How to Grow a Great Potato

Americans eat more potatoes than any other vegetable.  Think about your current household food budget.  How much do you spend per month of tater tots, fries and fresh potatoes?  Shouldn't you grow your own?

Growing potato plants in your Pocono vegetable garden requires some planning and preparation but is not difficult, even for gardeners with physical limitations.  Growing your own potatoes can be a rewarding culinary experience.

By now most larger grocery stores carry gourmet potatoes.  You see them in tiny plastic containers, similar to strawberry pints, for outrageous prices.  When faced with the choice of the familiar russet in a 5lb bag for $3.99 or 1lb of baby potatoes for $6.95, most families choose the russet.

When gardeners think of starting their own potato plants they may become intimidated.  Potato farming brings to mind poor Irish families emigrating to the US during the Great Potato Famine, poor "dirt farmers" during the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s and back-breaking, laborious digging.

Let's replace those images with new ones.  A large bowl of creamy mashed potatoes, homemade home fries on a Saturday morning and hot roasted potatoes from your barbecue.

Even seniors or people with arthritis or other physical limitations can grow potatoes.  They don't need to be grown traditionally to yield  great tasting, home grown spuds.

Potato Basics

Potatoes are annuals.  They require a growing season of 80 to 120 days or more, depending on the variety, to mature fully.  New or baby potatoes can be harvested before 80 days.

While there are a few varieties that can be grown from true seed, most are grown from seed potatoes, also called potato sets.  Seed potatoes are small tubers, or pieces of potatoes, with at least one eye that sprouts into a new plant. 

When choosing or cutting potatoes for seed it is best to pick ones that are at least one square inch to give the plant enough energy to sustain it while it develops roots and stems. 

Do not use a seed potato with more than 3 eyes.  It will develop a stem from each eye and grow a very leafy plant that will produce few vegetables because all it's energy goes into leaf development.

You may plant your potato sets when the soil temperature reaches 45-50°.  I start planting mine in March, 25 this year.  In order to get the most of my limited space, I stagger the plantings by a few weeks.  This usually gives me enough time to harvest a crop of new potatoes in late June or early July and replant the same area to harvest again in October.

The potatoes will not be damaged by frost or even snow, while still underground.  If the shoots are up, they can be damaged by frost.  If you plant early, they will need the protection from late frost.

Soil

Potatoes need loose soil to grow in.  Remove as many rocks as you can during the preparation of the bed.  If your soil has a high clay content, you need to add some sand and leaf mold or compost to it. 

Do not use play sand.  The grains are all a uniform size.  It packs down tight (like a sandcastle) after a heavy rain.  It is better to use all purpose or coarse builder's sand.  It is sold near the concrete mix in most home improvements stores.

The soil should be slightly acidic.  A pH of 4.8 to 5.5 is usually recommended.  A soil test kit or pH meter will determine your soil pH.

Adding compost to your soil will improve both it's structure and fertility.  Potatoes like rich soil, but not too much nitrogen

Using a nitrogen rich fertilizer or a soil pH of higher than 5.5 can cause scab disease.  Scab disease causes corky patches to form on the skin of the potato.  It won't hurt you, just peel those portions off before preparing, but is is unattractive.

If scab is a problem in your garden:

  • Do not add lime or pelletized limestone.  It raises the pH.
  • Do not add more compost or manure.
  • Do not use a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content.  Choose one that is higher in phosphorus and potassium.  A slow release 5-12-10 would be good.
  • Add a few shovelfuls of greensand to the soil.  This will increase the potash (potassium).
  • Grow your potatoes with the Mulch method.
  • Grow something else in that area next year, not another root crop.  I have never seen scab affect turnips or carrots, but that doesn't mean it can't.



Potato Growing Tips