Potato growing an annual adventure

Ray Mueller

Chilton - In the summer of 2016, a woman customer at an area farmer's market recognized me as “the potato guy.” I guess I've earned that reputation over the years.

During the past 20 or so years, I've grown up to 30 different potato varieties one or more times. The most intense years were between 2003 and 2006 with 16 to 18 varieties in a single year.

During the past 20 or so years, I've grown up to 30 different potato varieties one or more times.

I've also sold potatoes at six farmer's markets (two of them no longer active) during most of those years. My price has been $1 per pound for about 10 years – quite a bit higher than price specials at area supermarkets but a price that doesn't deter most farmer's market customers. It's also roughly comparable to the per pound price by other farmer's market vendors who offer potatoes at a set price by the pail or other unit without referring to the weight.

Favorite varieties

Among my favorites are the early season Red Norland and Yukon Gold, which I grow every year. The also very dependable Superior has become a favorite in recent years. All of these and a few others are regularly available in the spring at local retail and greenhouse outlets.

I also like the Red LaSoda but didn't grow any of them in 2016. I tried Russet Burbanks last year but, as with other late season varieties in the past, I was disappointed with the yield.

I grew Adirondack Blue (obtained from Pinetree Seeds in Maine) last year with tremendous results in the soil, which was reclaimed from being lawn grass for many decades in the yard at a residence in Chilton. For this year, I have also ordered Adirondack red seed tubers.

During 2016 at the new site, which is still free of Colorado potato beetles, I also returned to growing the rather small but very rich colored German Butterballs, which also fared very well. I'll also be growing them again this year.

When to plant

Unlike the apparent traditional custom in the area of planting potatoes in gardens around the last weekend of May or maybe a week or two earlier, I like to plant much earlier. My garden records show that my planting has started during the 2nd week of April in many years at two different sites.

My planting dates in 2016 were in the last week of April and early May. There have also been a few times when soil conditions and the weather have allowed planting only in May. What the one week spring thaw in February this year will lead to is anyone's guess.

My reasons for early planting are several fold. Along with peas, onions, beets, brassicas, and Swiss chard, potatoes are among the species which lend themselves to early planting. Waiting until mid-May for planting would create an overlap with planting beans and other vegetables which are more vulnerable to frost.

That doesn't mean that potatoes are immune to frost damage. It's happened several times that the early leaves were frosted in May but the consequences haven't been dire. There was a good test of that with the 2016 mid-May freeze in this area. Almost all of the leaves on the earliest planted row of potatoes at the new site were frosted but the plants recovered and by the end of June no one would have suspected what had happened six weeks earlier.

Reasons for early planting

Another major reason for early planting is to take advantage of amount of daylight during June and early July – the time when the tubers are developing. That's because there's a direct correlation between sun light and the daily creation of sugars in the potato plant foliage, which is vital for tuber growth.

A third reason for early planting is to avoid the stress on plants from lack of moisture and from high temperatures that are most likely to occur after the official completion of spring. It's a chore that I'd prefer not to think about but I've irrigated at times without knowing how much good that has done for yields.

The challenge of mid-summer also explains why I've shied away from growing the late season varieties such as Russets, Kennebec, Sebago, and Katahdin. It also explains why the commercial growers of late season varieties in Wisconsin and probably elsewhere are geared with a permanent irrigation system.

Because of my early planting routine, some farmer's market customers have been astonished to have new crop potatoes available for sale by the 3rd week of July in most years. That's probably because they'd been accustomed to a September harvest from a late May planting. In most years, my sale of potatoes is virtually complete by early September.

County fair show

As indicated earlier, my crazy or out of control period for growing and experimenting with many potato varieties was about a dozen years ago. But that led directly to a special display by the county's Master Gardener association at the Calumet County Fair – either in 2003 or 2004.

The other major player in that project was fellow Master Gardener John Schwobe. He recalls that we displayed about 23 different potato varieties to the fair-going public in the Exposition Building. I believe I provided 16 of those 23.

Identifying placards that accompanied the display named the potatoes and gave a short description of their traits and how they would be best prepared for eating. Fortunately, I've saved those placards.

The varieties that I had for the display included All Red, Candy Cane, Red Cloud, Viking Purple, Daisy Gold, and All Blue (how's that for a rainbow of color references?) along with Onaway, Russet Burbank, Warba, Bake King, Island Sunshine, Early Ohio, Irish Cobbler, Kennebec, and Prince Hairy (reputed to repel the Colorado potato beetle).

Completing the list

Purchase records show that I obtained the Onaway, Prince Hairy, Island Sunshine, and Red Cloud in 2003 from Wood Prairie Farm – an organic grower at Bridgewater, Maine. Another supplier at the time was Irish Eyes – once in Washington and now in Montana.

At other times, my annual records show that I also have grown Caribe, Gold Rush Russet, Red Gold, Reddale, Carola, Green Mountain, Lehmi Russet, and Butte along with the fingerling Russian banana, Purple Peruvian, and Rose Finn apple varieties. Among those which I haven't had in recent years, I would consider growing the Caribe, Viking Purple, and Warba again.

Having so many varieties available at farmer's markets for a few years meant encountering customer unfamiliarity and confusion. In one such incident, a couple who purchased All Red potatoes returned them because they had red streaks inside – something which they considered to be a defect rather an innate trait of the variety.

For many decades, including when I was growing up on our family farm, the Red Pontiac was the standard and very dependable garden potato. I wonder what it has happened to it since then because it was the worst performing of all my varieties each of the three times that I grew it in the past 15 or so years at two different sites.

Potato seed cost

The cost of mail order potato tubers has risen greatly during the past 15 years. At Pinetree Garden Seeds, the 2017 prices are $8.95 for 2 pounds (10 pounds for $29.95) of conventional potatoes and $13.49 for 2 pounds ($47.49 for 10 pounds) of organic varieties such as German Butterball.

However, the Adirondack Blue yield of nearly 35 pounds that I sold at $1 per pound wasn't a bad return on the 2 pounds of seed that I bought in 2016. The same isn't true for the German Butterball because its tubers don't get much bigger than large chicken eggs.

Back in 2003, the costs for the organic seed from Wood Prairie were a total of $22.95 for 10 pounds of Onaway and $12.95 each for 5 pounds of Prince Hairy, Island Sunshine, and Red Cloud. This year, the California-based Natural Gardening Company is charging $4.25 per pound and $49.95 for 25 pounds of organic potato seed tubers.

The same price trend is in place in the local area, especially in recent years. Before late market period bargain prices, the lowest price I could find last spring was 55 cents per pound for already packaged 5-pound lots of varieties that I usually grow.