Sunday, February 19, 2012

Potatoes and More Potatoes

Growing potatoes used to be a necessity. Today it is enjoyable. Not only are potatoes high in vitamins but they also come in a large variety of sizes, types and colors. Yes colors. Potatoes aren't just the brown variety we see in the stores. Potatoes come in reds, blues, and yellows as well.

So how does one grow potatoes? First there is picking the type of potato you want to grow. What will you be using your potatoes for - baking or boiling, cooking or salads.

Baking potatoes are the more starchy potatoes. They have a dry, mealy texture to them but turn light and fluffy when cooked. When looking for baking potatoes, varieties to look for include: Russet Burbank, Russet Arcadia, Norgold Russet, Goldrush, Norkotah, Long White (or White Rose or California Long White), and Idaho.

Boiling potatoes are a little waxier. These potatoes come in a variety of shapes; have a thin, smooth skin and an almost waxy flesh. They are relatively high in moisture and sugar, but low in starch. Potato varieties to look for in this category are: Round White, Round Red, Yellow Potato, Red Potato, Salad Potato, La Soda, Red La Rouge, Red Pontiac, Red Nordland, Red Bliss, Yellow Finnish, Ruby Crescent, and Australian Crescent.

There is also an All Purpose potato. Potato varieties in this category include: Yukon Gold, Peruvian Blue, Superior, Kennebec, and Katahdin. These potatoes are moister than baking potatoes and will hold together in boiling water. They are particularly well suited for roasting, pan-frying, and using in soups, stews, and gratins. They can be baked, mashed, and fried, but will not produce the same results as the bakers.

If you just want to grow unique and unusual varieties of potatoes, there are a handful of these as well. The latest potato from Hungary is called the 'Sarpo Mira' and 'Sarpo Axona'.

Want a blue potato? How about the "True Blue"? These potatoes are oblong, smooth and dark purple with scattered tan skin. They have a distinctive color and flavor. Their color changes from dark-violet to medium blue after cooking.

Now for planting your potatoes. Potatoes need to be put in the ground in early spring or as soon as the ground can be worked. This doesn't mean the potato will grow right away; the soil has to reach 45 degrees F. Potatoes can tolerate a light frost, but you should provide some frost-protection for the plants when they are young. This can be a loose covering of straw, or a temporary plastic tent.

Before planting, take your potato and slice it into seeds. Each seed should be approximately 1 1/2-2inches square, and must contain at least 1 or 2 "eyes" or buds. Smaller potatoes may be planted whole. In the next day or so, your seed will form a thick callous over the cuts, which will help to prevent it from rotting once planted.

Potatoes are traditionally grown in rows every 15 inches apart with the rows spaced 2 1/2 to 3 ft. apart. You can grow potatoes in mounds. Each 3-4 foot diameter mound can support 6 to 8 potato plants.

The soil you plant in should be loosened up, this helps the plants establish more quickly. Now place the potato seeds into the trench (cut side down) and then cover them with 3-4 inches of soil. Depending on the soil temperature, the sprouts will begin to emerge in about 2 weeks. At this time add another 3-4 inches of soil.

Your crop of potatoes will form between the seed piece and the surface of the soil. This means that when the stems are about 8 inches high, you will need to add more soil to bring the level half way up the stem of the plant. Another hilling will be needed 2-3 weeks later, at which time you again add soil half way up the stem of the plant. After these initial hillings, it is only necessary to add an inch or two of soil to the hill each week or so, to ensure there is enough soil above the forming potatoes that they don't push out of the hill and get exposed to light.

If you are limited in space, you can use old tires. Pick a spot where you can stack your tires, loosen the surface of the soil just enough to allow for drainage, and set your largest tire in place. Fill the inside of the tire casing loosely with good topsoil, and then set 3-4 potato seeds into the soil. Add enough soil to the tire "hole" to bring it to the same level as the soil inside the tire.

When the new plants are eight inches tall, add another tire and soil to the stack, as in the first level. Repeat the process for your third, and if desired, fourth tires. As you add tires and soil to the stack, the 8" of the plant stalk is covered with soil.

The tires act as an insulator and heat "sink" for your potatoes. This added warmth will cause the lateral roots (where the new potatoes form) to multiply more rapidly, thereby giving you more potatoes.

You may begin to harvest your potatoes 2 to 3-weeks after the plants have finished flowering. The potatoes you dig up may be babies, that is small potatoes. To harvest these potatoes, gently loosen the soil, reach under the plant, and remove the largest tubers, leaving the smaller ones to continue growing.

Potatoes are an easy vegetable to grow, they also store well and can sustain your family's nutritional needs. But on top of all this, they are just fun because of all their varieties.

About the Author: Pamela Ravenwood is a freelance writer, journalist, and writing coach who lives in the desert. In addition to spending her days writing, she also loves to tend to her organic garden where she grows as much of her own food as possible. In this, she counts on her cord reel to keep her hoses from drying out from the desert heat.

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