Monday, May 16, 2011

Planting Potatoes in Central Texas

Yellow wax, french fingerling, purple Peruvian, and red potatoes

We have two great challenges to growing potatoes in central Texas.  First, potatoes like deep, rich, loose, slightly acid soil and ours tends to be shallow, poor, highly alkaline, and sticky.  Potatoes also give small yields if exposed to high temperatures or really wet conditions too early.  And we have short, wet (if we're lucky) winters and springs.  So many gardeners in this area grow potatoes in chicken wire towers or boxes from pallets.

My dad and the old German farmer down the road from us grew potatoes old school, straight in the ground, and had a good amount of success, so I tend to do the same thing.  Dad and our neighbor both had the strange good fortune to possess some small pockets of deep, black soil among the rocky hills that make up most of this area. Plus, they were both incredibly stubborn.

We too have a pocket of fairly good soil, although it's a little heavy and sticky.  Still, with lots of organic amendment, I can grow potatoes right in the ground with reasonable success. And I even take a few liberties with conventional wisdom about growing potatoes.


Here's what I know of conventional wisdom and where I've diverged:


Using grocery store potatoes versus seed potatoes
The word is, you should never plant grocery store potatoes because they may have been treated with a growth inhibitor.  I guess that may be true since everyone says it, but it's an hour drive to the nearest place that sells seed potatoes and I've yet to try and save my own seed.  So I've planted grocery store potatoes from time to time. They do sprout quite readily.  Hasn't everyone accidentally sprouted potatoes in their kitchen?


Pre-sprouting versus not prespouting
I think the idea behind pre-sprouting is that it shaves a week or so off time between planting and maturity.  It also easily lets you see where to cut the potatoes so that you have at least one growing eye in each piece. 


Our neighbor never presprouted.  He had a huge field he planted every year, and he said he had to move too fast to worry about knocking off the fragile sprout tips.  He grew more potatoes than anyone I've ever known.  My dad always pre-sprouted so I always did too, until this year when my mother-in-law gave me a bunch of very tiny seed potatoes from her nursery.  They were small enough that I knew I couldn't cut them and also, for some reason, they never sprouted above ground.  So I planted them anyway and have had a pretty good harvest. It's hard to tell if it took a lot longer for the potatoes planted without pre-sprouting to mature because we had a crazy early heat spell that caused the plants to jump ahead by about a month.  So we harvested in early May.


How to Pre-sprout (also called chitting)
 Lay potatoes in a single layer on a shallow box or tray. Do not let them touch. If your potatoes are small enough, an egg carton is a great way to keep them sorted properly. They should ideally remain at around 60-70 degrees.  But that's a temperature range that's hard to come by around here.  Outside, in the house, on the porch, in the garage, it's usually either hotter or colder than that.  I think as long as it's well above freezing and below wiltingly hot, those potatoes will sprout. Also, try to keep them dry.  Try to plant before the sprouts get too long or they will tend to break as you drop them in the ground.

Cutting potatoes versus planting whole
A large sprouted potato can often be cut into three or four pieces, so cutting is definitely the frugal choice. If you do cut, no peice should be smaller than a golf ball.  


Curing seed potatoes with sulfur versus wood ash versus nothing 
The purpose of curing cut potatoes with sulfur is to prevent rotting in the ground.  My dad always used wood ash instead of sulfur and he had enormous yields.  I confess that I have several times skipped this step entirely and have yet to suffer adversely.   I wonder if it is in wetter climates that curing really matters?

How to cure seed potatoes with sulfur or wood ash
After cutting potatoes, let them dry until a skin forms on cut surfaces.  Dust with sulfur or wood ash and let potatoes dry another day before planting.

How to plant potatoes
Dig a furrow 6-8 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep.  Most sources say to space seeds about 10” apart, but if there's room, space even more widely.  I like about 14 inched so they have plenty of room to spread their toes.  I also think it keeps disease down. Cover potatoes with soil. After plants are about  3-4” tall, add more soil.


When to harvest potatoes
Once the plants are flowering, wait a week or so, then carefully dig around the plants for new potatoes.  Between  90 – 120 days, the plants suddenly turn yellow and start looking like they're dying. Now it's time for the big harvest.  This year, the potato gods went crazy and I started havested in about 70 or 80 days.  This means I'll have a smaller crop, but it's still a good one. I think it got hot so early it sent the potatoes into hyperdrive.  


What varieties grow best in Texas?  Well, I've tried a number of red, white, yellow, and purple.  Sadly, so far I've had very limited success with purple.  I say sadly because those are my favorites and they are also the most nutricious.  Here in our alkaline soils, it seems the yellow, waxy varieties grow best. 


For red potato, Red La Soda and  Pontiac are proven favorites;  for white, Kennebec or Irish Cobbler varieties are the choices. Russets do not grow well in our area.



17 comments:

  1. I cut my potato sets yesterday afternoon. Then had to run out at ten and blanket the garden, we frosted last night and it is 34 this morning. Hope you potatoes do well this year there is nothing more magical than digging and finding potatoes.

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  2. I enjoyed your potato tutorial. I have planted mine with and without sprouts and the yields are about the same...maybe just a tad later on the non sprouted varieties. I like the purple ones best too.:)

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  3. Julia, digging potatoes with my dad is one of my earliest and best early memories. It just seemed like magic to find food in the ground.

    Mr H, I don't know this for a fact, but it seems like purple potatoes would have some of the same antioxidants that blue fruits like blueberries do.

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  4. I'm trying sweet potatoes in a container with straw for the first time this year. I'm sure I didn't plant them at the right time as nothing seems to be happening and my neighbor has already harvested his.

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  5. Marti, if you're in central Tx, we usually plant sweet potatoes in May. I've planted them late before and still gotten a pretty good crop. But this year has been weird. We got hot so early that lots of crops finished up early, and didn't produce as much, at least for me. Good luck and I'd love to hear how the experiment went.

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  6. We had a great potato year here in Waco Texas. I planted early under row cover. I planted 30 seed potatoes, I bought the small ones and did not cut them. I did pre-sprout, but only because I bought them as soon as they came to Atwoods. I planted in one wide row, 4 feet wide and 20 feet long, on a grid, not in rows. We harvested this weekend (end of April) and we got 36 pounds of potatoes. Red Pontiac, White Kennebec and Yukon Gold, 10 each. The Red and white are hands down winners with about 15 pounds each whereas the yellows only yielded right at 7 pounds. All thirty plants came up and produced, the yellows just didn't make as many pototoes per plant. We are going to skip the yellow next year.

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    Replies
    1. I was wondering about how early you can plant if you do the row cover thing? For anon. In waco tx.

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    2. I was wondering about how early you can plant if you do the row cover thing? For anon. In waco tx.

      Delete
  7. Hi! I know this is an older post of yours, but I was hoping you might be able to help? I am a Mom that runs a Learning Garden at a Fort Worth elementary. Our garden is pretty small, and because of this I was hoping to grow potatoes in the boxes made out of shipping pallets, as you mentioned in the beginning of this tutorial. Because we are limited in planting times due to the school year schedule, we would be planting them in the boxes in the next couple of weeks. Do you have any tips or tricks to hopefully make them successful? I have to admit, even though I run the Learning Garden program, I don't have much knowledge when it comes to gardening. We donate all of our produce to a local food pantry, so if you can provide any help, not only will kids benefit from it, so will a food bank. Thanks for your time!

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  14. I need to know when I should see potatoes sprouting? I planted Feb 14...here in DFW area

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    1. I planted on 2/15 and they sprouted in about 30 days. They are now 3-4 inches tall. They look good! Waco Area

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