Around 1570, potatoes brought back from South America by gold-hungry conquistadors were fed to a group of prisoners in Seville, Spain, to see if the potatoes would kill them. The prisoners survived, and monks soon began carrying tubers with them as they travelled around Europe. Two hundred years later, everyone was planting potatoes.
The best reason for planting potatoes is that they are so easy to grow. Any type of fast-maturing potato will multiply itself into a robust cluster of fresh new potatoes in about 90 days. Take note: Most potatoes except for big baking potatoes grow at a fast to moderate pace, but big bakers need a longer, cooler season than most gardens can provide.
This means that it’s practical, rewarding and fun to grow potatoes you buy and like especially well as long as they are small ones. For example, several years ago my potato planting consisted of some small fingerlings purchased in a pricey bag of gourmet potatoes. I’m still growing them, replanting them year after year (they’re that yummy), but I also make room in my garden for two other varieties each year. Why put all of your eggs in one basket?
Preparing the Planting Pieces
Before planting potatoes, place the spuds you want to plant in a warm, sunny spot. The warmth will encourage sprouting, and exposure to sunlight makes the skins turn green and bitter. This makes them less appetising to critters.
One to two days before planting potatoes, cut the sprouting green potatoes into pieces that have at least three puckered "eyes" on each piece. Allow the cut pieces to dry, and don’t be alarmed if they turn black. The darkened, leathery surfaces will resist rotting better than freshly cut ones, so every piece you plant should grow. Plant potatoes that are smaller than a golf ball whole.
Rows, Beds or Hills?
If you want grow potatoes bigger than your fist, you will need to space the plants at least 14 inches (36 cm) apart. Some people go even wider and plant potatoes in hills, with 3 plants per 24-inch (61 cm) diameter "hill". Actually, potato "hills" are flattened mounds about 6 inches (15 cm) high. Hills are a great way to grow potatoes in a small garden. You can grow potatoes in wide beds, too. In my garden, I plant potatoes in double rows, with onions down the center of the 3-foot (91 cm) wide bed. As the potatoes grow, I pull the onions to eat as spring onions.
Many gardeners have tried to grow potatoes in above-ground enclosures made of tires, cardboard boxes, or other containers, which can be successful if the soil stays cool and moist. However, warm root temperatures cause potatoes to stop making tubers, so this is one crop that always grows better in the ground than it does in containers.
Pile On the Mulch
After planting potatoes, you can mulch them right away about 3 inches (8 cm) deep, or opt to let the soil warm in the sun for a few weeks before you pile on the mulch. Any biodegradable mulch will do, but using a deep hay or straw mulch is an especially good way to grow potatoes. They keep the soil cool and moist while serving as an obstacle course to insects that travel on foot.
Most veggies do well with a 2-inch (5 cm) deep mulch, but potatoes need more. Every few weeks, check for gaps or thinned spots, and pile on mulch until it is 4 inches (10 cm) deep.
The payoff for all this mulching is better yields and easier harvesting, too. When you grow potatoes in organically enriched soil with deep mulch, you will find most of your crop just below the soil’s surface. As you harvest, be sure to protect your crop from sun at all times by covering them with a thick towel. Once you learn to grow potatoes yourself and taste the home grown difference, you won’t want a single one to turn green on its way to your kitchen.
[NB If you live in a country or area that suffers from potato blight then you should be cautious about saving potatoes from one year to the next unless you are sure that they are disease free]
By Barbara Pleasant