Planning to grow potatoes again

Planning to grow potatoes again 

Potato plant emerging in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

This is the last part of a monthly series on growing potatoes, a dietary staple.

I have a whole chapter about potatoes in Sustainable Market Farming, where the basics of potato growing can be found. Below are more details about growing potatoes that you may not have wanted or needed this year. Use your own records and this information to plan for bigger harvests, at times of year suited to your farm.

Varieties

Some varieties store better than others, so advance planning will help achieve good results. Scrutinize the small print in the seed catalogs before your next seed order.

Covering a row of seed potato pieces aligned under a rope.
Photo Ira Wallace
Photo Ira Wallace

Potato types: determinate and indeterminate

We have mostly grown Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Kennebec. They all seem to be determinate varieties — they grow as a bush, then flower and die. I only learned this year that there are determinate (varieties with naturally self-limiting growth, generally “early” varieties) and indeterminate varieties (such as “Russet Nugget,” “Nicola,” “German Butterball” and “Elba”). The distinction is explained in Potato Bag Gardening. Growers using towers, grow bags, and cage systems want indeterminate potatoes, which continue to produce more layers of tubers on the stems as they are progressively covered with more soil. Growers wanting a fast reliable crop in the field mostly choose determinate types, which grow as a bush, then flower and die. The Internet does seem to have some contradictory statements about which varieties are determinate and which indeterminate, and some dedicated container growers make assertions not supported by experienced commercial growers. So Reader Beware! I trust Extension and here’s a link to their Ask an Expert page on potato types.

Crop rotation, including cover crops

This is very important for potatoes, which are nightshades like potatoes, peppers and eggplant. Colorado potato beetles emerge from the soil in spring and walk (they don’t fly at this stage) towards the nearest nightshades they can detect. Give them a long hike! A distance of 750′ (230 m) or more from last year’s nightshade plots should keep them away. A three- or four-year rotation out of nightshades in each plot is ideal.

Suitable cover crops before potatoes include brassicas (which can help reduce root knot nematodes and Verticillium), Japanese millet (which can reduce Rhizoctonia) and cereals in general. Beware beets, buckwheat and legumes such as red and crimson clovers, and some peas and beans, as these can host Rhizoctonia and scab.

Late corn undersown with oats, mowed high in October to deal with weeds, and the ex-sweet potato patch sown in winter wheat and crimson clover. Credit Ezra Freeman

In our ten year crop rotation, our March-planted potatoes follow a winter of oats and soy (which winter-kill in our zone 7a climate). This cover crop is undersown in our late sweet corn about 30 days after sowing. Our June-planted potatoes follow a winter cover crop mix of winter wheat or winter rye and crimson clover. This mix is sown in early-mid October after our middle planting of sweet corn. (Yes, we risk the clover.) We had read that potatoes are said to do well after corn, so when we set up our crop rotation, that’s what we did. I have no scientific proof that the assertion is true, but we often have good potatoes, so at least it does no obvious harm!

Fall broccoli transplanted after July potato harvest, and undersown with a mixed clover cover crop.
Photo Nina Gentle.

After harvesting our March-planted potatoes in mid-July, we regularly did a fast-turnaround and transplanted our fall broccoli and cabbage in late July. We undersowed that with a clover mix 4 weeks after planting the brassicas. We kept the clover mix for an all-year Green Fallow, right round until the February a year and a half later. This fast-turnaround was a bit nerve-wracking, so we no longer do that, simply following the potatoes with the clover mix, while transplanting the brassicas in another plot.

After harvesting our June-planted potatoes in October, we sow winter wheat or winter rye with crimson clover or Austrian Winter Peas, depending when we are ready to sow. (Wheat and clover if by 10/15, rye and peas if later)

Preparing the Soil

A bed ready for tilling after mowing the cover crop and spreading compost.
Photo Pam Dawling

Potatoes benefit from generous amounts of compost or other organic matter (they use 10 tons/ac, 22,400 kg/ha) and will grow in soils with a pH of 5.0–6.5. They use high amounts of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), and need adequate soil levels of iron and manganese. They are less affected by low levels of copper and boron. Hay mulch can be a good source of K. As Carol Deppe points out, potatoes will still produce an OK crop in poor soil, where you might not be able to grow much else. See the ATTRA publication Potatoes: Organic Production and Marketing.

