Monday, 26 April 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: potatoes

by Francesca


Over the last few years, something strange has happened to the potatoes sold in the stores in my area. Formerly, I could buy several different varieties of yellow, white and red potatoes, but gradually these have disappeared, and nowadays there's just one kind, generic “potatoes” that come in huge bags. Unfortunately, these have a soggy, mealy texture, and a taste that's just plain bad - eating them is like biting into a lump of stale flour.

So, imagine my delight when I first stuck a hoe in my new garden plot, and discovered that the soil was dark brown, very soft and loose, and felt remarkably warm to the touch, despite the unseasonably cool temperatures we've been having: perfect for growing potatoes! What a difference from my previous garden, where the soil was tan colored, so clayey that it clung to the hoe in clumps, and took a long time to warm up. That soil was too dense for root vegetables and tubers; after a few harvests of short, twisted, scrawny carrots, radishes and potatoes, I stopped planting them.

seed potato

~ seed potatoes are potatoes that have produced shoots. Plant whole if the potato is small, or cut into pieces, each containing a few eyes, and allow to callus over by leaving exposed for several days before planting ~

Potatoes are an easy and rewarding crop, and they do reasonably well in a wide range of soils. Also, their main enemy, at least in my climate, is the potato beetle, a large, striped, golden-colored pest which feeds on the foliage and lays bright orange eggs on the undersides of the leaves: easy to spot and get red of. However, this beetle is quite voracious and prolific, so remain vigilant and act immediately when you notice that the beetle has set up shop in your potato plants. The potato beetle will also attack eggplants, so avoid planting potatoes and eggplants close together.

My farmer neighbors taught me how to plant potatoes. They use the “trench-to-mound” method, which has always struck me as both clever and efficent.

potato trench method

Dig a trench about 6” deep, plant your seed potatoes there with their shoots up, spaced about 14” apart, and cover with some soil. Potatoes need regular watering during their early growth stages, and the trench helps to funnel the water to the young plants.

As they grow, take some of the soil you dug up when you made the trenches, and progressively mound it up around the plant, keeping the buried tubers well covered. Because potato plants have a relatively long growing cycle, between 16 to 20 weeks, I've sowed fast-growing crops like arugula and radishes along the sides of the trenches. I'll be harvesting them long before I need to use the soil they're growing in to make mounds around my potato plants, and in the meanwhile, these crops are keeping that soil from being left uncovered, exposed to weeds and the weather. Also, I've intercropped my potatoes with garlic.


~ potato plant intercropped with garlic, 20 days after planting ~

Reduce the watering when the potato plants begin flowering, and stop it altogether when they stop flowering: by that time, you'll have completely filled in the trenches with soil and created mounds around your plants. (You'll find excellent step-by-step instructions on how to grow and harvest potatoes here and here) And in a couple more weeks, your potatoes should be ready for lifting, and you'll see for the first time what you've produced.

roast potatoes
~ roast potatoes with lots of garlic, rosemary and sage is my family's favorite potato dish ~

The potato harvest, when you finally pull your underground crop out into the light, is quite a satisfying, even momentous, occasion!


Catherine said...

This is brilliant, Francesca! I really like that method.

gardenmama said...

Potatoes and carrots are my favorite veggies to pull up in the garden. Isn't the taste incredible? there of course is no comparison to store bought varietals. I can still remember vividly the taste of the day last year when I roasted all of our root veggies at the end of the growing season. I crave it to this day! Thank you for sharing this growing wisdom.

The Younger Rachael said...

I've put in potatoes, the first for me. They've been in 3 weeks or so, and they are HUGE! Its pretty warm here, maybe that's it.

I'll do it better next year. This year, I put in two rows, but didn't trench them like you said. I bet we still get some good ones, though! I hope :P

Nicola (Which Name?) said...

This is fabulous, Francesca! I have never grown my own potatoes and you have just helped me so much!

Joyce said...

Francesca I think I could even do this! The only thing is I don't get a whole lot of sun in our yard. Do I need full sun for potatoes? The last photo has me rasing my plate for more! xo

simple in France said...

Yum! I cannot wait to grow potatoes, and I love your idea of inter-cropping using trenches.

Cabrizette said...

Oh, yes, yes... I'm late with my garden.. I have to plant my potatoes too !!! Bravo ; )

Joanne said...

Bought potatoes here have become very watery and don't roast well at all. If you boil, drain and mash them, you end up with less volume than years ago. Good reasons for growing your own!
Thanks for this post. I knew about hilling (mounding potatoes) but always tried to find 'extra' dirt. The trench method solves that problem perfectly.

A Day That is Dessert said...

Thank you for this helpful information, Francesca! I'd so love to harvest a bumper crop of potatoes this year - will give it a try.

Paula said...

Oh, your garlic looks terrific. Thanks for the planting diagram tips, too.

denise said...


We have a tiny yard so tried growing potatoes in potato bags & a big wooden barrel last year - did the heap it up with soil as you go method, but got only a few measly pounds of potatoes from a LOT of seed potatoes/a LOT of potting $soil & compost in 6 large containers. Feeling frustrated by it, but think we might try again this year. Maybe.

Dia said...

I'm lucky to have a CSA share, & great potatoes (& even sweet p!!) from them - I also have a garden, & one of the local garden shops stocks red, yellow fin, & lovely blue seed potatoes!! The blue have the same phytochemicals as blueberries - so are antioxident rich - & did very well in the garden!! Hard to see against my dark soil, lol

Lovely desc. of the ease of growing potatoes.