Archive for May 14th, 2013

Solanum tuberosum Nocte: Preparing Potatoes for the Night

A blast of fungal color has accompanied the potatoes' search for Spring.

A blast of fungal color has accompanied the potatoes’ search for Spring.

As I mentioned in my last post, one batch of my ever-so-scholarly Solanum tuberosums (potatoes) did find its way into the soil at the “ideal”

Our on-time (and slightly cramped) potatoes!

Our on-time (and slightly cramped) potatoes!

time prior to this week (which contains our last-frost date in central PA). This means that in one cramped edge of the garden, a patch of potatoes has emerged from the soil, ready to greet the warm spring sun! And, with the leaves of the tubers emerging, there are four things to keep in mind to keep your potatoes as healthy as possible!

Potato Maintenance:

1. Weeding: Potatoes, being a tuberous plant, need as many nutrients as they can store, so they prefer to grow in areas free from weeds and close companions. This is especially important for me, since, as you might be able to see from the picture on the right, a host of other little greens have joined the burgeoning tubers. And, while I have equal respect for all plants, my respect is a bit more equal for the plants I actually try to grow, so the weeds and things inhabiting my potatoes’ space will have to relocate!

2. Watering: From the day you plant your potatoes, try to keep the soil around your potatoes moist. However, to avoid contracting a blight (a variety of fungal diseases that can plague potatoes), try not to water the leaves of the plants, and ensure that your potatoes have sufficient drainage (potatoes and standing water tend not to get along).

3. Insect Control: While the potato can be munched on by a select few insects and pests, their ties to the nightshade family renders much of the potato plant poisonous to most insect invaders. Having plants that can defend themselves is always a plus for the busy gardener!

Baby potatoes all tucked in for the night.

Baby potatoes all tucked in for the night.

4. Temperature: Even though potatoes are touted as a cold-loving crop, their tender shoots and leaves can still be crippled by an unexpected frost; so, even though the plant under the soil can survive a frigid attack, it will take another two – three weeks for an exposed potato to regrow its above-ground energy source. This means that proper precautions must be taken to keep potato greenery warm overnight.

Here in PA, we’re expecting an unseasonably late frost (only a day before the last frost date!), so we’ve covered our potatoes with a sheet secured with rocks. You could use anything from newspapers to halved gallon jugs to keep your fragile plants safe from any arctic invasions!

That’s all the time I have for now: the rest of my shivering plants are in need of blankets before the night falls! Be sure to stop in soon to catch the third and final part of my potato triad: Solum, Nocte, et Farinæ: Preparing Potatoes for the Plate!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Nate

Solanum tuberosum Solum: Preparing Potatoes for the Sun

These pink dogwood bracts are a sure sign of Spring around here!

These pink dogwood bracts are a sure sign of Spring around here!

As I emerge from the haze that’s enshrouded my past four years as an undergraduate student, I’m coming to the startling realization that Spring has finally unfolded across central PA!

Mucking through the forest to find signs of life.

Mucking through the forest to find signs of life.

And, while I am eagerly awaiting May 15 (our last-frost date here), I’m having to rush to complete my early-Spring gardening checklist in time, which would, of course, be far easier if I actually had an early-Spring gardening checklist prepared! As it stands, however, in the madness of graduation, certification, job hunting, and substitute teaching, fragments of my gardening knowledge are slowly resurfacing to remind me of what needs done before the illustriously imminent last-frost date arrives!

The Task at Hand: Finding the Right Time

First on that ever-expanding list of things to do? Finally plant my favorite member of the Solanum, or nightshade, family: potatoes! The best time to plant potatoes is, ideally, two – three weeks prior to your area’s last frost date, as the potato shoot takes about this long to emerge from the ground; however, in our garden, only one set of potatoes actually got planted at that time, so the other two varieties we’re currently growing have only just been put into the soil. As the potato is a cold-friendly plant, try not to wait too terribly long past your last-frost date to  put these spuds in the ground! You can find your last-frost date (in the United States) here! 

How to Prepare and Plant Your Potatoes

Each year when I go to plant my freshly-purchased bag of seed potatoes, I find that I’ve long since forgotten how to go about planting these admittedly odd-looking tubers.

A truly unique bit of flora.

Forgetting to plant your potatoes will turn those slight sprouts into truly unique bits of flora.

So, I thought I’d compile a step-by-step guide to prepping and planting potatoes (for my benefit and hopefully yours)!

Obtaining and Preparing:

1. Find a source of seed potatoes in your area (avoid planting grocery store tubers, as these tend to be treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting), and choose the varieties that speak to you. This year, I’ve gone with Reds, Russets, and Kennebecs, just for these varieties’ “cookability.”

2. Place your seed potatoes in a cool, dark place for two – three weeks to allow them to sprout (if they haven’t already).

3. When the sprouts are about a 1/2 inch to an inch (1.5 – 2.5 cm) long, they’re ready to plant.

4. Using a non-serrated knife, cut your seed potatoes into chunks with at least two eyes/sprouts each. You may choose to let these chunks sit for a day or two to allow a “skin” to form over the cut edges. I’ve heard conflicting reports of whether this step is necessary, but, so far, I’ve yet to hear that this is detrimental to your future crop, so I’ll let you decide whether or not to “skin” your potatoes!

Finally Planting Your Potatoes

1. When your Solanum tuberosum chunks are ready to plant, find a sunny spot in your garden to

Not exactly a standard trench, but it will do!

Not exactly a standard trench, but it will do!

dig your potato trench. The trench should be long enough to allow for about 12″ (30 cm) of space between each potato, and between 3″ and 6″ deep (9 – 15 cm).

2. Line the bottom of your trench with rich organic compost or rotted manure, and fully incorporate your chosen fertilizer with the soil (this will give your tubers the boost they need to emerge healthy and ready for the sun!).

3. Place your potato chunks into the trench with their sprouts pointing up, 12″ (30 cm) apart.

4. Cover completely with soil and keep moist. You’ve just successfully planted a potato crop!

While putting in your potatoes is just one aspect of the early Spring countdown, it’s certainly one of my favorites! Of course, once your potatoes start sprouting, they will need to undergo some slight maintenance to ensure a solid harvest, so stay tuned to my coverage of potato upkeep in Solanum tuberosum Nocte: Preparing Potatoes for the Night!

As always, happy planting!

Nate

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