(Lori Adams, who owns Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden and is a frequent vendor at the Sitka Farmers Market, will be writing a regular garden column in the Daily Sitka Sentinel this summer. The Sentinel is allowing us to reprint the columns on this site after they first appear in the newspaper. This column appeared on Page 3 of the Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel.)
GARDENING IN SITKA
By Lori Adams
EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNED ABOUT GROWING POTATOES
I am relatively new to growing potatoes, but they are so fun to grow and do so well here that I am absolutely hooked.
Potatoes can be planted in almost any kind of soil and grow just fine. I have heard people say they grew them in nothing but a pile of seaweed and I have seen someone plant them in a cleared lot with no food at all and they did great.
They are not super heavy feeders and prefer acidic, loose sandy soil with a moderately steady supply of organic material and phosphorus (bonemeal, starfish or fish bones and heads). They can be grown right in the ground, but I prefer to grow them in tubs because it makes harvesting so much easier — no lost potatoes in the garden to volunteer next year!
Potatoes are very susceptible to a disease called “scab.” It looks just like it sounds — rough brown scabs on the surface of the skin. Scab is in the soil and although there are ways to try to avoid it, it seems inevitable. Fortunately, although scabby potatoes are undesirable for market they are perfectly edible for home use.
To prepare the ground or tubs for potatoes do not add high-nitrogen food or lime. New dirt is the best, and never plant potatoes in the same spot for at least three years. Just add some beach mulch for some organic material. Buy certified scab-free seed potatoes from a garden supplier to avoid introducing “blight” (another disease), to the garden, or get some from a friend (they will probably have scab), and plant them outdoors mid-April.
Seed potatoes do not need to be large, in fact, it is preferable to obtain small ones with at least two “eyes” – dimples on the skin where sprouts emerge. If you have large seeds potatoes you should cut them in several pieces and let the cut edges dry before planting them. Whole seed potatoes do better in Sitka gardens than ones that have been cut. They get off to a better start and are more resistant to diseases.
It’s best if your seed potatoes have already started to sprout, if they haven’t then they will just sit in the ground for a month before sprouting. If yours haven’t sprouted by late March, expose them to 60 degree heat and as much sunshine as possible for two weeks before planting them. Be sure not to break any sprouts off.
To plant, dig a 12-inch deep hole in the ground or tub that will not be below standing water when it rains, lay a fish head or a couple of starfish in the bottom and cover with dirt. Or, dig a nine-inch hole and mix a handful of bonemeal into the soil. Make a nest of straw or dried grass in the hole and set the seed potato in it with the sprouts reaching up, cover with more straw and then toss in a shovel full of spruce or hemlock needles (to made the soil more acidic to try to avoid scab), bury with dirt and beach mulch and top it all off with a couple inches of seaweed.
Potato plants usually sprout up fast and get quite large. It is important to “hill-up” the plants a couple times during the season by burying the foliage so that only a couple of inches stick up out of the dirt. This will cause more potatoes to grow on the buried foliage and dramatically increase your yield.
Potatoes can be harvested at any time for eating, but it is best to wait until the foliage has pretty much died back to achieve maximum yield. Early September is about right. Potatoes that have been harvested early have fragile skins and have a tendency to “peel,” like a sunburn. If you want to store them all winter it is very important to wait until late September or early October to ensure that the potato skins have cured and will store well.
Now comes the fun part. Dump out the tub or dig a large enough hole to harvest every potato. Lay them out on a tarp to dry. Lightly rub off the excess dirt and store them at 33-38 degrees in total darkness where they won’t get too dried out. Be sure to save a few small ones of your favorite varieties to plant next year.
Brought to you by Down-To-Earth U-Pick Garden
2103 Sawmill Creek Road
Open June-August / Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
747-6108 or 738-2241