Raising your own food – Potatoes
Continuing in our assessment of how you should develop your food plan – Potatoes are the second crop that we will look at as a basic component and a great source of calories.
You don’t have to be Irish to celebrate St Patrick’s Day or like potatoes. They are a staple in our diet, much maligned when sold in fast food joints as greasy fries or by dietitians who lament the high starch as empty carbs (no matter that they taste great!). But in reality they are a solid supplement to your diet, high in calories and iron and vitamin C. Since they are easy to grow on a small plot of land and easy to store (you can actually leave them in the ground until the ground begins to freeze), they should be included in your food plan.
Fun fact: the potato is originally native to South America, not Ireland. It was brought back to Europe by the conquistadors and then re-imported into North America – who would have thunk it?
According to the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, Americans eat about 110 pounds of potatoes a year per person (http://nppga.org/consumers/funfacts.php). A potato plant can yield 3-5 pounds of potatoes – do the math, you need to plant around 22-33 potato plants for each person in your family. This equates to about a 100 calories a day from potatoes which is about one medium russet potato each day (how did that work out so nicely?)
Potatoes need room to grow, plants placed too close together will compete with each other and you end up with a lower yield or smaller potatoes. In a bed roughly 4’ x 10’, you could comfortably plant two rows of ten plants = almost enough for one person. Luckily, you can get more than one crop of potatoes in a year – the early spring and fall crops take ten to eleven weeks to be ready to harvest, the late spring and main crop take thirteen to twenty weeks to harvest but need to be spaced out a little wider (the plot should be 5’ x 15” for two rows of ten plants each). Planting several crops throughout the year means you have a steady supply ready for harvest over a period of several months. If you leave them in the ground as the weather turns colder, insure they have some ground cover so the tubers don’t freeze.
Potatoes do well in cooler weather and while you want to keep them watered, the plant site should be well-drained to avoid mold and fungus. Potatoes are a full sun crop, they don’t need any shade. You should rotate your potato plots – don’t grow potatoes in the same area more than two years in a row to avoid diseases or pests.
The simplest way to grow potatoes is to loosen the ground to a depth of 10” (or plant in a 10” raised bed) and thoroughly mix in layer of compost (or rotting leaves) and fertilizer with the soil (manure is not recommended). Potatoes do well in acidic soil, not so well in alkaline. For the early spring crop – leave the seed pieces outside in the sunlight for a few days to allow them to “chitt”, this allows them to sprout and acclimatizes them to the weather. Cut the seed pieces into sections with two buds on them a couple days prior to planting (allows them to dry a little bit). Then plant them about 4” deep with the sprout or eye (or rose) pointing up and cover with soil and mulch. As the plants first emerge from the soil, cover them again with a layer of soil and mulch (earth them up) and then once you get a shoot about 8” up pile soil against the base of the plant again (to protect the tubers near the surface and prevent them from turning green). Earthing the plants up (piling soil over them and against the base as they grow) keeps the tubers well beneath the surface and insures that they stay cool which promotes growth. This is especially important in warmer climes.
You can harvest the early crop when the plants begin to flower but let the leaves wither on the main crop before harvesting. The second crop (planted in late August no later than early September) will have small potatoes ready at ten to eleven weeks but you can leave these in the ground longer as long as they have plenty of cover over them to prevent the tubers from freezing.
Harvested potatoes should be stored in a breathable sack (like burlap) and kept in a cool, dark and ventilated area (like a root cellar or if you don’t have a root cellar see our article on a trash can root cellar).
You may see several places where they suggest growing potatoes in soil filled tires or barrels or sacks. These methods may result in smaller potatoes and lower yields.
I have five people in my family so ultimately, I need to plant 110 to 165 plants, this is about 20 pounds of seed potatoes. (I am not planning on planting that many this year – start small and build up). I am going to use a 30/40/30 rule: plant 30% in an early crop, 40% in the main crop, and 30% in the second crop and see what results I get. I shouldn’t have to use more than an 8’ x 10’ area for the early and second crop (four rows of ten plants) and another 15’ x 15’ area for the main crop. About 300 sqft total on my 2.12 acre lot – I can spare the room. I plan on placing onions between the rows of potatoes as they shouldn’t interfere with the tuber growth.
You will have to look at your space available and balance that against how you structured the menu you have developed for your family (all of our tastes are a little different). But I strongly suggest you consider augmenting your food plan with a supply of freshly grown potatoes from your own back yard!