Thursday, April 23, 2015

POTATOES

It's April. 
The weather might be wild and crazy, but go ahead! 
Plant some potatoes! 
Grow your own! 
You will be glad you did.




Start potatoes in Sitka any time from early April until late May and you will likely have a lovely crop by early fall.


There are thousands of varieties of potatoes in the world. Textures and flavors abound. Potatoes come in lots of colors, sizes and shapes...
PURPLE MAJESTY


CHERRY RED

CARIBE

RUSSET






Each variety has its own unique flower... 
PURPLE MAJESTY


BRIGUS

TO-LE-AK







And, there are lots of potato varieties known to mature early like these...
ROSE GOLD
BRIGUS





ACQUIRING SEED POTATOES
So which potato varieties should you grow? Where do you find seed potatoes? Fortunately, there were several Sitka gardeners successfully growing potatoes when I asked those questions long ago. They cheerfully shared seed potato to get me started. Over the years, growing a wide variety of potatoes has been lots of fun for the entire family.

Nowadays, there is potato information readily available from many sources including local gardeners, the cooperative extension services, libraries, catalogs and the internet. And, best of all, there are businesses in Sitka selling high quality, certified seed potatoes. They sell certified seed potato to help prevent the introduction of disease into your  garden soil. In fact, just recently, I saw attractive selections of certified seed potato at Penny Brown's Garden Ventures and True Value. Most likely, the varieties available for sale here in town were all determined to be suitable for our climate. These businesses usually have information and literature describing the seed potato varieties they are selling.

Something to think about. If you do not have your own source of seed potato, you will need to buy it.  When purchasing seed potato, the inclination will be to purchase the largest potatoes. Rather than purchasing and cutting up large potatoes, consider buying the small to medium sized potatoes. In this case, you will use one potato to grow one plant. This might be easier and more economical. If you plant a large seed potato, it will grow one plant just fine, too. 



If you want to grow more than one potato plant from a large seed potato, cut the seed potato into pieces with at least two eyes per chunk. (You actually only need one eye to grow a plant. The second eye is for back-up). Then let the pieces dry out a little indoors in a dry location for 3 or 4 days before planting. The large, whole seed potato above was cut into three pieces. Each of the three pieces has at least two well developed eyes.




CHOOSING AND PREPARING YOUR POTATO PATCH
You know what? Potatoes are so eager to grow, that any crazy sounding method of growing potatoes you've heard about is probably valid and worth a try!

But, in this post, let's go with a basic, conventional approach.

It would be best if you choose a location that will face the sun when it shines. So, if you have an east, south or west facing area, go with that. You will probably do well enough with north facing, but not if it is full shade.

Potatoes are best grown in slightly acidic soils. A lot of our soil here in Sitka is naturally acidic because of the inclusion of volcanic ash. So, the good news is that your yard soil will probably get you off to a good start... minus the weeds and large rocks.

Next, the goal is to have fertile soil. We have often satisfied this need by gathering seaweed in the fall from the high tide line of beaches...




There are leaves, needles and other goodies mixed in with the seaweed... 




We layered this seaweed mix alternately with fish waste... heads and carcasses from one of the seafood plants or dead, spawned out salmon. We made a big pile of it all in one of our large garden beds. We covered the compost pile with a tarp or old construction cloth...



We let it compost all through the winter. (For potatoes in particular, it is important that organic matter is well rotted or decomposed). We turned the pile every month or two. Come spring, it was a beautiful sight to see. Alaskan black gold.

Finally, the soil needs to drain well. Many years ago, we were able to acquire a large quantity of sand when a local beach was dredged.  More recently, we were lucky to have a friend who discovered a large pocket of sand on his property when he was prepping to build a house. Lots of that sand ended up in our gardens! If you don't have a readily available source of sand, it can be purchased from a sand and gravel business here in Sitka. 

So, here is the mixture... plenty of sand, your own yard soil and decomposed organic matter. Shoot for 1/3 of each.
For us, this has been a terrific blend for growing potatoes! 


