The potato is a cool-season vegetable that along with rice and wheat is a staple in food cultures around the world. The potato itself is not a root; it is a tuber, a kind of underground storage stem. The home gardener can choose from a rich variety of potatoes with different cooking qualities, tastes and textures. They are not difficult to grow.
Climate for Planting
Potatoes grow best at soil temperatures from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Potatoes will not form on growing plants if the soil rises above 80 degrees. Emerging potatoes can withstand light spring frosts; the best yield and quality of potatoes are grown in the northern tier of states.
Plant potatoes in fertile, well-drained soil. You can improve the soil by planting a cover crop of buckwheat, clover, or winter rye in the fall. Turn it under in the spring before it gets a foot high; till 8 to 10 inches deep, then level the surface so you can make furrows for potatoes. Wait a week before you plant your potatoes.
Varieties to Plant
You can choose from more than 100 varieties of potatoes, including early-maturing potatoes with white or red skin, potatoes with yellow flesh and the Russet Burbank, the baking potato familiar in supermarkets. Yukon gold, popular with Europeans, has a golden flesh and nice texture. Green Mountain is superior for baking.
When to Plant
If you plant potatoes too early in damp, cold soils, the seed pieces may rot before they begin to grow. Plant early, midseason and late varieties in March or early April. You can plant midseason and late varieties as late as July 1.
Planting Seed Potatoes
Potatoes are not planted from seed. They're planted from pieces of potato that contain an "eye." The eye of a seed potato is a dimple or indentation in the potato. Plant small potatoes, each of which contains an eye, or potatoes cut into 1.5- to 2-ounce pieces, each with an eye. Plant the pieces soon after you cut them.
Plant each piece of seed potato 1 to 3 inches deep and 10 to 12 inches apart. Each row of potato plants should be 24 to 36 inches apart. High soil temperatures inhibit the growth of potatoes. The 24-inch spacing lets the plants shade the soil, keeping it cool.
After the potatoes emerge from the ground, use a hoe to build up a low ridge of loose soil around them. This ridge will keep down weeds, and as it gets higher, it keeps the tops of the growing potatoes from getting sunburned. Hard, compact soil can cause misshapen potatoes.
Planting in Straw
Potatoes grown for size, color and shape to exhibit in fairs and competition are often grown under straw rather than planted in soil. Keep the spacing between plants and distance between the rows the same as for planting in soil. Pile loose straw 4 to 6 inches deep over the seed pieces and between the rows. The potato sprouts will emerge from the straw.
The straw suppresses weeds, keeps the ground cooler and reduces the loss of water. To harvest, simply remove the straw and pick the potatoes off the ground. This method of growing potatoes is better for late-developing varieties than early ones.