Ray's Garden Rows: Potatoes like to grow in many places

Ray Mueller

The time has come for potatoes that householders have in storage for eating to start shooting sprouts from their eyes. This is a sign they are ready to begin a growing cycle although it is at the start of winter.

To protect the quality of the potatoes being kept for eating in the coming months, check them every couple of weeks. Break off those new sprouts, and discard any tubers that show signs of spoilage.

Literature and online information indicate that potatoes should keep well in storage for three to six months. With careful tending, I've found this can be extended to nine to 10 months after an August or early September harvest.

Other essentials for long term storage are to keep the potatoes in the dark and at a temperature as close to 40 degrees as possible. Do not refrigerate them.

Sprouting season

Because they mature the earliest, red skinned potatoes will be first to shoot new sprouts. Yellow and brown skinned varieties do so later.

A natural trait in potatoes is that they need about three months of dormancy after harvest before they will grow again. With an August or September harvest, that three-month period is arriving.

What this means is that persons growing their own potatoes or buying them at a farmer's market or roadside stand in July should discard the idea of immediately planting some tubers for a late harvest. Because they have been treated with a sprout inhibitor, do not expect potatoes purchased in a supermarket to grow.

Multiple growing mediums

When it comes to where potatoes can be grown, there are about a dozen mediums — most of which are described online in varying levels of detail. I've tried about one half of the possible growing mediums.

The most common place for growing potatoes is in a traditional garden setting: in the landscape's soil. But there is a long list of other possibilities, depending on one's resources and interest. Some of them present opportunities for an earlier growing season than is possible in garden soil.

I've grown potatoes successfully in a former municipal garbage barrel, a bathtub and a washing machine drain tank. A challenge with those is filling the containers with soil along with a dose of compost or dry manure plus a bottom filler such as rocks, gravel, cardboard, newspaper or plant stems below the growing zone.

During the several years that I've grown potatoes in a garbage barrel, sometimes planting them as early as late March, the best yield I've had from about six stems or plants was seven pounds — about 40 edible tubers. One thing I like to do is irrigate with discarded cooking water. Rain water is also a good choice.

All kinds of other containers are possibilities. They include pots, buckets, wood boxes, a wire cylinder, heavy plastic bags, straw bales and tires. With mixed results, I've grown tomatoes in tires but have never tried potatoes in them.

Growing under straw

In addition to straw bales, a relatively labor free way to grow potatoes is to plant them very shallow in the soil with a heavy straw or hay cover. One example of this, titled “Growing Potatoes in Straw – No Dig Potatoes,” is available on YouTube.

The video doesn't indicate where the grower lives but the numbers he stated are reasonable. He planted 25 pounds of seed in 300 square feet and harvested about 250 pounds of a red potato variety. Although regular irrigation was needed, one convenience was merely having to remove the straw and hay cover to harvest the tubers.

I tried growing potatoes on the top of the soil with a minimum grass and straw cover but did not fare too well the one time I tried it. Many of the plants of a couple potato varieties died pre-maturely and there was minimal production. At the time, a now retired area farmer told me that he had grown potatoes successfully with that method.

Growing indoors

For anyone who's interested in growing potatoes indoors, that's also a possibility. There's a step by step YouTube video on doing that on a small scale with the choice of appropriate containers.

One requirement for indoors growing is providing enough light during the winter with 10 hours per day being a recommendation. This would require providing a grow light in addition to a few hours of sunlight on clear days. The video properly promises about 2 pounds of potatoes for every six or seven eyes or sprouts that are grown.

All the way to Mars

As most of these examples indicate, potatoes will grow almost anywhere. The people planning to move to Mars have the growing of potatoes on that planet high on their list as a means of survival.

Anyone who has tossed potatoes which have not been treated with the sprout inhibitor onto the soil or grass surface will have noticed that they will grow sprouts reaching one or two feet without any extra attention.

Although mail order suppliers will not ship seed potatoes until temperatures are above freezing and planting needs to wait until the garden soil thaws and warms, it's possible to try one or more alternative growing ideas during the winter or in the early spring if one has potatoes other than those treated with a sprout inhibitor.

Once they've completed their approximate three month rest or dormancy period, potatoes are anxious to grow. All that needs to be done is to give them a good place to grow.

After a natural period of dormancy, potatoes that are in storage for eating begin to shoot new sprouts by late November and early December.  Removing the sprouts regularly during the winter will preserve their eating quality for several more months.