Trowel & Error

One potato...

How to succeed in gardening without really trying

By Nancy Crowe
On a fridge-clearing mission several years ago, we found a couple of leftover red potatoes, each with a couple of small sprouts. The person who does the cooking in the household, who fortunately is not me, suggested I try planting them just for fun.

I’d never grown potatoes, it was late August and those sprouts didn’t look too ambitious. But in true Trowel & Error spirit, I thought: Let’s see what happens. I halved the potatoes, stuck them in the ground and more or less forgot about them. There were peppers and tomatoes to be harvested, herbs to be gathered and perennials to be cut back. In November I finally remembered, started digging and, to my amazement, pulled one fully formed red potato after another from the soil.

Mind you, every time a seedling pokes through the soil or tall, beautiful cosmos flowers or juicy yellow peppers come from tiny seeds, it is a miracle. But this was finding something where I had truly expected nothing. I almost didn’t notice the dirt I was getting all over myself (and the floor, and the counter) as I brought the bounty into the kitchen.

Such is life in the gardening world. You don’t really know what treasures you’ll find until you dig beneath the surface and get unabashedly covered with the soil in which they grew. Many by-the-book potato harvests have followed that first one, but none has matched it.

If you’re going by the book, here is the solid, research-based information provided by Purdue University. Master Gardeners are sworn to uphold these guidelines even as
we shamelessly tinker with them in our own gardens.

April is generally the time to plant potatoes, but as always in Indiana — it depends. There’s an old belief about planting potatoes on Good Friday, which falls on April 6 this year. If the ground has thawed and the soil has dried out enough to work, and if there’s no pouring rain (or blowing snow) that day, go for it.  

You can find seed potatoes at feed and garden stores, cut them into pieces with at least one healthy bud each and plant them. You can also mail-order seed potatoes whole or in “sets” (seed pieces) from reputable merchants.

Before you bring those seed potatoes anywhere near your garden bed, make sure the soil has good drainage. Potatoes can grow in different types of soil, but without good drainage, you’ll get misshapen, sorry-looking potatoes. Work in a balanced fertilizer.

Plant the seed pieces 9 to 12 inches apart in furrows 2 to 3 inches deep in rows about 2 feet apart. As the plants grow, hilling up the soil around them will help prevent the green (and toxic) sunburn the potatoes can get. “New” potatoes can be harvested in the summer and early fall; for later harvesting, wait until the tops of the plants begin to die back.

For more details, see Purdue publication HO-62: Potatoes. Or just stick half a potato in the ground and see what happens.

Nancy Crowe

Posted Wed, 04/25/2012 - 11:59 am