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COLUMN: Early spring edibles include potatoes, onions

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By Jeneen Wiche

I managed to get through the whole season eating only our store of potatoes from the garden only because of the generous offerings of sweet potatoes from two other gardeners. I love it when I can go from harvest to planting and still have a few potatoes left in storage.
Homegrown potatoes, even the old ones in their slightly shriveled state, are far superior then the kind that come in a plastic bag. I am really ready to get my hands in the soil, and planting potatoes is just the thing to get the season rolling.
First thing first: while I always shoot for a mid-March planting of selected seed potatoes we must consider the condition of the soil. Don’t start digging if the soil is too wet. Be patient and only work once the soil is friable. Select potato varieties that complement the way you cook. The most versatile varieties include favorites like Yukon Gold and Red Cloud. Both are great harvested early as “new” potatoes or harvested late for storage. If you have a history of pest problems in the potato patch then Island Sunshine and Prince Hairy prove most resistant; Elba and Butte are good mashed or baked; Caribe and Carola are best roasted or fried; and the fingerling potatoes are ideal for roasting whole.
Potatoes will grow in most soil types; however, working compost into the planting furrows is recommended to improve drainage and provide additional nutrients. Composted manure will provide the fertilizer requirements throughout the growing season. During the growing season, once the stems and foliage have emerged you can provide additional nutrients to the plants by spraying liquid seaweed or fish emulsion. Research suggests that fish emulsion deters deer grazing and some insect problems, as well. Potatoes are in the nightshade family and therefore poisonous to many animals to browsing should not be too much of an issue; Colorado potato beetles are of more concern.
Rotating your crop is essential for potatoes (and other vegetables in the nightshade family, like tomatoes) if you want to avoid pest problems. For most gardeners it is not too much to ask that they hand pick pests on a regular basis in order to protect their potato crop but there are some biological controls (i.e. Spinosad) that can help offset larger infestations of potato pests. Using floating row covers as an insect barrier early in season does a world of good in terms of protecting plants from Colorado potato beetles, leafhoppers and flea beetles. Handpicking pests and dropping them into a bucket of water is a reasonable proposition, too.
When you are ready to plant cut the seed potatoes into sections, making sure that each section has 2 or 3 healthy buds or “eyes”. These eyes become the roots and stems of the tuber. You can usually get four good pieces from each seed potato. On average 5 pounds of seed potato will plant out a 50-foot row. Plant your seed potatoes in furrows, about 12 inches apart and about 3-5 inches deep, shallow for fast emergence deeper for less hilling duty. A long thin furrow makes it easier to harvest later in the summer.
I plant deeply when the spring warm up has been brisk; and shallower when there is still a chill to the soil. A couple of weeks after the foliage has emerged, start hilling soil around the stem to protect the developing tubers. I always plant on the deep side so I don’t have to hill the plants as much.
Once the seed potatoes are planted mulch them to moderate soil moisture, control weeds and to further protect the developing tubers from sun exposure. If the tubers are exposed to direct sunlight they turn green and take on a slight toxicity (they won’t kill you, though.)
You can harvest small potatoes (called “new” potatoes) after the plants have finished blooming in the summer but for larger potatoes suitable for storage allow plants to reach maturity. Harvest potatoes for storage about three weeks after the tops of the plants have completely died back. Rub off excess dirt and cure your potatoes in a ventilated and shaded (don’t leave them in the sun) area for a couple of weeks before storing indoors (for successful, long storage you must allow the tops to die back and you must air cure them). Rinse any excess dirt from the potato prior to storage to prevent desiccation and do not store in the refrigerator.