Andean native, botanically known as Solanum tuberosum. For ornamental relatives, see Solanum. Though other vegetables are more common in home gardens, growing potatoes can be very satisfying: 2 lbs. of seed potatoes can yield 50 lbs. of potatoes for eating. The many pests and diseases that beleaguer commercial growers are not likely to plague home gardeners. To avoid disease problems, plant certified disease-free starter potatoes or disease-resistant varieties.
Grow from seed potatoes that you cut into 1 1/2 -in. cubes (each with at least two eyes) or from small tubers, which are planted whole and are less likely to rot in the ground. Home gardeners have access to a number of varieties, including types with red, white, yellow, russet brown, or bluish purple skins; depending on the variety, flesh may be white or match the skin color of red, yellow, or blue varieties. Shapes vary from round or cylindrical to finger-like (the latter are called fingerlings). Some varieties mature faster than others, but most reach harvesting size 2 1/2 to 4 months after planting.
Culinary use depends greatly on whether a potato is moist or dry, and whether the starch it contains is branched (holds its shape in salads and stews) or relatively straight (allows the potato to fall apart in cooking). For baking and mashing, most people prefer a light, dry, fluffy potato like ‘Butte’ or ‘Russet Burbank’. For velvety textured soups, try ‘Carola’, which falls apart nicely when cooked. For stews, boiling, and potato salads, choose a waxy, moist potato like ‘Reddale’. For fun, make colorful fries or mashed potatoes with ‘All Blue’; ‘Elba’ is another good choice for these dishes, but with traditional buff-colored skin and white flesh.
There are also potatoes for special situations. If you garden in a short-season climate, try an early all-purpose variety like ‘Yukon’ or ‘Yukon Gold’. In wet climates or soil that tends to be damp, grow ‘Nooksack’. If diseases are a problem in your area, try ‘Island Sunshine’ for resistance to late blight, or ‘Reddale’ for resistance to verticillium wilt.
Potatoes need fertile, sandy, fast-draining soil; tubers become deformed in heavy, poorly drained soil. In cold-winter climates, plant as soon as the soil is workable in spring. In mild-winter regions, plant in early spring for a summer crop, in early fall for a winter-into-spring crop. Where frosts are not severe, potatoes can be planted in midwinter—as long as the soil isn’t too wet from winter rains. Let seed potato pieces dry for a day or two before planting. Then set mini-tubers or potato pieces 2 in. deep, 1–1 1/2 ft. apart. Add loose soil as the plant grows, taking care not to cover stems completely; developing tubers should always be covered with soil to keep their skin from turning green.
The above-ground potato plant is sprawling and bushy, with much-divided dark green leaves somewhat like those of a tomato plant. Clustered inch-wide flowers may be white, pink, light red, or pale blue, depending on the variety; blossoms often reflect the color of the tubers, but not always.
Dig early potatoes (so-called new potatoes) when the plants begin to bloom; dig mature potatoes when plants die down. Dig carefully to avoid bruising or cutting the tubers. Well-matured potatoes free of defects are the best keepers; store them in a cool (40°F/4°C), dark, dry place. Where the ground doesn’t freeze, late potatoes can remain in the ground until needed. Dig before warmer temperatures start them growing again.
Another method of growing potatoes is to prepare the soil so the surface is loose, plant potato pieces or minitubers 1/2–2 in. deep, and water well. Mound loose soil over plants as directed above; then cover soil with a 1–1 1/2-ft.-thick layer of straw, hay, or dead leaves. Surround the planting with chicken wire to keep loose material from blowing away. Potatoes will form on the soil surface or just beneath it, requiring little digging; you can probe through the mulch with your fingers to harvest them.
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