In order to mix everything together thoroughly in the large potato garden, we used a rototiller. A small garden is easily turned with a pitch fork or shovel.







Here is the potato garden after it has been tilled...







We planted a row of each of these potatoes:
ALASKA ROSE IS A LARGE POTATO WITH RED SKIN AND WHITE FLESH.



BRIGUS IS A VERY LARGE POTATO WITH PURPLE SKIN AND WHITE FLESH.


CARIBE IS A VERY LARGE POTATO.
THE SKIN IS WHITE AND SPECKLED WITH PURPLE. THE FLESH IS WHITE.


ROSE GOLD POTATOES ARE VERY LARGE WITH PINK SKIN AND GOLD FLESH.


YELLOW FINN POTATOES ARE MEDIUM IN SIZE WITH BROWN SKIN AND YELLOW FLESH.




We divided the potato garden into five rows... one row for each of the potato varieties in the above photos. We did not make raised rows. The entire garden stays flat at this point in time. Each row was labelled with one of the five potato varieties. We dug holes about 10 inches deep, about 2 feet apart the entire length of each row. One seed potato was placed in each hole. The hole was filled in with the soil that had been removed.





We made a separate, large potato patch for our favorite variety: 
THIS IS OUR ALL TIME FAVORITE POTATO!
IT IS MEDIUM IN SIZE, WITH DARK PINK SKIN AND YELLOW EYES.
THE FLESH IS ALMOST FLORESCENT YELLOW. BEAUTIFUL!
IT IS VERSATILE IN THE KITCHEN WITH EXCELLENT FLAVOR.

WE ACQUIRED THIS POTATO ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, BUT DID NOT KNOW THE VARIETY. AFTER CONSIDERABLE RESEARCH, WE SETTLED ON INCA BELLA.
TO OUR SURPRISE, WE RECENTLY SAW A NEW ALASKAN BRED VARIETY OF SEED POTATO FOR SALE LOCALLY THAT LOOKS IDENTICAL TO WHAT WE CALL INCA BELLA.
THE NAME IS 'MAGIC MYRNA.'
SO, WHATEVER THE NAME, IT IS A WONDERFUL POTATO!




The potato patches were covered with floating row covers. Three reasons for using floating row covers:  
- to discourage dogs, cats and other critters from walking and digging in the garden 
- to keep insects out  
- to increase the soil temperature


After about a month, the floating row cover is removed for weeding. 






When the potato plants have grown 12 inches or so, it's time to dig soil from either side of the rows and pile it up around the potato plants. (This results in lower pathways between each row). This practice generally increases the number of potatoes growing on each plant. Remember to replace the floating row cover.








As early as July, you will have potatoes sizable enough to harvest! Don't pull out the entire plant! Leave the plant to continue growing and simply reach down into the soil at the base of the plant and feel around for a potato. Pull the potato out of the soil. Repeat this until you have as many potatoes as you need at the time.




Late in September or early in October, the potato plants will start turning yellow and look straggly. 





When this happens, it is a good idea to harvest and store your remaining potatoes.
WE OUTGREW OUR FIRST GREENHOUSE SEEN IN THE BACKGROUND.





WE REPLACED THE OLD GREENHOUSE WITH A FAR MORE SPACIOUS NEW ONE. MR. WELSH WORKED LONG AND HARD TO BUILD US NOT ONLY A SPACIOUS GREENHOUSE, BUT ALSO AN ATTACHED COVERED GARDEN TO GROW SOME FRUITS, VEGETABLES AND FLOWERS THAT PREFER A DRIER CLIMATE THAN SITKA PROVIDES. A BIG THANK YOU TO OUR NEIGHBOR, JIM HARRIGAN, WHO GAVE US LOTS OF HELP WITH THE WELDING.




We store our potatoes by digging trenches a foot or two down into the soil floor of our greenhouse. We sort the potatoes by variety and size and bury them in the trenches. A foot or so of depth will prevent freezing when temperatures drop. The potatoes are easily accessible and dry all winter long. Any potatoes remaining when it is planting time next spring are used for seed potato.









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