Hello, Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and gardeners. Happy Easter to everyone! It is great to be back after a long, cold winter. Spring is here but the cool, wet weather has hung on well into April. I hope everyone is excited about the upcoming growing season.
You can get a head start in the garden by planting cool season crops early such as green onions, radishes and lettuces in addition to peas. My grandma always said it’s never too early to plant peas.
This week let’s talk potatoes. Yes, Irish potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) not sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas). A sweet potato is a tropical plant with a tuberous root. Irish potatoes are not roots but specialized underground storage stems called “tubers.” Potatoes are among the earliest vegetables planted in the garden. Irish are a family tradition here in the Mid-Ohio Valley potatoes, including favorites such as Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Kennebec.
Potatoes are a staple food across the world for their adaptability, yield, nutritional value and storage quality. They are the fourth-largest food crop in the entire world following corn, rice and wheat.
Plan ahead for your potato patch. A few pounds of seed potatoes go a long way. Ten pounds of seed potatoes will produce about 100 seed pieces, enough to plant about 100 feet of row. This 100-foot row should yield between 200 and 400 pounds of usable potatoes if the crop is allowed to mature fully. Home fries, anyone? Maybe you will stick with Grandma’s famous mashed potato recipe with extra butter and a little garlic.
Irish potatoes can be planted now. Home gardeners should purchase good seed potatoes that are free of disease and chemicals. Do not buy potatoes from a grocery store for planting because most have been chemically treated so they do not sprout.
It pays to plant Irish potatoes early. The flowering process does not coincide with tuber development. Tubers are set early in the season, typically when the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall. As plants grow and temperatures remain reasonably cool, tubes expand as they accumulate starches so maximum tuber development occurs during cool weather.
Another tip. Generally, we want out garden soil in the 6.0-6.5 pH range. However, if your pH is a little lower, around 5.2-5.5, your potato crop will be less susceptible to common scab fungus (Streptomyces scabies). Potato scab pests on tubes generally appear as rough, corky pests, which may range from small and raised to deeply pitted.
More than 100 varieties of potatoes are available. Varieties generally have white flesh and light brown or red skin. There are different types of potatoes with yellow to blue flesh and many different skin colors. Russet Burbank is one of the most important varieties produced in the United States.
Another little slice of information. McDonald’s purchases 3.4 billion pounds of potatoes each year. For decades, McDonald’s french fries were all made from Russet Burbank a variety of potatoes. However, they now purchase seven varieties including the Ranger Russet, Umatilla Russet, Shepody and two more added in 2016, Clearwater Russet and Blazer Russet.
The seed potato contains buds or eyes that sprout and grow into plants. The seed piece provides food for the plant until it develops a root system. All tubes the size of a hen’s egg (1-3 ounces) may be planted whole. Ones this size are highly desirable and professional potato growers call these “single drops.”
Large seed potatoes for the spring crop should be cut into pieces which weigh at least 2-4 ounces and must have at least one good eye. Two or more strong eyes is better. Most people cut up larger potatoes into pieces immediately before planting, using a clean, sharp knife.
Seeds may be allowed to “heal over” for a day prior to planting but must not be allowed to dry out. You can also help prevent disease and insect injury by coating the seed pieces with elemental sulfur (place seed pieces and the sulfur in a bag and shake).
Potatoes love a good loamy or slightly sandy rich, well-drained soil. The soil must be cultivated well before planting. Misshaped potatoes result when the tubes develop in hard, compacted soil. If you have a lot of red clay, you may be further ahead to grow Irish potatoes in a raised bed.
Space rows about 3 feet apart for easy cultivation and hilling. Space seed pieces 10 to 12 inches apart in furrows and cover with about 4 inches of soil. Hill the potatoes after they break the surface of the ground, gradually build up a low ridge of loose soil by cultivation and hoeing.
This ridge, which may become 4 to 6 inches high in summer, reduces the number of sunburned (greened) tubes. The object of potato cultivation is to eliminate competition from weeds, to loosen and aerate the soil and to build up the row.
What about fertilizer? For most small gardens, about 2 to 3 (4 to 6 cups pounds of an all-purpose, balanced fertilizer such as 12-12-12 per 100 square foot of area is adequate.
Use crop rotation and plant potatoes in a different location each year if possible. They are in the same nightshade family as tomatoes and peppers so they are susceptible to late blight and other fungal diseases. Wireworms and Colorado Potato Beetle are also pests to watch out for in potatoes.
Many backyard gardeners want to know when to start digging potatoes. Harvest potatoes after most of the vines have died. The easiest method is using a spade fork. Remember, tubes develop about 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil surface.
Handle them as gently as possible during harvest. Leave the tubes exposed to the sun just long enough for the soil to dry and fall off. Too much direct sunlight may blister the tubes and causes them to turn green and rot in storage.
When harvesting potatoes, it is very critical to cure them or they will rot in storage. Dig potatoes when the soil is dry. Be careful not to skin or bruise the tubes. Do not wash the potatoes. Place them in crates or some suitable container and store them in a dark area for three to five days at 60 degrees F with high humidity and adequate air movement.
After this curing period, keep the potatoes at 40 to 45 degrees F with humidity near 85 percent and provide good air circulation.
Are green potatoes safe to eat? Light causes the potato to produce chlorophyll and also solanine. Solanine has a bitter taste and is an irritant to the digestive system that can cause paralysis in large quantities.
Small green spots and sprouts or eyes should be completely trimmed off. However, if it’s more than small spots, throw the potato out. Do not use any green potatoes, trimmed or not, if you are serving children as they have a lower body mass and would be more susceptible to the solanine. If potatoes have a bitter taste, do not eat them. When in doubt, throw it out!
Until next time, Good Luck and Happy Gardening! Contact me with questions.at the Wood County WVU Extension Office, 304-424-19