The white russet potatoes common in most U.S. supermarkets and fast-food restaurants literally pale in comparison to the diverse array of varieties found in the plant's home range of present-day Peru. Potatoes were most likely first cultivated by farmers in the Andes Mountains, where they fueled the civilizations that built Machu Picchu and the Incan Pyramids.
Some estimates suggest that this area is home to some 4,000 unique varieties of potatoes. They range in color, shape, and size—from tiny, round, almost black tubers to elongated, yellow potatoes that look more like bananas.
Why Americans refer to these as “Irish Potatoes” instead of “Inca Potatoes” is beyond me. Perhaps it's because of Ireland’s famous nationwide crop failure, which incidentally may have been brought on by the bad growing practice of raising only one variety of potato. This crop failure tragically led to the deaths of close to 1 million people and the exodus of 25% of Ireland’s population. However, using the traditional South American method of growing many varieties of potatoes together ensures that you’ll have at least some harvest regardless of the growing conditions because of genetic variability in disease tolerance.
On our homestead, potatoes are a very important part of our staple crop repertoire. They are easy to grow, store relatively well, and provide densely-packed calories for a meal that sticks to your ribs. If you are working towards producing more of your own food, you really can’t go wrong with potatoes. Read on to learn the dos and don’ts of home-grown spuds.
Preparing Your Seed Potatoes Most farmers grow potatoes from dormant tubers stored from the previous season known as “seed potatoes.” While you can technically grow potatoes from store-bought organic tubers, you’ll have a greater chance of a successful crop with certified seed potatoes. These are prepared by professionals and are more likely to be free of disease than organic store-bought potatoes. Most online seed companies sell seed potatoes, and you can also find them at many big-box garden centers. Avoid using non-organic potatoes from the store at all costs because they are typically sprayed with sprout inhibitors to increase their shelf life and prevent the growth of eyes.
Wait, did he just say potatoes have eyes? Yes, potato “eyes” are the sprouts that begin to form on potato tubers when they are ready to begin growing stems, leaves, and roots. You have probably seen them emerging from potatoes left in the back of your cupboard for a little bit too long.
When planting your seed potatoes, you’ll want to cut them up so that each chunk has about two or three eyes. Do this with a clean knife and allow them to cure in a well-ventilated area for three to five days before planting to avoid spreading disease.
Ideal Potato Growing Conditions Like most root crops, potatoes prefer loose, rich, and well-draining soil. If your natural soil type is not conducive to growing root crops, a raised bed or large planter filled with compost is a great alternative. Plant your seed potato pieces 4 to 6 inches deep and cover with soil. Some people recommend digging a trench and backfilling soil as the potato grows, but I have always found this unnecessarily labor-intensive. To give your potatoes room to sprawl, you should space them at 12 inches between plants and 30 inches between rows.
Plant your potatoes in an area of the garden that receives full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day). The plants will become spindly and pale green if they're not receiving enough sunlight. Below ground, they'll likely not have enough energy to produce good-sized tubers.
Potato Pests and Diseases When growing potatoes, the primary pest you’ll encounter is the Colorado potato beetle. These bugs are voracious consumers of potato leaves in their larval growth stage. The plump little grubs are very susceptible to predators in this stage so having a healthy population of beneficial insects in your garden is often enough to prevent an outbreak. If you find that the beetle larvae are causing significant damage to your crop, you can hand-pick them or spray them with the organic pesticide spinosad.
As far as diseases to look out for in your potato beds, there is perhaps none more notorious than late blight, the cause of the Irish Potato Famine. The best tool for fighting late blight is well-draining soil and planting a diversity of potato varieties. While the tubers require consistent moisture for optimal growth, soil that is constantly wet or waterlogged is a prime environment for the fungal growth that leads to late blight. If you observe the signs of late blight (brown and black lesions on the leaves), it’s best to harvest your potatoes prematurely to avoid losing the whole crop.
Another common fungal disease that impacts potato crops is scab, which is mostly a cosmetic issue that causes marketing problems for potato farmers. As long as you’re okay with eating potatoes that don’t look pristine, you shouldn’t worry too much about this disease.
Potato Harvest and Storage You can harvest early to get new potatoes or allow them to mature fully and produce storage potatoes. New potatoes are tender and delicious, but you’ll sacrifice pounds of production by pulling the plants when the tubers are small. New potatoes don’t store well since they have immature skins, so you should eat them within a few days of harvest for the best quality.
For fully mature, storage-quality potatoes, allow them to stay in the ground until the above-ground growth of the plant dies back completely. At this point the plant has pushed all of the energy it generated through the season into the tubers to store as starch for the winter.
For long-term storage, your potatoes should be cured in a well-ventilated, humid area with mild temperatures. A basement or cool garage is often the best place for the average home gardener to cure their potato harvest. For more details, check out our previous article on harvesting and storing potatoes.
Whether you are growing potatoes for subsistence, flavor, or just to participate in a tradition that dates back thousands of years, they are a fun and rewarding crop for home gardeners. If you follow the principles outlined above you’ll be stuffing your face with homegrown mashed potatoes in no time.