Why go through all the effort of digging a trench, hilling up your potatoes, and all that digging when there has got to be an easier way? We grow a lot of potatoes each year, usually enough to get us through Winter into early Spring and still have plenty to plant for the next year. We typically shoot for somewhere between 65 and 85 pounds. We eat lots of soup in the winter, and what kind of winter soup would be complete without potatoes?
We’ll go over the different ways we’ve grown potatoes, which methods we liked best and why, and which varieties we’ve liked the best for storage through winter. There may be tips or tricks in this article that you may want to try, or you may already do something similar, or you may have your own way of growing spuds that works perfectly well for you! Let us know what you think, what you do and what works best!
The Traditional Method: The traditional method of growing potatoes works great in some soils, and in some cases makes the most sense. If you have very fine or sandy soil, this method may work best for you. The concept is the same in almost every method, because potatoes will sprout and the tubers (the potato) will multiply. The object is to put the potato as far down as you plan to plant, and layer it or “hill” it with growing medium once it has made sufficient growth--this is usually about 8 inches above the soil. As the plant grows, it will root into that medium and develop more potatoes. In the traditional method, a trench is dug and the soil is piled on one or both sides of the trench. The sprouting potatoes are laid in the trench and covered with a bit of soil. As the potatoes grow, you continue to pull some of the soil around the plants. When harvest time comes, you gently dig with a shovel or digging fork--or your hands--and search for potatoes. The problem with the fork or shovel is we always inevitably spear or chop at least one potato, usually the biggest!
The Potato Tower Method: One method that has gained popularity recently is the Potato Tower Method. In this method, potatoes are planted at the bottom of a container--a large plastic barrel, a circle of chicken wire, a bunch of tires--it could be anything that’s hollow, it doesn’t have to be open to the ground beneath but this helps. Once the sprouted potatoes are placed at the bottom of the “tower” they can be covered with soil and hilled up as they grow more. To harvest, simply wait until the tower is full or harvest time comes--whichever comes first in your climate--and push the tower over! No shovel, no digging! This method works especially well if you have access to healthy soil or compost, maybe even sand could work. This has worked when we have tried it, though coming across soil was tough and we hadn’t made much compost at the time.
The Hay Method: This is the method we’ve liked best and the one we use most often. In this method, we plant sprouted potatoes in beds that have nice and decompacted soil. Instead of digging a trench, we just plant right in the bed and wait for the potato plant to grow to about 8 inches tall. Once the plants are a sufficient height, we hill them up with hay, lots of hay. Try to pack it down as you are distributing it, we’ve used about 12 inches of packed hay. Water this in thoroughly. As the potatoes reach about 6-8 inches above the hay, layer them again. When harvest time comes, remove the hay (which will have partially broken down by then) and harvest the potatoes! No shovel, minimal effort and bending over! We like to sprinkle some compost in every layer to help the hay break down, plus we like when our potatoes smell like dirt.
In every method we’ve tried (even in the Potato Tower Method, though it can be tricky) we manage to get two harvests per growing season from our potatoes. This is important to us since our growing season is really about 120 days--give or take. We plant as early as we can, depending on the weather but usually early May. About 4 weeks after the potatoes flower and sometimes longer, we go for our first harvest of potatoes. This typically happens mid-July to early-August. We harvest all of the big ones, and we leave as many small ones attached to their root as we can, this requires a bit of finesse and patience but it can be done! This means it can be done without killing the plant, and those baby spuds will grow, and new ones will also develop.
Our second harvest is at the end of the growing season but before the first frost, usually sometime in mid to late-September. We go through the entire bed and harvest whatever is there. This ensures that we get a nice big harvest of potatoes for the year. The first harvest usually lasts until October, and the second harvest usually lasts us until March or April--at which point we begin to switch to sunchokes!
Curing and Storage:
One thing you’ve got to figure out if you plan on storing your potatoes over the winter is which varieties you’ll grow, as well as how you’re going to store them. Thin skinned varieties such as Butterball or Fingerling types of potatoes have a shorter storage life than thicker skinned varieties such as Russets. We do store many kinds, but the thick skinned potatoes always outlast the others. Another thing to keep in mind is that potatoes like it cool and dark to be stored, a root cellar is ideal, although an unheated garage or shed may work too. Place them in boxes of sawdust or shredded newspaper, or plain paper bags and make sure to keep them dark. If they freeze, their cell walls become damaged and they lose the ability to keep well, so make sure that wherever you store them it is above freezing--ideally 34-40°F. Humidity is important as well, around 85% is perfect, dirt floors or humidifiers help with this.
Another important step if you’d like to store your potatoes is curing them. This step is necessary for long term storage, and basically what happens is the skin hardens up and better protects against any mold or spoilage to which the moist flesh is susceptible to. Curing is easy! After you’ve dug them up, leave them somewhere in the sun with air flow to dry out for about an hour or two. Then inspect them all carefully, any scratched, pierced or otherwise damaged spuds, put aside to eat soon, these will compromise the storage of the rest of them if they were all stored in the same place. Potatoes will scab up, but the ones that are really damaged just eat!
Next, let your potatoes cure somewhere out of sunlight this time for 1-2 weeks. This dries the skins further. Make sure to look at your potatoes after every step, potatoes with green skin have been in the sun or the light for too long and are toxic! Store these in a cool place while they finish curing. Once the spuds have gone through this two-phase cure, they should be ready to move into long-term storage. Remember, cool, dark and humid!
Potatoes are a great staple crop for homesteads and gardeners, they’re easy to grow and very rewarding. Going from the garden with a 25 pound basket of potatoes makes you yearn for the cold days by the stove in the midst of Winter, stirring a big cast iron pot of stew made with stored veggies. Potatoes also set the stage well and prep beds for other crops, we love to follow up with garlic, feeding the soil with compost right after potatoes are harvested, letting that incorporate for a while, and then planting garlic in mid-October.
Let us know how you plant your potatoes, what your favorite methods are and how much you grow for storage!
Michael Perry and Schikoy Rayn operate Sacred Circle Homestead, a small-scale, low-tech perennial nursery focusing primarily on medicinal and edible species utilizing principles of permaculture and indigenous wisdom. Learn about the classes they teach at their website or at The Trillium Center, a healing center where they hold workshops in Burlington, VT. Read all of Michael and Schikoy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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