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Friday, January 16, 2009

Growing organic potatoes

by Rhonda Jean @ Down to Earth

Despite advice stating that potatoes should only be planted in the Spring, we grow potatoes all year long here. We are in a subtropical area with 1500mm of rainfall a year and no frost. Our temperatures range from around 2 or 3 degrees centigrade on a winter’s night to 40+ on a hot summer’s day. Generally though, our temperatures are fairly mild, and they tend towards warmth rather than cold. We are a two person family and if we are diligent in our planting, we don’t need to buy potatoes. Usually three crops per year is enough for us.

We plant potatoes from three sources – our own potatoes, store bought organic potatoes or seed potatoes, depending on what we have on hand and what time of the year it is. Our preference is a frugal choice – we plant our own potatoes from the last crop if we have enough of them. If we harvest small potatoes, or they send out a green shoot early – they are the potatoes we plant. When we harvest our potatoes, we keep the smaller ones outside ready for the next crop.

There are many different types of potatoes so choose the ones you like the taste of. For us, that is Dutch Creams, although sometimes we plant Kipflers, and we have tried other varieties. If you can buy local seed potatoes, buy them, if not, go to your organic green grocer and choose something from their range. If you’re not sure of the taste and qualities of the various types, buy some to test taste, then make your choice.

You need to think about your planting a long time before you plant – the soil needs to be prepared and your potatoes need to shoot. This is called chitting. To chit the potatoes, place them outside in the shade in old egg cartons, making sure rodents and dogs can't get at them The egg cartons will hold them nicely so they don’t roll around and break the shoot. Depending on the age of the potatoes, chitting will take between 2 – 6 weeks. Please note, you don’t have to chit the potatoes before you plant them. They will grow without chitting but if you can do it, you’ll have mature potatoes faster and you’ll be sure that every one of the potatoes you planted has sprouted. If you buy your potatoes just before you plant, just go ahead and get them in the ground, especially if you have the weather constraints of very cold or very hot weather. Potatoes take about 16 – 20 weeks to grow to maturity and it’s best to give potatoes their own bed as you’ll have to hill them.

Plant when all chance of frost is passed. Prepare the soil with old compost and cow manure but do not add lime, potatoes like a slightly acid soil of pH 5- 6. You must have good drainage or the potatoes will rot in the ground.

Never plant potatoes in old tyres – there is cadmium and heavy metals in tyres. While you can grow potatoes in potato cages and in no dig beds under straw, I believe the best potatoes are grown in soil. They mine the soil for minerals and it shows in the taste.

The potato bed pre-prepared here had been dug over, we always dig our vegetables, and although we know some gardeners prefer no dig we have found, that here, we only get high quality vegetables if we dig the soil, aerate it and add abundant organic matter between each and every planting. Adding lots of organic matter between plantings also helps reduce disease when you have continuous crops, as we do. So to this bed there has been added – homemade compost, old cow manure, blood and bone and the raked up floor of the chook coop – with decomposed lawn clippings, garden waste and old chook poo. None of these additives smell, they just have the scent of good garden soil because they have all had enough time to decompose. Adding fresh manure may burn your tubers.

Dig furrows in the garden bed about 75 cm (30 inches) apart. Plant the potatoes 15 cm (6 inches) deep, with the shoots pointing up, and with about 30 cm (12 inches) between each tuber. Rake the soil back over the potatoes carefully so you don’t break the shoots. Don’t press the soil down, but water well. Then mulch the rows. If you have any comfrey growing, chop some up and add it to the mulch, potatoes like comfrey. They like moist but not wet soil, so water according to your climate to achieve that.

Depending on your climate, shoots will appear on the surface of the soil in about two or three weeks time. As the potatoes grow, hill up the soil around the plant, just leaving the end tips of the plant exposed. You will need to hill the plants a few times. Always replace your mulch after hilling, especially if you’re in a hot or windy area.

Keep hilling your plants as they grow taller and try to build your soil up to about 30 – 40 cm (12 – 15 inches) by the time the potatoes flower. When you notice the potatoes flower, apply some diluted seaweed extract.

When the leaves at the bottom of the plants begin to go yellow, you will know you can bandicoot new potatoes from the side of the hills. To bandicoot potatoes, gently put your hand into the side of the hill at the base of a plant and feel for small potatoes. Remove any you find. This doesn’t disturb the main plant and will give you a real treat early in the potato season. A meal of new potatoes, fresh from your own backyard, is one of the many rewards of vegetable gardening that you never know about if you always buy your vegetables.

Spiced potatoes with sesame seeds.

Potatoes exposed to sunlight for a period of time will turn green. Never eat green potatoes, they’re toxic.

The potatoes in the photos above were planted here yesterday. Over the coming months, we will follow this bed of potatoes to harvest and then storage. Stay tuned.

POTATO FAQS from North Dakota University


18 comments:

Janet said...

oh yum! Thanks for an informative post. Do you ever cut your seed potatoes into chunks? That is a pretty common practice here in Western Canada to get more bang for your buck, so to speak. You just make sure that there are 2 or more eyes on each chunk.

I appreciate the info on spacing and such - also the warning about tires is priceless - I hadn't thought of them leaching nasties into the taters.

Ah, someday I will have a garden again...

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Alright that does it! I'm officially jealous of your climate. Potatoes are a staple here but must be stored during the winter months.

