By Isa Hetzel
Garden Club member Isa Hetzel is an interior designer who lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Digging up potatoes near summer’s end is one of the most rewarding, delicious, and surprising events in gardening. It’s bit like a scavenger hunt. You never know exactly where or what you will find. It might be a bunch of little ones all together, or a nice fat golden tuber in the dark earth.
Though not commonly grown in home gardens, potatoes are among the easier vegetables to try, with good results. “Seed” potatoes, the potatoes from which a new crop is started, are often bought from nurseries online and locally. Since this year presents a particular difficulty, you can try potatoes you have on hand or buy at the grocery store. I’ve done both with success. If you google “growing potatoes,” the ‘rules’ will tell you that store-bought potatoes are sprayed with sprouting inhibitor, but it hasn’t made a difference in my experience.
So, here is what you will need:
• A bag of potatoes. I like the very small ones, no larger than an egg; organic if possible. If you have larger ones, no problem.
• A sharp knife.
• Some compost if your soil is hard like clay. Potatoes prefer loose, loamy, rich soil with very good drainage. The amount of compost you might add depends on how much amending your soil requires. I use bagged Lobster Compost from Maine. The soil where mine are planted is loamy to begin with so I don’t need to add much.
• A little organic granular fertilizer.
• A digging shovel and a trowel.
• A small plot of ground. I’ve chosen a section that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight every day, and measures about 7 x 3 feet. You’ll need enough space around the plot to walk around and to reach the plot to weed and to dig up the potatoes. So plan accordingly. If you are doing a larger area, you might divide the planting into two sections, a couple of rows with space in between. They will need to be watered frequently in dry weather, so keep that in mind.
Order of Things:
First, dig up the ground about 8 to 10″ deep, loosening it and turning it over. Add compost and mix it up. You might want to add a little organic granular fertilizer. Even up the surface a bit.
Next, cut each piece in about half. Make sure that each piece you plant has an ‘eye’ or two, which will be the sprouting points. If the potatoes are quite small, you can use the whole potato. If they are rather large, you might want to cut them into half or in three pieces. Each piece may produce several tuber roots, which are the potatoes.
Using the trowel, dig holes roughly 6″ deep, drop in a potato and roughly cover it with soil. Do this in rows, which will help you keep track of where you have planted them, with the potatoes about 8″ apart in all directions. Smooth the top of the soil. By planting them this deep, the tubers will develop below the soil surface and won’t be exposed to the sun, which can make them green and bitter
You can cover the rows with mulch, such as straw, which will help retain moisture and keep the light off the tubers if they get too near the surface.
If the soil is not too dry and rain is expected, you can get along without watering. They will need less water at the beginning, since they are well below the surface, and the air will be cool. The idea is keep them moist, not soaked, and don’t allow them to dry out.
Sprouts should begin to emerge in two or three weeks, depending on the temperature and weather.
Once they are up and growing, make sure they don’t dry out. Keep the weeds down, and wait. And wait some more… maybe 10 to 14 weeks from planting. A couple of weeks after the flowers come, they should be ready to dig. If you wait a bit longer, they will have grown larger and give you a bigger crop. It depends on the size you want. You can always dig up a couple to satisfy your curiosity and check the size.
Dig them, wash them off lightly, and store them in an airy bag in a cool, dry, dark spot.
• Smashed potatoes with butter and garlic?
• Late-summer potato salad with dill, sliced hardboiled eggs and mayo?
• Lightly sautéed in a spritz of olive oil?
• Smiles all around.