Letter Re: Some Experience With Potatoes

Good Morning Captain Rawles,
How would you like your potatoes this morning? We have finished digging our potatoes and stored them. We usually plant a Lasota Red type of potato. We purchase them in 50 pound sacks at the local feed store. “Planting potatoes” are different from the potatoes you buy in the store to eat. Potatoes from the store are treated with some kind of food grade additive to prevent them from sprouting for a while. If you plant these, there will usually be very few that come up. However, if you have had them for a while and the “eyes” have sprouted, they will do well. In our area some grocery stores sell planting potatoes to eat at times.

Planting time depends on the soil temperature. Without a soil thermometer, we usually plant ours when the first Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis L.) bloom in the south which is usually at the end of February. The red bud tree bloom is determined by the soil temp and amount of sunlight.

To prepare a potato for planting, you slice or cut the potato in such a way that each piece will have an eye on it. Once they are cut, the pieces need to sit a few days for the starch in the potato to form a “seal”. The cut will turn darker and shrink a little. That’s when they are ready to plant. They should be planted roughly 12 inches apart, 1/2″ deep with the eyes up. The eye is where the potato shoot will come out and up through the soil. If they sit too long, little hair like roots will appear on the cut side. Then they need to be planted quickly.

Potatoes require a lot of fertilizer to make a crop. My father would use cow manure in the bottom of his row that he opened with a middle buster about 8 inches deep. He would shovel the cow manure into the row, then use a small sweep type plow mounted on his tractor to mix  the soil and manure so that the potato “seed” would not be in pure manure which would burn the “seed”. The cow manure he used was aged and dried. He also used bagged sheep manure from big box stores if it was at a reasonable price. I use commercial 13-13-13 now with good results. This type fertilizer must be mixed with the soil also. One 50 pound bag will do about 6 rows 150 foot long. Once the potato plants get about 12 inches tall, I place a light band of fertilizer close beside the plants and then cover with dirt with a small sweep type plow. The potatoes will be blooming about this time. When store bought fertilizer is no longer available, I will go back to manure myself.

The potatoes must be checked regularly after they bloom. Potato bugs can reduce your yield and if bad enough, even kill the plants. You should see cracks in the ground between the hills of potatoes as the potatoes under the soil start reaching a size of two inches. They can continue to grow until the vines start to turn light green or yellow. You should scratch around a plant or two occasionally to check the condition of the potatoes. The potatoes you uncover will provide an early taste of things to come. You need to be looking for white spots or bumps on the potatoes. Once you find these, the potatoes must be dug because they will start rotting in the ground. The best way to do this is with a tractor and a middle buster with the tip set below the potatoes. A shovel or a potato fork can also be used if you are without a tractor. Once potatoes are dug, they should be spread out flat on a dry surface (no piles). This can be on a sheet of plywood or another surface other than concrete. There is danger of the concrete sweating which will cause the potatoes to rot or sprout. They must also be protected from freezing, blowing rain and direct sunlight. You are looking for a cool dry place. In the south, there is not a cool place outside during the summer. I have mine stored on some slotted metal racks (1/8″ round wire). I have some on a layer of used paper feed sacks on a platform about three feet above a dirt floor. This lets the breezes blow across them. The metal roof of this building is about 10 feet above the racks, so they are not affected by the radiant heat from the sun. Check the potatoes regularly to remove any rotted potatoes. If they touch a good potato, it will rot also.

When I stored my potatoes, I separated the ones smaller than 1 inch diameter. I will use them to plant a fall crop in September or next spring. I planted extra to have seed for next year, if there are none to be had in the stores for whatever reason. The 50 pounds I planted yielded about 9 each 5 gallon buckets. This would be roughly a 6 month supply for four people. The yield was reduced because we had a severe attack of potato bugs. I treated the plants twice with a mild insect dust. If I had no bugs, I should have made 20 of the 5 gallon buckets. This is another problem to plan for in the future. I suppose I could make some chicken tractors and let our chickens work on the bugs. When our retreat is fully manned, I will need to plant at least 150 pounds of potatoes.

Now back to the breakfast question. I like what I call country fried potatoes for breakfast. You take some new potatoes, slice them about 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick. Apply salt and black pepper, then roll in flour or shake in a bag of flour. Then you fry them in oil until golden brown. Once they are done, I like to eat them with a couple of home raised yard eggs fried sunny side up on top of the potatoes.
If you have left over mashed potatoes from the night before, I like to make potato pancakes. You mix your mashed potatoes with a little chopped onion, a spoon or two of flour, and a yard egg. Fry in oil until golden brown. My kids liked them with ketchup. – M.E.R.