Although treated as annuals for production purposes, potatoes are an herbaceous perennial plant originating in the Andes Mountains. While relatively easy to grow, potatoes do require significant production space, a bit of time, and copious amounts of fertilizer to garner the amount needed to feed a family. Take advantage of the easy nature of potatoes and grow some interesting varieties to mix up the fun in the kitchen.
How easy is easy? Potatoes like cool, 40 to 45-degree F soil that is not overly wet. A lower soil pH, in the 4.8 to 5.5 range, is best for optimum tuber growth. Higher pH soils will be tolerated albeit with a higher instance of potato scab. Choose reliably scab resistant varieties for areas with high pH soil. In well-prepared planting beds, dig a four- to eight-inch-deep hole, gently place properly prepared tubers, cover with more soil, and wait for them to grow. After a few weeks the plants will begin to poke their way through the soil surface.
Protecting the tubers, the only edible portion of the potato plant, is easy with a bit of labor early on. When the plants are about eight inches tall, mound soil, compost, leaves, and/or small diameter sticks over the plant base and up to the second or third set of leaves. Continue this step as the plant grows until there is six to eight inches of material covering the plant base. This serves to shade the tubers during growth, which prevents the excessive development of glycoalkaloids. All the potato plant leaves, stems, flowers, even the eyes on the tubers contain glycoalkaloids which act as a deterrent to insect and wildlife feeding. As these glycoalkaloids can also be deadly to humans if consumed in large concentrations, it is best to keep the tubers out of the sunlight at all phases of the life cycle. Nature provides a visual cue to the presence of these compounds by either greening up or darkening the color of the tuber tissue. If glycoalkaloids are present, the potato will have a very bitter and unpleasant taste. Be safe and dispose of any green potatoes.
Potatoes are heavy feeders, so fertilize often. For the best result, start after flowers show on the plant to maximize input to the tuber production and not the vegetative portions. For “baby” potatoes, harvest at least two weeks after flowering has finished. When the tops have completely dried, it is time to commence wholescale harvesting. For storage varieties, dig when the soil is relatively dry and leave any remaining particles to dry naturally on the tubers. They can be washed prior to use. If they must be washed right out of the ground, do so carefully, as potatoes bruise, which leads them to rot. Store harvested potatoes in a cool 50-degree F., dark spot with low humidity. Check often for rot and remove any that are soft.
Potatoes are packed with beneficial nutrients and low in calories (forego the butter). Plus, there are so many available to grow. Purple skinned varieties are decorative as well as delicious. Fingerling types are fun for kids of all ages to try. Gold fleshed melt in the mouth. Russet’s beg to be baked, while red’s make the best potato pancakes. Have fun mixing it up.