Roasted, baked, mashed, or fried.
The day I don’t love ‘em, is the day I died.
As you know, I was born in love with gardening. Heck, flowers, fruit, bulbs, trees, shrubs, natives, and vegetables were all fair game for me. I spent my early childhood in Longview beginning with a deep rooted need for horticulture but with no vegetable garden or greenhouse to satisfy my growing desires. Thankfully my paternal Pappaw (the only one I ever had) grew a nice vegetable garden each year that I’d get to help with when I stayed with my grandparents during the summer. Unfortunately it was an hour and a half away in Shelby County, the same garden I grow in now. But sadly, I generally wasn’t there during the springtime when planting started and things took root.
So imagine my delight when the elderly Mr. Adams up the hill from our house, asked me to help him plant his potato crop one year. We had to walk down the hill, past his house, and through the woods when the bus dropped us off on Tryon Road instead of at our home. I remember how intrigued I was at putting pieces of potatoes into the soft loamy soil. The day we pulled them up and scratched out multitudes of large whole potatoes was the day I truly became a vegetable gardener. It was literally magic. He sent me home with a heavy brown grocery sack full of them and my mom prepared them for me the way she ate them as a little girl; boiled and creamed, with ketchup. I was hooked.
Potatoes are cool weather plants that bloom and die when the temperatures get hot. They can tolerate frosts but not hard freezes and are mostly planted as a spring crop in Texas. They should be planted about four weeks before the last expected frost. For many in the state Valentine’s Day (or President’s Day) is potato planting day. Potatoes are planted from small potatoes or pieces of larger potatoes known as “seed potatoes.” They should be spaced 8-12 inches apart.
Potatoes require at least 8 hours of direct sun each day for maximum yields. Like most root crops, they do best in well drained sandy and loamy soils and are best planted in raised beds or rows at least 6-12 inches high. It is ideal to till in several inches of compost or organic matter and incorporate 2 pounds of a complete lawn or garden fertilizer (15-5-10, 18-6-12, etc.) per 100 square foot of bed or every 35 feet of row before planting. In smaller plantings use 2 teaspoons per square foot or foot of row. The ideal soil pH for growing potatoes is 5.0-6.5.
Potatoes can be grown in raised beds, whiskey barrel sized pots, crown tire planters, or raised rows 6 inches high, 18 inches wide, and 36 inches apart. Use your hoe to open up a furrow 3 inches deep down the row. Place the seed pieces or small potatoes in the bottom of the furrow. Cover them with well cultivated soil and gently firm them in with the back of your hoe.
Potatoes are relatively easy to grow provided they have lots of sunshine and cool temperatures. Around 3-4 weeks after planting or when the plants are 6 inches tall, use your hoe or shovel to apply about 3-4 inches of dirt or compost to the bases of the plants. This creates a desirable area for the potatoes to form in. It is ideal to apply a layer of organic mulch (hay, straw, grass clippings, etc.) to conserve water and prevent weeds.
The main pest on potatoes is the potato bug that eats the foliage. Hand-pick them or apply an appropriately labeled pesticide following label directions. Potatoes are usually ready to harvest 90-120 days after planting. Spring planted plants indicate when they are ready to harvest as the tops will turn yellow and start to die. I usually start sneaking some tender new potatoes s soon as the plants start blooming by gently probing beneath them with my fingers. Be careful not to disturb the root system and always remember your production will be greater if you leave them all until they are mature. I can’t help myself though. If you are going to consume the final crop rather quickly, dig them with a spading fork and wash them before storing in a cool, humid, dark place. If you want to store them for a longer period of time, cut the tops off the dying plants and leave the potatoes in the ground for 3-4 days. This will toughen up the skins and make the potatoes last longer.
Recommended potato varieties for Texas include Kennebec (white), Pontiac (red), Red Lasoda (red), and Norland (red). Potatoes are native to South America.
At this point I’m going to fess up that my long used family garden has never been any good for potatoes, as the silt loam soil which catches the runoff from my old house is always too moist during February to till and plant. This has always left me planting them in containers or school gardens and even worse, begging from potato growing friends.
But this year I took matters into my own hands and built me a “potato bed” using old cinder blocks that I painted barn red. I’ll grow Irish potatoes during the spring, sweet potatoes during the summer, and mustard greens during the fall and winter. I’m also planning to add a small section of cattle panel to each end for cucumbers or pole beans. Plus I’ll use the openings in the cinder blocks for multiplying onions, parsley, cilantro, etc. The first bed I built wasn’t going to make me enough delectable potatoes, so I expanded it. I’m currently in the process of filling it with compost and potting soil. Unfortunately Mrs. G’s cats have deemed it a brand new outdoor litter box so I’m going to put down concrete reinforcing wire right after I plant my potatoes then lift it when I harvest. Mrs. G thinks the whole thing is tacky, but I can always remind her that my back yard was once a crown tire parterre. If that doesn’t work I’ll find pictures of crops I grew in old toilet bowls! -Greg