Spuds three ways
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Boulder County
April 13, 2011
Last year, my spouse built a small raised bed for growing potatoes, taking pride in engineering with sides that are added as we hill up the plants and making plans to eat perfect spuds. But Mother Nature had other ideas, sending hoards of Psyllids to the Front Range. Those small, dark, sap sucking bugs wreaked havoc on tomatoes and potatoes alike, stunting their growth and production.
After all of my spouse’s work and dreams, we ended up with a handful of potatoes no bigger than marbles. But this year we’re back at it, because gardening, like baseball, starts fresh every year. And like the sport of summer, we’re improving our lineup and chances for success by growing potatoes in three different ways: hills, straw, and trash cans.
Plant them soon; four-to-six weeks before the last frost. Start with certified disease-free small, whole seed potatoes (or cut them into 2-ounce pieces) purchased at garden centers or on-line; don’t use potatoes from the grocers. If cutting up potatoes for seed pieces, be sure to leave at least one good eye per piece and let them wait a few days to allow the cut side to heal before planting.
Fluffy, deep soil means potatoes will develop plenty of tubers, so amend your planting area with organic matter. Dig a furrow and pop your seed pieces 10 inches apart, covering the pieces with three inches of soil. The secret to getting a bounty of spuds is to hill up the soil along the growing shoots of the young plant; potatoes will form all along this stalk. As stems reach four inches tall, bury them in more soil, leaving the top inch of plant uncovered. Repeat this several times until the hill is as tall as you’d like.
Growing potatoes in straw is reputed to give the tubers better size, shape, and color of than those grown in soil. Straw has the added benefit of reducing weeds, keeping roots cool and conserving water.
Choose a flat, sunny location out of the wind for the straw patch. If there is no place in your yard without wind, keep the straw from flying to Kansas by encircling it with a chicken wire cage that can be opened for harvesting.
Place seed pieces on the soil, cut side down, spacing the spuds 10 inches apart. Cover them with six inches of clean, weed-free straw. As the stem grows up out of the straw, add another six inch layer. Repeat a third time. During the summer, if the straw compacts down, add more, tucking it in around the plants.
Pay close attention to watering the potatoes; they should not be allowed to dry out, nor should they become soggy. A soaker hose laid across the surface of the soil helps irrigate the potatoes evenly.
If you don’t have space for blocks of potatoes, try planting them in deep, clean, new garbage cans. Simply drill a few holes in the bottom of the can, then fill the bottom six inches deep with potting soil. Place seed pieces five inches apart and cover with four inches of soil. As the stems grow up through the soil, cover with more potting mix as described above until the plant reaches the top of the container.
Once you’ve finished hilling up your plants, mulch with straw to keep the soil cool and prevent sunburning of tubers. Go lightly with fertilizer; you want the potatoes to form tubers, not a lot of foliage. Give them a shot of balanced liquid fertilizer about six weeks after the sprouts topped the first layer of straw or soil.
If you want new potatoes – young, small tubers – harvest a few plants just after they bloom. Leave the rest to mature into August or September, and once the vines die, unearth your bounty.
The author has received training through Colorado State University Extension's Master Gardener program and is a Master Gardener volunteer for Larimer County.
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Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, (303) 678-6238.
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Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014