Kate said...

I can see why you use egg cartons to chit those potatoes; they look just like eggs! I grew potatoes for the first time last year. I'm planning on planting a little over 10 pounds of potatoes this year, four different kinds.

I guess if you can get three crops in per year, holding over your potatoes for seed isn't much of an issue. I'm wondering whether any of my potato crop will work for planting by the time we're done with winter. I guess we'll find out.

rhonda jean said...

Hello ladies.

Janet, yes, we do that when we don't have enough potatoes to plant. It works well. I wish you the best with getting a potato patch again one day soon.

Nita! that makes us even then. I covet your snow. : - )

Kate, you're thinking the same way I do. Try it and see. We've found here that if we rely on books or suggestions from well meaning people, we don't do as much. We try everything ourselves here, even if we are advised against it, then decide whether we're the same as the books; generally we have success. Push the envelope all the time and see what will work in your situation.

ruizbe82 said...

Wonderful!

I've been meaning to learn how to get potatoes going in our garden, and it seems now I have something to work from. Thank you!

So you're planting in mid-summer, then? Are there specific planting seasons for potatoes?

It's so rainy in the winter here in Oregon that I doubt potatoes would be happy in this climate...

Chiot's Run said...

While seeing your potatoes all in a row I had to laugh and think about the show Good Neighbors (have you ever seen it?). He invented a potato planter in one episode to make planting all their potatoes easier.

Maureen said...

This is so fun to see! We planted potatoes for the first time this year...in Nov. Some are up and surviving the little bit of freezes we get (California central valley) and others may be dead or dormant....we shall see. I am so hoping to be successful and find yet another veggie that we can forgo buying at the grocery store.

...and I was told we can't do potatoes here so I appreciate the encouragement. We may fail but at least we tried.

Compostwoman said...

Oh I am SO jealous!

We can't grow potatoes all year round, Feb planting and a late harvest of Oct is about our limit ( if blight doesn't get there first.)

I have just ordered our seed spuds...and aim to plant the first earlies in mid Feb...

Out Back said...

Thanks Rhonda for this post.

I have been wanting to have a go at growing potatoes for a while. I did try once but they turned out so small. I am not sure if our climate or soil down south will suit though.

Tania

Rhonda Jean said...

ruizbe, generally you plant in your spring.If your autumn is mild, try then too.

Chiot's Run. We know that program as The Good Life. And yes, I saw that machine Tom had. LOL

Mauntreen, if you've been told not to do it, that's a sure sign you should. Good luck love.

Good luck with your crop, Compostwoman. You have a good long season too.

Tania, small spuds is a sign of not enough water. You need to keep the soil moist. And if you're in a hot climate, you'll need a lot of mulch, that will help keep the soil moist and cut down on the water needed.

Peggy said...

I am waiting for my order of organic seed potatoes to arrive.We tried them last year but just bought seed potatoes in a garden centre in a plastic bag.They did'nt grow very big and the ones that did later in the season got blight.This year we are only sowing first and second earlies as we don't have enough space on the plot to have a late crop taking up space.In Ireland first earlies will go in in feb.I found your comment on the tyres very interesting as they seem to be the in method in all the gardening mags!

Anonymous said...

Rhonda,
Of all the things you could post about, you picked my favorite vegetable! I'm simply drooling over visions of fresh potatoes. LOL
Have you ever mixed new potatoes and fresh green peas in a cream sauce? It's got to be one of the most delicious combinations from the garden. Well, it's too cold right now to plant where I'm at (about 30 degrees at the moment)! We usually plant some potatoes on Good Friday and then some later for fall harvesting. The early planting is usually ready to bandicoot about the 4th of July. Of course, we also plant green peas with the potatoes so we can have creamed peas and new potatoes for the 4th of July picnic!
Hugs, Aunt Bea

Chookie said...

Dear Rhonda, how many spuds do you plant and how much room does it take per crop?

Anonymous said...

Hi Rhonda,
I was wondering if you have to cope with potato beetles. Also if you know of any organic treatments to keep them from eating up the potato plants.
Last time we grew potatoes we picked the nasty little critters off by hand every evening. UGH1
I would appreciate any advice you would care to offer.

Green Bean said...

Yay! I love potatoes. They are, imo, one of the easiest plants to grow and also so pretty when they are flowering! I had a friend mistake mine for peonies.

littleecofootprints said...

Thanks for yet another informative post Rhonda. Thanks also for the advice re lead etc in old tyres. i was planning to plant potatoes in some old tyres soon...I would have felt so bad about poisoning my family if I had found this out 'after'. Tricia

linda said...

Thanks Rhonda
The information about the tires was really important. I know organic gardeners who are dying to try it out so I will warn them.

Rhonda Jean said...

That sounds like a great meal, Aunt Bea.

Chhokie, those beds are about 12 sq metres each and we planted about 40 or 50 potatoes. We tend to pack ours in a bit tighter than what is recommended.

Anon, we have never had potato beetle here but picking off by hand sounds like a good option. You could also plant horseradish in with the potatoes. This next suggestion is just a stab in the dark. We control heliothis grub here with Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensi). Tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family, so it might also work on potato beetle. Dipel is an allowed substance on our organic lists here but you'll have to check it where you are. Coutnries sometimes differ on their recommendations.