In spite of how miserable the weather has been lately, I still think it’s a good thing we have winter.
It gives us gardeners a chance to spend some time indoors, reading up on our favorite plants, learning about new varieties, crops or methods we might want to try out this year, and planning this summer’s gardens.
One vegetable crop that is not often grown in home gardens is potatoes.
I’ve been growing them for a couple of years now and I really enjoy it. The plants are good-sized and robust without too much fussing and are well suited to our climate. Best of all is the reward at harvest when you hunt in the soil for those beautiful potatoes.
Children get a thrill from helping but I’ve also had several adults be equally enchanted. If you’ve never harvested a potato, you’re in for a treat. You poke around in the soil beneath the plant and lo and behold, you’ll find perfect potatoes nestled in the soil. It may not sound that exciting but withhold judgment until you’ve tried it yourself.
Potatoes do not form seed the way most vegetables do, you actually just plant the potato itself. Potatoes sold to be planted are called “seed potatoes.” They can be eaten, but they’re more expensive so it’s not practical. Don’t plant the potatoes you buy in the grocery store because they may be treated with a sprout inhibitor. You can order seed potatoes from most seed catalogs and they will be shipped later in the spring so you don’t have to hold them long before planting.
You can plant small seed potatoes whole but if they’re more than a couple of inches long it’s best to cut them in half. Place the cut pieces in a paper bag or cardboard box at room temperature to let the cut surfaces dry out before planting. To give your plants a head start, keep the pieces there until they just start to sprout. I didn’t do that last year and my potatoes took a lot longer to emerge after planting.
Potatoes form along the stem of the plant, not from the roots, so the more of the stem you can bury, the more potatoes you will get. There are many methods of accomplishing this. If your soil is light and well drained you can dig a trench about 4 inches deep and bury them at the bottom. Then fill the trench in as the plants grow. When the plants are about 8 inches tall “hill” them by pulling soil up around the base of the plants, up to the first leaves, and repeat this hilling when they first start to flower.
If your soil is heavier you can also plant the tubers only a couple of inches deep then use rotted sawdust, chopped leaves or straw as a mulch at least a foot deep. The plants will keep growing up as you add more mulch, and the tubers will develop in that thick mulch layer.
I’ve only been able to cover the basics of growing potatoes here. For more information on growing potatoes and many other vegetables at home, visit http://www.gardening.cornell.edu then click on “how to,” then “vegetables,” then “growing guides.” There is lots of information at this site on all aspects of home gardening, with links to other resources at Cornell.
While the winter winds howl outdoors, I encourage you to spend some time visiting these sites or reading gardening magazines and books to get ideas for the upcoming gardening season.
Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: www.cce.cornell.edu/ecgardening. Email questions to askMG@cornell.edu.