Thanks to all that stopped by Saturday for the Small Space Gardening seminar at Tooele Home Depot. It was great to connect with several of you and hear what you are doing in your yardspace.
Judging from your feedback, self-watering containers and raised bed gardening is something that many of you plan to do, and I’m glad we could give you some tools and techniques to help you along the way. My thanks both to the team here at the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin, as well as my friends Chris, Gus and their team at Home Depot. Between the Transcript, and “the guys in orange,” their partnership made it possible. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to enjoy more learning and “edutainment.” In the meanwhile, be sure to take advantage of all the great events listed at the end of this article. If you have topics you’d like covered in future articles, please write me and let me know. I’d enjoy hearing from you!
Are potatoes a part of your gardening efforts? In my humble opinion, potatoes should be a part of just about every home garden. There are a wide range of varieties available, many which will do just fine here. Like many vegetables, they will benefit by having a loose soil, well amended, and with a ready supply of nutrients.
Potato cultivation can be enjoyable for young and old alike. Planting sections of potato is a tangible process that appeals to children, because chunks of potato are more easily seen, handled, placed and properly covered than small seeds. It’s a common belief that new potatoes grow directly from the potato or section that is planted, but this is not actually the case. Potato “eyes” will produce a new plant, complete with a shoot that will reach for the sunlight, and a root system to start nourishing the new plant. Once established, the side shoots from the new plant will produce the potatoes.
Planting potatoes is best done from certified potato stock to reduce disease. You can find them at our gardening retailers in our area. Common varieties that are offered are Yukon Gold, Russett, and Pontiac Red. As one would expect, “Yukon” is yellow colored, “Russett” varieties are brown, and “Pontiac” is reddish. Russett has a thicker, rougher skin, giving it superior handling characteristics. It has been an economically important variety for quite some time and is commonly sold in bags. Other varieties are becoming more readily available, both in the produce section at the grocery store as well from seed suppliers. You can even plant potatoes, from ones you buy at the grocery store, once the potato has begun to sprout. There’s a diversity of opinion whether or not this is a wise practice, simply because there are sprout inhibitors and other possible treatments that are found on many commercially grown potatoes. You’ll have to make the decision on that one.
You can easily expand your range of varieties planted in the garden this year by visiting online retailers such as Johnny Seeds, Park Seed, and Territorial Seed. There is a wide interest in potatoes, and breeders and seed companies continue to expand their offerings. You can find potatoes that have their origin in many areas around the world, as well as differences in size, color, and taste. Why not try a few?
When you get your seed potato from a local source or from an online supplier, it’s likely the potato will be in a dormant state. The earlier it is in the season, the more likely your potato will be “asleep.” It’s easy to tell the difference between a dormant and active potato. If the buds (eyes) on the potato are still almost flush with the surface and green buds are not forming and projecting out, it’s dormant. If you see lots of buds, shoots and activity, then it’s active. Potato shoots are brittle and easily detached from the potato, so handle them carefully. To get your seed stock ready to plant, you will need to bring dormant potatoes out of dormancy by putting them in a warm place with moderate light. Buds will soon form.
Once buds are forming, you will need to cut the potato into chunks, leaving two to three active shoots on each piece. If you have very small potatoes, you can use the entire potato. Use a sharp knife to get clean cuts. Place the cut pieces on a piece of newspaper and let them dry for a few days to allow the cuts to skin over and form a film or “skin.” If you put freshly cut pieces into the seed bed, it’s highly likely they will get disease as microbes and such in the soil will have direct access to the tissue of the potato. When you plant them, put the eyes up. No, this isn’t so they can see better (yep, there’s an old farmer’s joke about that), it’s because the eye will form a shoot that is going to head towards daylight as quickly as it can, and having the bud facing up to begin with helps it along.
Now, before you plant, you need to choose the method you want to use to grow your crop. Organic Gardening magazine lists seven approaches: hilled rows, straw mulch, raised bed, grow bag, garbage bag, wood box and wire cylinder. Each has its appeal, along with disadvantages. The hilled row approach is time tested and dependable, uses soil where it is, but takes a significant amount of space. Straw mulching is clean, cheap, productive, but may invite mice to dine on your spuds! Raised beds produce a lot and don’t depend entirely on native soil (use amendments such as compost, peat, vermiculite, perlite, sawdust, potting soil). However, they use a lot of material to fill up. This same material mix is used for grow bags, garbage bags, wood boxes and wire cylinders, so the cost and labor needs to be considered for each.
These last methods are space conservers, but cost tend to be higher and productivity will vary because of soil temperatures and moisture swings. This is due to a relatively small cross section of soil or growing medium having only a small amount of surface area being connected to the soil, and a large amount of surface being exposed to air and sunlight. Under these conditions, both temperatures and moisture levels will tend to fluctuate, simply because there isn’t enough mass to hold conditions for a long period of time.
