Fall Potato Planting

Bob Smith
Adams County Master Gardener

Early fall, like early spring, is the time we start to watch those night time temperature forecasts. Should we let green tomatoes ripen a little more or pick them now and wrap them to ripen indoors? It is the time to rate each variety for quality and yield. Plant again next year, or find something better? We start thinking about next spring.

This year think about spring potatoes--not spring -planted potatoes but spring harvested potatoes. One of the all-time great potato dishes is new green peas creamed with new spring potatoes with maybe just a slight touch of new spring onion. The problem has been having those new potatoes to dig when those beautiful spring peas are ready to shell.

This area is fortunate in rarely having long 0 F or lower cold spells that freeze the ground much below 12". About ten years ago a seed potato catalog hinted that fall planted potatoes might be able to produce a spring crop as far north as Zone 6. We aren't Zone 6 but we're close and the thought of having my own spring potatoes to cream with my spring peas was enough to make me take the bait. The great part was that it worked!

Fall planted potatoes nearly always have a moisture advantage over spring planted ones. Once potatoes bloom and tubers begin to form they need about a 1" of rain per week for best development. In these past 10 years there have been many more weeks in the spring with that1" of water than in late July and August, time for those spring planted potatoes to size up. Another advantage seems to be that the plants are fully developed before the Potato Bugs seem to be aware of it. Rarely have I had Potato Beetles on the spring potatoes.

Now is the time to order the seed potatoes. Seed potato growers are harvesting this years crop. Choose an early variety and be sure they are USDA Certified Seed Potatoes. Red skin Potatoes seem to be best for early potatoes. Dug at pea harvest time the skins are thin and almost just rub off. My favorite is Caribe an old New England variety. The skin on young ones is a beautiful purple but the flesh is white and fairly mealy for an early potato. You will need about 2 1/2 lbs for 20' row Order them now to ship as soon as possible so they have time to sprout before you plant them toward the end of November or early December . A firm fresh apple put in the bag with them seems to help the sprouting.

As you are cleaning up the garden prepare your planting area. Avoid the area where you had your tomatoes this year. Tomato and Potato plantings should be on a 3 or better, a 4 year cycle as to location. At your selected location, ditch 10" deep on each side of the row you will plant, throwing soil over onto the row. If you plan 2 rows, make them 2 1/2' to 3' apart with the ditches outside each row. Ditches are needed to keep seed from standing in heavy wet soil during winter months. The only failure I have had was when late with preparations. I didn't ditch by the row. Add well composted material--never ever fresh manure or un-composted greens, to the row plus 1 lb. 5-10-10 and about 1/2 cup of Epsom salts. Till or dig it well into row. Do not add lime. Potatoes prefer slightly acid soil. After leveling off, make a 4"-6" furrow in each row. You are ready to plant when your potatoes are ready.

The potatoes are ready when they begin to show sprouts about ¼ or more long. Seed should be about 1 oz. minimum in size--like a small egg. Large potatoes must be cut, each piece with 2 eyes if possible and a portion of the potato "core". Some think a light dusting of sulfur is helpful; some hold them overnight to dry the cut surfaces; others plant them as they cut them.

Making sure you still have a 4'" deep furrow, plant the pieces or small potatoes 4" deep in the furrow about 12" apart and cover lightly with soil. Then fill the furrow with a mulch of the last grass and leaf cutting from your lawn shredded coarsely. No shredder? Don't rake the leaves. Cut them and the grasses with mower set high then go over them again with mower set lower. When furrow is full, cover rest of row and ditches alongside. The mulch will prevent freezing the ground around the seed. In the last 10 years soil temp at seed level has never gone below 37F during the coldest spells. If you have vole problems sprinkle some castor oil-base grit on each side of row.

Potatoes will still root a little at temps just above 40F and will have some roots and shoots developed before spring comes. Don't be in a hurry to remove mulch. Watch for tips to appear here and there. They can be nipped by a heavy frost so pull some mulch over them if necessary to protect. After real growth starts begin to hill up around the shoots with mulch and soil but don't cover leaves. Depending on spring temps you will start seeing buds then blossoms some time in May--a sign tubers are beginning to form and then about the time pea picking starts you should begin to find those ping pong size beauties to go with the peas. Dig carefully--fingers recommended and don't dig them all from one hill. Leave a few. You will want some big ones later.

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