Potatoes must be the most satisfying crop that you can grow, as long as you have the room to grow them. There are numerous varieties to choose from, but this in itself can be a bit off-putting, especially for the newcomer to vegetable gardening.
Potatoes are often grown as a first ever crop on a new plot. A lot of people believe that "Potatoes clear the ground". This is true in one respect, but it is not the Potatoes that do the clearing - It's your hard work. To grow Potatoes the ground has to be dug over - preferably by double digging, and organic matter incorporated. The trench then has to be dug to take the seed, they have to be earthed up and then dug out of the ground. All this digging, mixing of organic matter, movement of soil gets the ground into perfect condition for most other crops - but just work out - who's done the hard work, YOU or the Potatoes?
However having said all that it is still worthwhile growing a crop. There is nothing nicer than home grown new Potatoes.
Basically Potatoes fall into 3 categories, the early, second early and maincrop. Unless you have an awful lot of space to spare and eat a lot of Potatoes, you will probably only grow 2 types or if space is at a premium only 1.
Most people grow an early variety, which they use as new Potatoes and use as soon as they are dug up, and then a maincrop variety for storage through the winter.
Potatoes are not hardy and a frost will kill them. If you have mild springs you can grow a very early variety such as Rocket. In colder areas I would suggest either planting later or using a second early variety such as Wilja.
All varieties are pretty tolerant and will grow in any soil but will do better in an organic rich one that is slightly acid. Potatoes hate Lime and will form scabs on their skins if the soil is too alkaline.
Buy only certified seed Potatoes to ensure that they are disease free. Before planting out they will need 'chitting'. This is done by placing them in seed trays or if you can get them, egg cartons. Leave them in a light place at about 10F, for about 6 weeks; they will then sprout small green shoots.
Plant the tubers 5" deep, being careful not to damage the shoots. Space early varieties 12" apart with 24" between the rows. Later maincrop varieties should be planted 15" apart with 30" between the rows.
If there is any danger of frost as the shoots start to show through, draw a little earth over them to protect them. Allow to grow until about 9" high. It is then time to start the earthing up process. This involves drawing soil from either side of the row to form a ridge over the forming tubers. This is to protect the tubers from the light and therefore stopping them from going green.
Note: Green Potatoes are poisonous and should not be eaten.
A modern alternative to earthing the plants up is to plant through black polythene. This is especially favoured for early varieties, which can be lifted as required by just drawing the polythene sheeting back and lifting the Potatoes. Gardeners that used the deep bed method of cultivation also favour this method.
It is important to keep the plants well watered. This is especially important while the tubers are forming.
The tubers are ready for lifting when, on early varieties, the flowers are open. Test by drawing the soil away from the base of one of the plants, the tubers should be about the size of a hen's egg. On maincrop varieties being used for storage, wait until the foliage dies down and then cut off and dispose of it. Leave the tubers in the ground for a further ten days then dig them out using a fork. A proper Potato fork has broad flat prongs to avoid damaging the tubers.
Ensure that the tubers are dry and undamaged before placing in paper sacks for storage otherwise they will be affected by rots.
Potatoes are subject to all the usual Root crop pests and diseases such as slugs, Wireworms, Potato cyst Eelworms, Potato blight, scab, Potato blackleg, spraing and wart disease. (See relevant Pests or Diseases sections)
© copyright 1999, P. A. Owen