Tradition holds that potatoes should be planted on St. Patrick’s Day for a successful harvest. The truth in this old wives’ tale is not so much in the date of March 17, but in the fact that planting in March results in higher yields. Whether you’re an old pro at gardening or a novice, potato plants are fun to grow and require little care for success.
Plants are grown from pieces of potatoes referred to as “seed potatoes.” It is important to purchase disease-free seed pieces from reputable garden centers each spring. Saving potatoes from last year’s harvest or using spuds from the supermarket is not recommended.
It is wise to use larger pieces. Cut an average-size potato into three or four pieces or a large one into four or six sections. New plants emerge from the eyes on the potatoes; many people make sure there are several eyes on each piece they cut.
Once cut, the pieces should be allowed to dry for two to three days in a warm, airy location to allow the cut surfaces to callus. A corky layer develops, reducing rot and decay in cool, damp, spring soil.
Do not plant too deep, which will slow emergence and development. Plant 1 to 2 inches deep in a location where they’ll receive full sun (6-8 hours). Gradually cover the row with soil as the plants grow. Continue to mound up the soil; it will reach a depth of 8 to 10 inches by the time the vines are 12 to 18 inches high. This part is very important, as the new potatoes form in this mass of soil. If you do not mound, the potatoes are small and right at the soil surface exposed to the sun.
Care of the plants is simple: control weeds, water regularly and fertilize lightly a couple of times. It is vital to grow the plants as fast as possible so the tubers will develop before the heat of summer. Potatoes can be dug once the vines begin to die down in early summer.
As for variety, try these K-State Extension recommendations. Red varieties include ‘Red Norland,’ ‘LaRouge,’ ‘LaSoda’ and ‘Purple Viking.’ White skinned potatoes include ‘Superior,’ ‘Norchip,’ ‘Kennebec’ and ‘Irish Cobbler’; Russet type is ‘Norkotah. Russets are good for baking but are the hardest to grow in this area.
Of course, there are all types of specialty varieties with yellow to blue flesh, and even long, skinny finger types. Red and white varieties tend to return the highest yields with our ever-changing weather patterns. They are also best for boiling and mashing.
If you have not grown potatoes, give them a try. Like homegrown tomatoes, nothing compares to freshly dug potatoes from the garden. Since they’re bursting with flavor, forget the butter and sour cream for a healthy, down-home treat.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.