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Growing Potatoes

potatoes
Bandicooting potatoes. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

The humble potato is a staple in the diets of most Australians. It makes sense then to grow them at home. The benefits of a freshly dug spud go beyond the incredible flavour; when you grow your own potatoes, you know exactly what type of soil they came from and what they have been exposed to. By avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides you can eat your potatoes, skin and all, knowing that you are getting maximum nutrition without ingesting any nasty chemicals.

Types

Originally from South America, there are around 3000 varieties of potatoes worldwide, with around 20 varieties to choose from in Australia. Choosing a variety to grow will depend on how you like to eat them. Floury potatoes with their higher starch content are good for mashing, baking or making chips. Waxy types hold together better after cooking and are good for potato salad or gratin. Whatever variety you choose to grow at home, you’ll be doing yourself a big favour by avoiding the conventionally grown potato as it is routinely featured in ‘top 10 veg to avoid’ lists due to chemical use in production.

Climate

Potatoes like cool weather. They grow best where it’s cooler and the soil is good. Having said that, potatoes are also grown in the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland during winter, so with a bit of management you can grow this handy vegetable wherever you are.

In cold and temperate climates, plant your potatoes in late July or August and into September. If you experience frosts, plant a few weeks before the last frosts are due so the potato plant doesn’t come up until the frosts have gone. If you plant too early and the frost knocks them around, they will come back but you won’t get as good a yield. You can also do a second planting in mid-February, however this autumn crop will not yield as much. In warmer climates, plant between March and June. Potatoes need about 3–4 months to fully grow, and different varieties cope better in different climates, so check with your local nursery.

Soil Preparation

Potatoes prefer a loose, deep sandy loamy soil. Ideally, try to rotate round your garden beds each year—this way you are less susceptible to disease. Potatoes are a big feeder, and will grow best in soil full of organic matter. If you can, first dig in some well-rotted compost and let that sit for a few weeks before planting for best results.

Clockwise from left: The potato plant; Potatoes planted in a row, ready to be covered over. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Plant And Hill

Plant your potatoes by scratching a hole every metre, leaving 1.5 m between rows. If you plant closer they tend to crowd each other; you’ll have a lot more success with this spacing. You can cut the shoots off potatoes and just plant the shoots, or plant the whole potato. Then, cover your potatoes with soil.

The potato plant will appear out of the ground after a month. Once they are 15 cm high, go along with a hilling hoe and cover or ‘hill’ your potatoes, making a mound over them. Don’t completely cover them, just make sure you have hilled them up well. If you don’t hill your potatoes then some will be exposed to the weather and they will go green and rot. If you let them get too high before hilling you will damage the roots.

You only need to hill potatoes once. Keep your potatoes weed-free to start with. Then leave them and let the weeds go. If the tops of your potatoes have died off and you have plenty of weeds around them it’s less likely pests will get in. Potatoes can get a bit stressed by the growing conditions. They are a bit fussy and prone to disease. Don’t over water your potatoes, and plant them in rich, well-draining soil.

Growing From ‘Seed’

If you buy certified seed potatoes from your local farm supplies store or nursery, then you know they are disease-free. You might occasionally see potatoes in stores that have sprouted and are being sold for growing, but unless you get certified seed you don’t really know what you’re getting. You may have bought potatoes to eat and left them in a cupboard where they started to sprout. These potatoes can be planted, but the same applies (you won’t be sure you are getting disease- free potatoes).

Of course you can save the potatoes you have grown yourself and replant them. There are even stories about Australians in the Depression who would plant just the potato peelings and grow a fine crop of potatoes from them.

Pests & Disease

Ladybirds are the main problem with potato growing. There are good ladybirds and bad. The good ones are smaller with 6–8 spots, the bad ones are bigger with 28 spots. If you go out early in the morning you will see the ladybird grubs; they are white with black spines and will skeletonise the bush. You can’t see them in the daytime as they hide around the stem.

The most organic method of getting rid of the 28 spotted ladybird is to hand squash them; the beetles, the larvae and the eggs. If you get sick of doing this, you could try a chilli or garlic spray.

If the tops of the potatoes are exposed you’re more likely to get potato moth. When the top dies off, the moth lays an egg in the potato, but if your potatoes are well covered the larvae will not reach them. Blackleg will attack larger potatoes in hot and humid and wet weather (the Sebago variety is more susceptible), although the smaller chat size rarely go rotten. Fusarium, or dry rot, is another disease, a fungus that depends on the growing condition (a good reason not to over water).

Brown fleck is when you cut the potatoes open and there are brown spots inside. This happens in hot, dry and sandy soil, or after a drought. It can be avoided by applying enough calcium to the soil. Eel worm, or potato cyst nematode, is another pest that can be an issue, so ensure you rotate your potato crop to fresh soil every season.

potatoes
Freshly dug potatoes. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Harvest & Storage

Harvest your potatoes a month after the tops have died off. You can ‘bandicoot the bushes’ to see if they are ready. This old saying means to dig around some of the bushes and harvest a few potatoes to see what they are like. We used to bandicoot the bushes when we were looking for a few early potatoes for Christmas dinner. You can tell if you have harvested too early as you will wash the spuds and their skins just flake off.

To store your potatoes, keep them in a cool dark place. If you want to eat them and they are starting to sprout, just rub the young shoots off with your hands. If you don’t do this they will shrink and shrivel. Store them in a cellar, rub the shoots off regularly, and even if a few go bad, you will be able to store and eat the majority of your potatoes all winter.

Recipe Idea: Crispy potato cakes

Grate three large potatoes, then squeeze the water out with a tea towel. In a bowl, add a tablespoon of melted butter, an egg, a few tablespoons of flour and season with salt and pepper. If you’d like to vary your potato cakes, you could add grated onion, chopped garlic, and chopped herbs such as chives and parsley. Heat a heavy fry pan and add some oil. Drop heaped tablespoons of mixture into the pan and flatten. Fry for a few minutes on each side, until crispy and golden.

Terry Williams has been growing potatoes and selling them at farmers’ markets for 15 years in the Bega Valley, NSW.

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