The two approaches we’ll focus on are hilled row and raised bed. Both will benefit from amendments, including sawdust from non-treated lumber. Sawdust raises the pH slightly, which potatoes like, and “sops up” some of the nitrogen. While potatoes need some nitrogen to grow tops, they don’t need a lot. They benefit from phosphorus like that found in bone meal. A combination of lower nitrogen and higher phosphorus will grow nice tubers. Too much nitrogen, and you’ll get a beautiful ornamental potato plant with no potatoes. Nice to look at, but I trust you are in this for some good eating.
To plant using the hilled row method, hoe shallow trenches 30 to 36 inches apart in straight rows. Plant your potatoes about 12 inches apart and cover with 3 inches of soil. Once the plants are up about a foot, you can hill (hence the name) up soil against the plants from both sides — about half way up the plant. Continue this process throughout the growing season. Keeping the sides of the plant covered and providing a good soil mass for the roots of the plant will maintain good tuber production.
If you are using the raised bed or square foot garden approach, you will need to make your beds taller than 6 inches. Plant your potatoes one foot apart in a grid pattern. As the plants develop, use the same approach for the hilled row method. Allow the plants to grow about 12 inches and cover the stems half way up by adding more soil to the container. Continue adding additional soil or growing mix every time the plants have about 12 inches of stem above the top of the hills.
Potatoes are pretty easy to grow, but they do like cooler weather. For that reason, get them planted early spring. Higher air temperatures later in the season will slow them down, and elevated heat at the root zone, which can more easily happen with the soil bag, garbage bag and wire cylinder methods, will greatly diminish productivity. The saying about potato planting times, “in by St. Patrick’s Day, out by Fourth of July” applies fairly well in our area, although many recommend that you wait until mid-April to plant.
Keep the soil moderately moist, irrigate at the root zone (drip irrigation is ideal), and avoid overhead sprinkling. You can lightly fertilize your plants six to eight weeks after they sprout with a side dressing of general use fertilizer. Water-in the fertilizer right after application to reduce nutrient loss. Don’t fertilize heavily as this will lead to heavy foliage production and reduced tuber growth.
Use good rotation practices to limit the impact of diseases. Because potatoes are a member of the “Nightshade” family, any other type of this family of plant should not be in the next rotation as well. This includes eggplant, tomato, peppers and tomatillos. These are all members of the Solanaceae family and should not be planted in succession in the same plot without a season of rotation to another type of crop. This will minimize virus and disease transmission. Saving your own potatoes for the following year for seed stock is not recommended because of disease. Starting with fresh stock (unless it’s a heirloom variety and can’t be obtained readily), practicing rotation, and solarizing soil (raising the temperature of the seed bed between planting by putting black tarps or heavy plastic over it for an extended time) will help control disease and reduce insect pressure.
There’s some great additional reading on potato culture by Professor Dan Drost of Utah State University located at extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/HG_Garden_2005-13.pdf. You’ll find recommended varieties for here, as well as common potato pests and how to control them. I’ve met Dan at several forums as well as enjoyed him as a guest instructor for classes here. He’s credible and knowledgeable, and fun to read.
Once you get your potatoes growing, you probably won’t be able to resist the temptation to eat some early potatoes. You can eat some of the young potatoes through the growing season by harvesting lightly at the edges of the root zone. Later on, for storage, allow the plant to die at the end of the season. Carefully dig your potatoes up, and let them cure for two or three days in a dry sheltered space. Don’t wash them; simply brush off the dried soil. Then put them in a dark place at about 40 to 45 degrees in mesh or burlap bags and enjoy them over the cold months. Potatoes are high in starch, a form of sugar. They are highly nutritious, tasty and versatile. If you haven’t ever tried potatoes in your garden, this is the year!
UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS
Saturday Gardening Workshop
This Saturday, 10-11 a.m. at the Tooele Valley Nursery, 425 E. Cimmarron Way and state Route 36. Open forum, question and answer session, plant demonstrations. For more information, contact Wade, Regina or Lance at 435-843-5959, or email@example.com.
Monthly Gardener’s Breakfast Get-Together
Every third Saturday, April through September, 9-11 a.m., held at the Stockton Miners Café, 47 North Connor (the Main Street) in Stockton. Current gardening topics, challenges, successes, and collective advice will be shared. Admission is the price of whatever you order off the menu! Led by Dirtfarmer Jay and Dirtfarmer Maggie of dirtfarmerjay.com. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 435-830-1447.
Larry Sagers Memorial Garden Dedication
Saturday, April 12, 2 p.m., Master Garden, USU Extension Offices, 151 N. Main, Tooele. Commemoration of gardening community contributions by Larry Sagers, dedication of garden, installation of remembrance plaque. Refreshments and snacks will be provided. For more information, contact Patty Wheeler at email@example.com, or 435-277-2409.
New Horizons Garden Center, Saturday, May 3, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Located on the Southeast corner of state Route 36 and Bates Canyon Road. Classes on water-wise and adapted plants, garden planning assistance, spotlights on new offerings and legacy plants. For more information, contact Faye Millican at 435-840-0888, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com. Visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.