BY AMY L. DABBS
I love the big reveal in reality television. You know, that moment right after the last commercial when you find yourself on edge dying to know who won.
Will they like the new room? How much weight did she lose?
In the garden, the anticipation of the big reveal comes when you grow your own potatoes.
Potatoes don’t require a big Hollywood production to make the magic happen. Simply plant, water, wait and within 100-120 days, you’ll be holding your breath as you uncover your freshly dug spuds.
Potatoes are grown through cloning or vegetative propagation, which takes advantage of their ability to generate an entirely new plant from just a small piece of a plant. For gardeners, it is an easy and reliable method of guaranteeing that the potatoes you get are the ones you want.
Botanically speaking, the parts we grow are actually underground stems called tubers. These swollen stems store delicious carbohydrates that provide energy for us humans. This same store of energy is also used by newly sprouting plants to survive.
To plant seed potatoes, cut them into 2-ounce cubes that include one to three “eyes,” the nodes where new plants emerge, on each piece. Don’t be tempted to skimp, a small seed piece leads to a less vigorous plant.
Potatoes are relatives of tomatoes and eggplants, members of the solanaceae or “nightshade” family. Potato fruits look like green tomatoes but contain a poisonous alkaloid that should not be consumed. Commercial potato breeders use the seeds to create new varieties of potatoes.
Take advantage of the cool, spring-like conditions preferred by potatoes by planting now through mid-February. Potatoes can withstand light frosts, but cover them if temperatures get extremely cold. Choose varieties that mature early and are harvested before the blazing hot temperatures of summer arrive. Good choices include the heirloom, ‘Irish Cobbler,’ which is so productive that it’s called ‘old reliable’; red-skinned, white-fleshed ‘Red Pontiac,’ a local favorite; or go gourmet with Yukon Gold.
There are three basic methods of growing potatoes, depending on your available space:
Potatoes grow best in fertile soils with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5. Prepare soil by adding organic matter such as compost.
Place seed pieces in furrows with the cut side down 3-5 inches deep, spacing them 8-10 inches apart. Cover with soil and maintain even moisture throughout the growing period.
Fertilize with a nitrogen only fertilizer such as 33-0-0 as tubers begin to form, or approximately six weeks after planting. Clemson Extension recommends adding 5 tablespoons 33-0-0 per 10 feet of row.
Straw or mulch
Place seed pieces on top of weed-free soil and cover with a 12-18-inch layer of straw or pine needles. The tubers will form in the mulch, which makes harvesting extremely easy.
This is a great way to extend the time plants produce since you can harvest individual spuds without disturbing the entire plant. Ensure that plants stay well-watered, as mulch can dry out quickly on warm, windy days.
Raised beds, containers
Last spring, I converted an old wooden trunk, destined for the trash, into a potato box for our deck. After adding drainage holes and 6” to 8” of compost mixed with bagged garden soil, my son and I planted seed potato pieces.
As the plants sprouted and began to grow, we added more compost and bagged soil, always leaving the top of the plant exposed. Potato plants form roots along their stem when in contact with soil, which increases the yield.
We harvested a lot of potatoes from our trunk, occasionally even grubbing around for fresh new potatoes for our meals. As the tops died back, our harvest was completed. Anyone can duplicate this method using wooden boxes, chicken wire bent into a cylinder, or any suitable container.
Be aware that potatoes tend to form just under the soil, and turn green when exposed to sunlight. Since these green parts are poisonous, use mulch under potato plants to protect developing tubers from sunlight and cut off and discard green areas before using. Before long, you will experience a garden revelation that is as tasty as it is exciting!
For more information on growing potatoes check out the Clemson Home and Gardening page: http://bit.ly/cGvWsG.
The third annual Carolina Yard Gardening School is now open for enrollment. Join Clemson Extension and the Tri-County Master Gardeners for this one-day gardening event that includes lectures, workshops and much more.
The school will be 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. March 16. Registration is required and the cost is $75. For details and to register, go to: http://bit.ly/VnFTaw or email Amy Dabbs at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to email@example.com.