Potatoes, also known as Irish potatoes, are a staple food for many people. They are so important that when a blight attacked the potatoes growing in Ireland, millions of people starved or fled to America and other countries. Ironically, though, the potato is native to the mountainous area of Peru and Ecuador. It was brought to Spain by the early explorers and spread rapidly throughout Europe.
Potatoes are not grown from seed, but from potatoes called, appropriately enough, seed potatoes. These potatoes are cut into pieces, each with an eye, or bud, and planted. Each piece becomes a new potato plant having several potatoes growing on the roots of the plant.
There are several types of potatoes available to home gardeners today. There are the basic russet potato types, which are generally what people think of when they think of potatoes. These have white or gold flesh and are good for baking, mashed potatoes, or anything else.
Then there are the fingerling potatoes. These are narrow and long and usually are a bright color. They look nice in salads because of the colors. Imagine blue potato salad and you can see the attraction these fingerlings hold.
Then there are new potatoes, or red potatoes. These are generally round, with red skin and white flesh. They are more tender than baking potatoes.
Finally, there are specialty potatoes with blue or red flesh. These, too, are fun to use in potato salad. Blue French fries are fun to serve, as well.
All of these potatoes are grown the same way. Seed potatoes may be as close as the feed store down the road, or you may order them by mail. Be sure the potatoes you buy are certified disease free. This is a designation given by the US Department of Agriculture to prevent the spread of blight and other diseases. You don't want to start another potato famine by using diseased potatoes.
Once you have your potatoes, make sure your garden is prepared for them. Till it to a depth of six inches, then work in three inches of compost, mixing well. This will free up the soil so that the potatoes have room to grow.
Now you make the hills. You make a mound of dirt 10-12 inches square and about 10-12 inches high. Now tamp down the hill until it is 6-8 inches high and compact. Leave 36 inches between each hill.
Now, dig a trench on two sides of the hill that is four inches deep. Spread about two cups of fertilizer per 30 feet in each trench, then cover them back up. This is the fertilizer to feed the potatoes.
The garden is ready, now prepare the potatoes. Cut them up so each piece has a good eye, or bud, in it. The sizes should be about the size of a medium hen's egg. Spread them out in a well ventilated area and allow them to dry for five or six days. This prevents them from rotting when you plant them.
Spring potatoes are planted about three weeks before the last frost date in your area. Fall potatoes should be planted 110 days before the first frost date, so they have time to make before the freeze. The actual dates will vary by location. Your County Extension Agent will be able to tell you what they are in your area.
To plant the potatoes, open a trench on the hill between the two bands of fertilizer. The trench should be three inches deep. Put a couple of pieces in the trench and cover it. If the trench is more than three inches deep, the potato plant will starve before it makes it to the surface.
Potatoes take a lot of water, but too much will make them rot when being stored. Water one inch at a time two or three times a week. You want the soil to be moist, not squishy.
As the potato plant grows, you must mulch around it to keep the potatoes covered. Potatoes exposed to the sun turn green and are toxic. So add mulch regularly to keep them covered. It also keeps the weeds down and conserves water.
If you are doing everything right, your potato plants will flower and have fruit. Do not eat the fruit, but take it as a sign you are on the right track. The potato is ready to dig when the top dies and the potato is firm.
Digging potatoes requires some finesse. Each plant can have multiple potatoes and so you never know how big the underground part of the plant is. Potatoes that are bruised in digging will rot in storage, so be gentle. Dig 8-10 inches from the plant and work in.
Once dug, the potatoes need to be cleaned and allowed to cure. Do not wash the potatoes until you are ready to eat them, but do brush off as much dirt as you can. Cut the tops off and compost those. Store the potatoes in a cool, dark place until you are ready to eat them.