Back when we had almost no soil, I used to dread planting potatoes. I had to dig 2 x 2 x 2 foot holes in rocky, compressed clay, and then back fill them with a mix of mostly compost and some broken up clay chunks and straw. My hands would hurt from crumbling the clay after just a few plants. Now, thanks to a mix of sheet mulching and trench composting, I love planting potatoes.
We don’t have a good place to store our own seed potatoes yet. Last year I tried keeping them in the house and by the time it was time to put them in the ground, they were shriveled. I tried anyhow and only a few sprouted. So, for this year, I picked up a few 5 pound bags at Tractor Supply.
The potatoes usually haven’t started sprouting when purchased because I buy early to make sure I get my pick of varieties. I put them near a sunny window for a few weeks until they all sprout. After that I cut them roughly in half, or sometimes in threes for larger potatoes. Small potatoes can go in whole. Each piece (called a set) should have a couple sprouts (called eyes). You can put them in the ground immediately after cutting, but people who know more about potatoes than I do recommend allowing the cuts to dry for a day or two before planting. I usually cut mine in the morning and set them outside on a sunny day. Then I plant in the afternoon.
Don’t them start to shrivel. Also, if you wait too long, they may start to mold and moldy potato sets are an invitation to soil inhabitants to come eat your sets. You just want the surface of the cut part to have a kind of dry crust on it.
Now that I have good soil in my vegetable garden, I start by making a trench down my row that is about the width of the shovel and about 8 inches deep. Then I put the sets, cut-side down, in the trench. After that I use a rake to push or pull about half the soil back into the trench. In a couple of weeks when the potato plants are a few inches taller than the soil level, I’ll rake in the rest of the soil.
Whenever a bed is empty or during dry spells, I top dress my beds with partially decomposed straw. I buy the bales a few months before I need them and leave them sitting out on soil that I know is loaded with red wriggler worms. The red wrigglers work their way from the soil into the bale and start to do their magic. With our normal rain level, the bale centers stay pretty moist and the worms work quite fast. When I need the straw, I cut the strings since it will be too decomposed to lift at this point, and scrape up the partially decomposed straw into a bucket or wheelbarrow. Then I spread the straw and worms over the garden bed. When I trench the soil like this, it kind of mixes up whatever straw is not fully broken down into the soil and makes for a really nice light planting medium for the potatoes to grow in.
Worms will eat potatoes, but they don’t seem to be a favorite. So this method hasn’t caused any issues for me. Wire worms, however, are a different story. If I see any wire worms when I am digging, I’ll bring over the chickens and let them de-popoulate the soil. They’ll eat your worms too, but if you’ve got enough worms in other areas, they’ll eventually find their way back.
I also use cover crops in my beds. When I trench, I loosen the soil and let the roots sit out in the sun to dry out. I don’t let the cover crops go in with the first half of the soil. But in a couple of weeks, when they are dry and dead, I’ll push them in with other half of the soil. This keeps them from regrowing and works similar to straw to make the soil mix lighter.
For my longer rows, I plant potatoes down the center because I’ll be transplanting cabbage on the outer edges of the rows. For my shorter beds, I make double trenches. There I’ll run some of my specialty cabbages that I grow fewer of down the center.
Trenching really makes a difference in potato production. And if you are just starting your garden, potato pits like I used to dig also work well.
I planted 68 sets this round – about half of this was Red Norland because we like those best for summer eating. But we also planted Kennebec, Yukon Gold, and Blue Potatoes.
Potatoes are one of the most satisfying plants to grow. The plants are beautiful with deep green, large leafed foliage. They also get beautiful flowers and potato fruits that look a little like little tomatoes. In my area, the rule of thumb is to plant on March 1. But this year is so warm, I am breaking the rules and starting a week early. I’ll also plant a second round before June 15 and keep the harvest from those for winter storage.
I am hoping for a good potato crop this year. And if you are planting, I wish you an outstanding crop too!