Garden Variety: Homegrown potatoes take cooking to another level
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Potatoes are easy to grow in northeast Kansas and can be planted as soon as soil is workable in mid-March. Many gardeners plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day out of superstition and tradition, and the date is generally a good time frame to keep in mind even with minor variations in weather from year to year.
Homegrown potatoes are fresher and more tender than what can usually be purchased at the grocery store. They can be harvested while they are small as “new” potatoes or left to grow larger. Try different varieties to experience new flavors and textures of potatoes. Growing potatoes is also an easy and interesting activity to involve children in gardening.
One potato plant needs about a 12-inch diameter circle of space at a minimum. That means they can be grown in containers or tucked into landscape beds as well as being planted in traditional gardens. They perform best in loose, well-drained soil. If soil is compacted or holds water, mix compost into it prior to planting.
Potatoes are interesting to grow because instead of planting seeds or transplanting plants into the garden, you plant the potatoes themselves. Certified seed potatoes — potatoes that are grown specifically for planting — are better for this task than ones purchased from the grocery store because of the potential for transferring plant diseases. They are available at most garden centers in the spring.
Potatoes need a little prep work a few days prior to planting. Look for buds, usually called eyes, on the skin of the potatoes. Each potato should have several eyes. Buds are where sprouts will emerge to produce new plants. Instead of planting the seed potato whole and having a clump of plants, cut the seed potato into sections leaving one to two buds per section. An average potato should be cut into four to six sections. If potatoes are the size of a golf ball or smaller, go ahead and plant them whole.
Cut potatoes a day or two prior to planting to allow the cut surface to dry out (suberize). Spread the cut potatoes out in boxes or trays during this time and keep them at 60 to 70 degrees to encourage sprouting.
Seed potatoes can be planted as soon as the cuts have sealed over. If planting in a traditional garden, plant seed potato sections 12 inches apart. They can be planted in blocks or rows. If planting in a container, select one that is at least 12 inches in diameter. Bigger is better. Fabric pots work especially well for potatoes.
Initially, seed potatoes should be about 2 inches below the soil surface. After the plants begin to grow and are 6 to 12 inches tall, you will want to begin mounding soil against the plant. The mounding process continues as plants grow taller, typically until the mound is 8 to 12 inches tall. This can be achieved in a few ways.
In a traditional garden, the best method may be to dig a trench 6 to 8 inches deep for planting, but only fill it initially to cover the seed potatoes 2 inches as recommended. Then, as plants grow, fill the trench back in with the remaining soil. Alternatively, seed potatoes can be planted at the recommended depth and soil between the rows can be shoveled or raked up against the plants to create the mounds.
Containers are easier. Make the initial planting 10 to 12 inches below the top rim of the container. Cover with about 2 inches of soil. Then, as plants grow, add more potting soil until the pot is full.
Potato plants planted in March should reach full size by about mid-May. When that happens, add straw, prairie hay, or other mulch to the soil surface to reduce moisture fluctuations.
Provide supplemental water to potatoes in extended dry periods to improve yield. If regular rainfall occurs, avoid extra water to reduce the likelihood of rot.
New potatoes will be produced below the soil surface above the original seed potato. If you prefer small new potatoes, start digging around in the soil with your fingers in May to feel for them. Otherwise, wait until vines begin to die in June. When vines are about half-dead, they can be pulled or loosened out of the ground, bringing potatoes with them. A digging fork is also helpful to lift potatoes out of the soil.
For potatoes grown in containers, simply turn the container over and dump it out when ready to harvest. Potatoes should easily dislodge from potting soil.
Keep freshly dug potatoes out of the sun as they will sunburn. Sunburned areas turn green and have a bitter flavor. Allow them to dry before storing, then move to a cool dark location to extend the shelf life.
Common potato varieties that perform well in Kansas are Red Norland, La Rouge, Viking, Superior, Kennebec, Irish Cobbler, Yukon Gold and Norgold. Red- and white-skinned varieties are ideal for roasting, boiling, mashing and potato salad. Russet-skinned varieties are drier, mealier potatoes ideal for baking and frying. Blue-skinned potatoes can also be grown here and are ideal for mixing in with red- and white-skinned varieties. They may not perform as well as the others but are interesting.
Potatoes can also be grown in the fall in Kansas. For a fall crop, plant seed potatoes early to mid-July. Seed potatoes are often difficult to find at that time of year.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.