It’s tater time! Growing potatoes is not hard and harvesting potatoes is one of the great joys of gardening. It’s literally like digging for treasure! There are, of course, a few steps to the process. Here’s what you do:
Chit your potatoes.
“Chitting” means pre-sprouting and it gives your potatoes a head start when you plant them. Let your potatoes sit out in the light in a warm room until they begin to grow stems from the eyes (about two weeks). Technically, you can plant any potato that has started to sprout, including grocery store potatoes. However, grocery store potatoes are often sprayed with a growth inhibitor to keep them from sprouting and even organic grocery potatoes (which aren’t sprayed) can be problematic because they aren’t screened for diseases. Your best bet is to buy “seed potatoes” from a seed or agricultural supplier.
Once your potatoes have sprouted, cut them into pieces so you get more bang for your buck.
Small potatoes can be left whole, but larger potatoes can be cut into several pieces, as long as there are at least two eyes per chunk. Once you’ve cut up your potatoes, let them sit out for another 24-48 hours. This gives the fresh cuts a chance to dry out and form a protective skin that will help prevent rotting and disease transmission once your spuds are in the soil.
Prepare your garden bed and dig a trench about 6” deep.
Place half of the soil from the trench on one side of it, and the other half on the other side. Only plant potatoes once the threat of frost has passed and the ground has dried out a bit. Otherwise, cold, wet soil can cause potatoes to rot. In our region, you should be fine to plant any time between now and June 15.
Set your potatoes, sprout side up, in the trench about a foot apart.
Back fill the trench with soil from one side of the trench.
Use the soil from the other side of the trench to cover the sprouts once they start to grow up through the soil.
Hill the potatoes as they grow.
Your potatoes will need to be “hilled” as they grow, or mounded on both sides with whatever organic material you have available (soil, compost, rotted leaves, etc.). The reason for this is that potatoes grow close to the surface of the soil on modified stems called “stolons,” which grow off the parts of the main stem that are buried underground. The more stem that is buried, the more stolons – and potatoes – your plant will produce.
Here’s a good image from the International Potato Center for all of you botany fans!
Your potatoes also need to stay buried because spuds that are exposed to light and heat produce increased levels of a compound called “solanine,” which helps them fight off insects and makes them turn green. Solanine can make humans sick, so never eat a green potato!
I like to use straw to hill my spuds because when it comes time to harvest, you can just pull the straw apart and find potatoes sitting there. Planting potatoes is a great way to build up a garden bed, too, because of all the organic material that is left over from mounding.