The Yearly Potato Challenge Looming in Our Future

German Butterball, Purple Peruvian,
Ruby Crescent and Russian Banana.
Enough to savor, with a few left
over to plant.

Unless you’re a gardener and interested in self-sufficiency, you probably won’t care about this one bit. Potatoes, to you, are something you buy in the grocery. They come in big bags or small bags or in bins and there’s plenty of them. They’re cheap. You can even buy them cut up, frozen and tainted with milk and sugar to make them into tastier french fries with less effort. If you really — and I mean “really” — like potatoes, it’s time to shake the snow off your boots and think about the garden again. Twice this January we’ve had thunderstorms here. Will it be an early Spring? or are the weather spirits just teasing us, trying to make us plant potatoes too soon? We’ll not know until the middle of the summer, when we dig them up.

Twelve 30-gallon grow bags,
add soil and seed potatoes
and never mind the heavy clay.

Here in Indiana we’re right at the center of the no-man’s-land of potatoes — too far north to grow sweet potatoes reliably, and too far south to grow Irish potatoes reliably. We can still grow potatoes, but we have to get them in quickly, around St. Patrick’s day, and hope the weather cooperates. If it’s a foul and wet Spring, like last year, the plants won’t get a good start and when the summer heat sets in, that’s the end of it. Your plants might survive into August but the potato tubers won’t grow. Take it from the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service if you don’t believe me — tubers grow well when soil temperatures hold between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and tubers don’t set on at all when soil temperatures pass 80 F. Seems unfair when summer temperatures average in the 90’s and soil temperatures can rise even higher, but it’s true.

The ideal potato for Indiana starts in cold wet soil and produces early yields. A friend of mine who grows potatoes here for the roadside market favors Red Pontiac and sells most of his crop as “new potatoes” harvested while still small. That’s a decent strategy if you want to make some pocket money. Red Pontiac yields early anyway, and tolerates heavy clay soil better than many other types. I don’t live in Clay County, famous for its yellow potter’s clay, but I live only a few yards from it and the clay didn’t stop at the county line. In the summer you can dig a foot down below the grass in your yard and hit what appears to be a layer of ceramic. Good potter’s clay tends to do that. Here you have to pay strict attention to tilling, adding organic material and ensuring proper drainage in order to grow potatoes.

Patio potato planters;
surprisingly good results
for gardeners without land.

Good garden sites cause fewer potato problems than the one I work with, which for about half the year is a swamp. After several years of experiments that failed, I did manage to get some decent response from potato plants last year. Some of the varieties recommended for Indiana failed in this garden because of the extra dampness. Yukon Gold and Kennebec hardly produced anything the last two years, but two varieties of fingerlings — All-Blue and German Ladyfinger — gave a decent return when planted in raised beds and high mounds. My harvest was tiny, when you consider that in a good location you could plant a respectable plot of potatoes, live on them exclusively, and still have enough for seed the next year. I did not see that sort of response from mine. I still hope for it, though.

The reason people devote a good part of their gardens to potatoes, even though it’s one of the cheapest staples you can buy at the grocery, is flavor. Gardeners who know potatoes always plant peas alongside and hope for a few small new potatoes to steal from the vigorous potato hills when the peas ripen. You don’t get that sort of tenderness and flavor from the potatoes you buy in the store. Going beyond common new potatoes to heirlooms and fingerlings, you can explore a subtle world of flavors, textures and colors that store prices deny most people. If you’re flush with cash you can afford $24 for ten pounds of heirloom potatoes. If you’re a regular person, you can still grow them in your own garden, with some luck and some hard work. If it doesn’t pan out, you can buy regular potatoes on sale.

Lots of organic matter worked into the soil helps immensely if you work with heavy clay. Raised beds also improve yields, but where soil is naturally soggy you’ll need to raise the bed much higher than the popular six inches experts recommend. Potatoes develop several types of diseases in wet, heavy ground; and can die of those problems before the plants make a profit. Vegetables in general need at least two feet of well-drained soil to live healthy lives. Potatoes do better with a little more, since you need to plant potatoes a little deeper. Planting seed pieces three inches deep can leave growing tubers vulnerable to sunburn, causing green skin and green flesh with toxic levels of oxalic acid. You can add another three inches of mulch before the plants mature, or you can till the soil tenderly and build higher mounds, planting the tubers a little deeper than recommended. Soil always settles a bit, and the new potatoes grow in a ring above the level of the seed piece.

To be sure you’re not cursed from the outset by planting infected potatoes, buy certified disease-free seed potatoes for your garden row. If you’re willing to gamble and do your own inspections you can get by a lot cheaper, but you do risk planting new potato diseases as well as potatoes. I no longer worry much about that. The problems here arise as often with certified potatoes as with market potatoes and stem from unusual dampness and heavy soil. Some years of observation and experimentation convinced me of this. To save a little money I will look for interesting fingerling potatoes at the grocery and select a few with perfectly clear skin. If you find dark patches of flesh when you cut potatoes for seed pieces, don’t plant them. That’s a sign of viral disease. Scabby skin and blemished skin also indicates diseased potatoes. Most of the bargain potatoes you get at the grocery are of that sort. It’s still possible to find healthy potatoes in the store, but look in the exotic vegetable counter instead of the bargain bin. For the best ordinary potatoes, like Kennebec or Russet, buy certified seed tubers. Non-exotics don’t cost that much. As for sprouting problems, I have read that market potatoes might be treated with something that prevents sprouting. In real life I don’t think I’ve ever bought a potato that lasted more than two weeks without sprouting. Keep them in temperatures between 50 F and 60 F and see what happens. I bet they’ll sprout.

Sage gardening advice
for free, on Kindle or
Kindle for PC.

An unusual variety is always worth a little garden space, even though many of them don’t work out well. The more you work at it, the better you get, and sometimes you’ll discover little potato friends that seem to like the place where you live. All-Blue and Ladyfinger like it here, enough that healthy tubers I miss during the harvest live through the winter and come up as wild plants the next year, despite the damp and the heavy soil. None of the ordinary varieties I’ve tried even survived the summer, although with some tweaking they still might give me a good crop for the basement, once I work all the bugs out of the system.

It’s the annual Potato Challenge coming up soon! and I’m bound to try again.

“No, if you are going to take up gardening, you will have to work, and you will have a great many disappointments.” — Rockwell, F. P. (2004-12-01). Home Vegetable Gardening -a Complete and Practical Guide to the Planting and Care of All Vegetables, Fruits and Berries Worth Growing for Home Use (p. 9). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Interesting Links:

Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service: Potatoes —

Washington State University: Potato Varieties — A Comprehensive List—

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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