Arr matey! ‘Tis potato season and time to seek buried treasure! Potatoes really are a kind of buried treasure. For one thing, the dried stalk you see above ground only gives you a clue as to the location of the potatoes underneath—not a precise location. The potatoes might be all to one side or another of that stalk, or they might be centered beneath it. I use a garden fork to dig potatoes to reduce the risk of making one unusable. I usually start digging about a foot or a foot and a half from the stalk and move inward.
Unlike many people, we mulch our potatoes instead of creating hills for them. I’ve discussed the benefits of mulching in the Mulching Your Garden post. Using a little heavier mulch makes it possible to plant the potatoes and then basically forget them for the entire growing season. To harvest the potatoes, you simply move the mulch away in the fall and dig the thin layer of dirt from around each of the potatoes. Using the mulching technique seems to produce larger potatoes (or at least, larger quantities of potatoes) with less work and no watering. However, potatoes don’t create set amounts of output. There is an uncertainty factor that gives the potato the feel of buried treasure. One plant may produce a few large potatoes and another copious amounts of smaller (salad) potatoes.
Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of the nightshade family. This family contains a number of highly toxic plants. In fact, some varieties of potato are so odd that you’d hardly recognize them and a few varieties are eaten with clay because they’re not digestible otherwise. The varieties sold in the US are rather bland when compared with the unique diversity found in the Andes (amongst other places). The largest potato we’ve ever had weighed an impressive 1½ pounds, which is far below the 25 pound monster dug in Lebanon in 2008.
You can see the resemblance of potatoes and tomatoes in the leaves. In addition, potatoes will produce a tomato-like fruit. It really does look like a green cherry tomato, but the fruit is quite toxic and you should never eat it. The flowering spud looks pretty though and you should carefully look for the blossoms. They last, at most, two or three days. In other words, blink and you’ll miss the flowering completely.
Domestic potatoes are attacked in a number of ways. This year we lost a few to burrowing insects. The most devastating pests were millipedes who ate directly through the potato and left a rotting mess behind. Because of the drought this year, mice were a particular problem. They normally don’t bother the potatoes much, but this year they were looking for food and water—the potatoes provided both. Quackgrass was also a bit of a problem. We lost some potatoes when the quackgrass roots grew right through the tubers. Finally, some of the potatoes had scabs. The scab ruins the skin and makes it impossible to store the potato for any length of time (otherwise, the potato is perfectly edible as long as you cook it).
Our 20′ × 20′ patch produced two bushels of potatoes this year (about 120 pounds). That’s down from the 3½ bushels we received four years ago in the same patch (we rotate our potatoes between three areas). Between the effects of the drought, the extreme heat this summer, and abundance of pathogens, I think we still did quite well. We managed to get a few really nice sized potatoes with a maximum size of 1 pound this year. Buried treasure indeed!
Do you grow potatoes? If so, how did your potatoes do this year? Do you ever encounter any special problems with them? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.