be added to just about any meal to bulk it up. Secondly, they’re easy to grow, and thirdly, they can be stored for months if kept in ideal conditions.
If you’re planning a “victory garden” this year, or just want to increase your harvest’s yield, definitely add potatoes to your list. You can grow a startling amount in a relatively small space, and end up with 100lbs (or more) for your pantry.
Choose a Container
Pretty much any large—let’s say around 3-foot-deep—container will work for this project. You can aim for an official potato planter from a garden supply center, or you can use a standard 50-gallon plastic garbage can.
The key is to choose a container that can have holes cut into it. Pre-made planters already have these, while trash barrels will need to have holes cut into them. These are primarily for drainage, so you’ll take a 1/2-inch drill bit and bore several holes in the bottom of your barrel. Drill some holes around the sides as well, but don’t go above 12″ from the bottom.
Once that’s done, wipe down the entire container with a 1:10 ratio diluted bleach:water solution, inside and out. This is to ensure that you destroy any pathogens that might be clinging in there. For example, verticillium wilt and damping-off disease can kill off your plants before they’ve even had a chance to get going. This is why it’s important to disinfect all your planters before using them each spring.
*Tip: If you need a quick and dirty potato planter, you can stack tires on on top of another (as per the image above). They’re strong and sturdy, and allow you to use whatever you have on hand to grow food.
Location, Location, Location
Potatoes do best with direct sunlight, as healthy leaves help the underground tubers develop.
That said, they can have too much of a good thing. If you live in a very hot environment, such as where the temperature is consistently above 85F/30C, it’s a good idea to offer them some respite during the day.
Aim for a location that allows them several hours of morning sunshine, and then dappled shade in the afternoon. Alternatively, you can cover them lightly with muslin or row covers to protect them.
Since they need well-drained soil, avoid putting your container on a spot that’s likely to get muddy, such as in the path of water runoff from a drain spout. Put the planter on a gravel bed just to make sure the soil within drains properly and doesn’t get sodden or compacted.
Decide Which Varieties to Plant
Most people have a lot of success growing from seed potatoes that were cultivated in their area. Growing conditions don’t vary much within 100 miles or so. As a result, growing your own food from local plants means that they’re ideal for your region, and will grow well.
*Tip: If you choose early potatoes—namely those that mature 70 or so days after planting—the crops should yield simultaneously. This makes them a lot easier to harvest en masse. Best of all, they tend to be a bit smaller in size, but store well.
Some people swear by planting sprouted potatoes, but this is an individual preference. If you’d like to sprout (or “chit”) your seed potatoes, put them in an open paper bag in a cool, semi-darkened room for a few weeks before planting. They should shrivel and sprout nicely.
This is just one option: we’ve planted un-sprouted potatoes plenty of times and they’ve grown just fine too. If they’re small enough to fit completely in the palm of your hand, plant them whole. Otherwise, you can cut them into smaller pieces. Just try to ensure that there are at least three “eyes” per piece.
Plant Your ‘Taters, Precious!
Start with 4-5 inches of your potting soil/compost blend in your container.
Place your seed potatoes (or cuttings) 6-8 inches apart, depending on size.
Cover each potato (or cutting) with a few inches of soil, and water well.
Keep the soil moist, but not over-saturated with water.
The potatoes should sprout quickly.
If you’re growing in a fairly large container and you’d like to try companion planting, here are a few species that play nicely with potatoes:
- Bush beans
- Any other nightshade (Solanaceae) plants, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers
- Members of the Cucurbitae family: cucumbers, squash, pumpkins
Picking and Storing
The plants will reach full maturity in 10-12 weeks. You’ll know they’re ready when the plants are flowering and the leaves start yellowing.
Reach into the soil a bit to search for tasty tubers. If they’re plump and ready, then you can dump the spuds out onto a tarp or sheet to collect them. Otherwise, let them mature another week or so.
Remember that the potatoes will need to dry (cure) for a week or two before they can be stored safely. This gives their skins time to thicken, so they’ll last longer in cold storage over the winter. After letting them sit for this time, remove any that show signs of rot: if you put any manky potatoes into storage, they’ll rot the lot of them.
Don’t wash the spuds before storing them! Just wipe off most of the dirt, and then keep them in a cool, dry place, between 38 and 40 Fahrenheit (3-5 Celsius).
One of the best ways to store potatoes is in an old clothes dresser. Just play down burlap in the drawers, and add in a few inches of clean sand and sawdust. Press the potatoes into the sand, and cover them with another layer of sawdust, followed by burlap. You can also use straw in lieu of sawdust.
This keeps the moisture levels even, and wicks any excess damp away from the spuds, thus extending their shelf life. Alternatively, you can store them in a dedicated potato crate, which allows air to circulate around them.
Check on them fairly often anyway, so you can remove any that start to go bad.
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