Dormancy

See Part 5, Storing Potatoes, for an introduction to this topic. When potatoes sprout and whether they grow one or more sprouts, can be controlled by manipulating the storage conditions.

For extra-early spring planting, aim to sprout relatively few eyes per potato, so that relatively few shoots will grow and the seed pieces will be big enough, with enough nutrients for the plants. Do this by priming the seed potatoes at 65°F (18°C) until the eyes at the rose end just start to sprout. Store at 45°F (7°C) until two weeks before planting time, then finish the sprouting in warmth and light. The early sprouting of the rose-end eyes suppresses the sprouting of the other eyes. If needed, break off extra sprouts before planting.

To avoid sprouting, keep the potatoes below 50F (10C) once they are more than a month from harvest, avoid excess moisture, and avoid “physiological aging” of the potatoes, caused by stressing them with fluctuating temperatures, among other things. If eating potatoes do start to develop sprouts, it’s a good idea to rub off the sprouts as soon as possible, because the sprouting will produce ethylene, which will encourage more sprouting.

Physiological age of seed potatoes

Seed potatoes can act differently depending on their “physiological age.” The warmer the conditions are after dormancy ends, the quicker the sprouts grow and the faster the tubers “age.” When we buy seed potatoes the storage conditions they have already received are beyond our control. As a guide, the length of the longest sprout, and the number of sprouts are measures of physiological age (if the sprouting has taken place in the light). Varieties do not all show these effects to the same degree.

Don’t let your potatoes sprout in storage
Photo Jesse Strassburg

Deliberately adjusting storage temperatures is a way of manipulating the physiological age, in order to get higher yields or earlier maturity. To age seed potatoes, buy the seed in late fall or early winter before they break dormancy and store them rose (eye) end up in daylight at 50°F (10°C) until just before the planting date. In spring, reduce the temperature just before planting, to minimize the thermal shock from the cold soil.

Physiologically “young” tubers will have just one or two sprouts, due to apical dominance (when the leading bud inhibits the other eyes from developing shoots). The plants will have fewer stems, leading to fewer, but larger, potatoes. They will need longer to grow, and so give a later harvest. If you hurry and dig them early, you will only get low yields.

“Middle-aged” tubers give the best yields (27% higher than young or old tubers). “Middle-aged” seed potatoes have multiple short sprouts, without the hairy look of “old” ones. The pre-sprouting instructions given in Part One: Planting potatoes aim to produce “middle-aged” seed.

Physiologically “old” seed potatoes will have many “hairy-looking” branched sprouts, coming from eyes all over the potato. These potato plants emerge faster and start tuber formation sooner. The final plant size will be smaller (because the shoots are weak) and the plants will be more susceptible to drought and die sooner. Because the tubers do mature quickly, they may be good if you seek an early harvest, or are planting a fall crop a bit too close to the frost date. The total yield will be lower (but earlier) than from “younger” seed.

See the University of Maine Extension Service Bulletin #2412, Potato Facts: Selecting, Cutting and Handling Potato Seed  Their drawings are reproduced here. Also see Know and Grow Vegetables by Salter, Bleasdale, et al. for more on this complex topic.

More POTATO resources

The University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Info Center Potatoes

University of Maryland IPM series on potatoes, which is a troubleshooter sheet on causes and solutions for problems

Cornell 2016 Organic Production and IPM Guide for Potatoes (104 pages)

The Potato Association of America, Commercial Potato Production in North America 2010. (90 pages)

The Government of Canada Biofungicides provide Post-harvest Disease Protection in Potatoes

Other related Blog Posts

Potato Research on Harvest and Storage

What Makes Potatoes Sprout, Nov 2017

How to Deal with Green Potatoes (one of my most-read blog posts!)

Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating in Mother Earth News