I really only call them taters when referring to “Mater, Tater and Onion Soup”. But a title was needed, and half of the southerners I know call them “taters”.
I grew potatoes for the first time last spring. I am far from a spud expert, but they are a pretty simple crop. Before growing them, I did ridiculous amounts of research and found that most everything on the internet about growing potatoes is not relevant to the south. So, here are the potato basics for Zones 7a-8b, all you really need to know about growing southern spuds.
- Timing: The time to plant southern potatoes is February/March for a May/June harvest. Potatoes love southern Spring weather, but will cook and die in our Summer heat. Get them in the ground early and you will be digging them up before the scorching days of summer.
- Varieties: The short potato season here limits us to growing “New” potato varieties: Red skinned new potatoes, golden potatoes and some blue varieties. Last spring I read a post that instructed southerners to grow “thinned skinned varieties”. This was not the greatest advice because fingerlings are thinned skinned. I tried to grow them and failed. Those tiny fingerlings actually need a long season, and are quite finicky. In Zones 7 and 8, it is a good general rule to stick with early producing varieties that can be harvested in less than 100 days from planting. Red Lasoda, Red Norland and Yukon Gold are proven to be varieties easily grown in the South. You can buy seed potatoes online or at your Home Improvement stores and Garden Centers. Look for them near the seed starting displays. You can also plant organic potatoes from the grocery store. Non organic potatoes will not sprout successfully because they are treated to prevent sprouting. Additionally, there is a chance the grocery store potatoes could introduce diseases to your garden soil.
- Planting: Potatoes don’t grow in compacted clay soils. They need deep loose soil making them ideal crops for raised bed gardening. They can also be grown in hills, terraces, or containers. Potatoes that you will dig up and harvest will grow on underground stems (stolons) above the level of the potato that you plant. If there is not sufficient soil mounded above the seed potato, your new potatoes will not have room to form. You can plant them 4-6″ deep in trenches and pull dirt in to fill the trench as they grow, or just plant them very deeply (8″). The trench method produces an earlier crop. You can also cover them with a deep straw/ mulch as they grow, instead of just piling on dirt. Mounding soil on the base of plants is called “Hilling” or “Earthing.” Not to be confused with the ridiculous trending Memes about hippies to “connecting with the Earth.” If you Google “earthing,” you will find images of pasty people with toe rings running around barefoot, and websites trying to sell you blankets made of silver threads that will connect you with the energy of the Mother. If you need that type of “earthing”, harvest your potatoes with your bare hands and I’m sure you will be more connected with the Earth than you would be if you paid for one of those blankets.
- Fertilizing: Potatoes will produce well in average soil amended with compost. You can fertilize them lightly in early April to boost productivity. Do not plant them in soil that has been recently amended with manure or high nitrogen fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will produce big green tops and few potatoes.
- Cold Tolerance: If you are planting in zone 7 or 8, your potatoes will experience frost and possibly freezing weather. When a cold snap is in the forecast, hill up dirt or pile straw on top of your Potatoes plants. The plants will grow through whatever dirt you pile on top. If the leaves do freeze, the plants will still survive. They will send up new leaves and keep growing; but, regrowth of the vegetation above ground will slow down all the production going on under ground.
- Harvest: It is tempting to dig around the base of your plants to see if they are producing. DON’T DO IT! Leave them alone and have patience because the tiny potatoes will break off very easily. You can start digging small new potatoes when your plants start to bloom. If you aren’t looking closely, you might not notice their very tiny unimpressive flowers. When your potatoes have been blooming for a few weeks they will start to turn yellow and look sick. Don’t try to diagnose or save them, they are just ready to be harvested. When they look like they are barely hanging on to life, they are ready. Dig them very carefully, starting far away from the plants. Potatoes are still edible if you skewer them with a pitch fork or slice them with a shovel, just eat the damaged ones first. Digging up potatoes is probably the most fun you will have harvesting any crop. It will make you feel like a kid hunting Easter eggs! Have fun!
- Storing: New potatoes can be stored for 2-3 months in a dark and well ventilated area. Newly harvested potatoes can be cooked immediately, but may be less than desirable because of excess water. They are usually better if they are cured for a couple of weeks.
Potatoes are a very easy and fun crop for backyard farmers or row croppers. They require minimal work, but if grown in your regular garden beds, require thoughtful planning. They can have a negative effect on your soil if you do not practice proper crop rotation. Potatoes are in the nightshade family and can spread diseases to other nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants and peppers). It is best to avoid planting other nightshades in the same ground directly following a potato harvest. Follow your potato harvest with a top-dressing of compost and a crop of bush beans or southern peas. The legume rotation will help reduce diseases and fix nitrogen in your soil.