Potatoes are an easy crop that can be grown all year round. The first crop is planted in August or September for digging up in December, and the second in January to be ready for eating through winter. The difficulty with potatoes is finding disease-free seed potatoes. These generally have to be ordered from seed producers like Living Seeds (www.livingseeds.co.za) or from agricultural co-ops. Planting sprouted potatoes from the supermarket is possible but not safe; it can introduce disease that can spread to the rest of the vegetable garden.
How to grow potatoes:
With the exception of heavy clay soil, potatoes will grow in any soil that has been enriched with generous quantities of compost. Experts advise against the use of strong chemical fertilisers or fresh manure when growing potatoes, to prevent potential burning, deformity and secondary rot. Bonemeal and organic fertiliser can be added.
Choose a position in full sun. To plant them, place the firm tubers with the sprout side up into the soil to a depth of approximately 10cm and at intervals of at least 30cm. Leave a space of between 40 – 50cm between rows.
Once the shoots have pushed through the soil and gained some height, draw the soil up around each plant so that by the time it has matured there is a substantial mound of soil around the stem. This is the area in which the new tubers will form.
Work carefully around your potato plants when weeding. Avoid breaking any of the brittle shoots and ensure that the mounds of soil do not crack open, as this will allow millipedes and tuber moths easy access to the tubers. Nasturtiums planted near potatoes act as a pest repellent.
Water regularly throughout the growing stage and slowly reduce watering as the crop matures. Whether you are irrigating the crop or using a hand-held hosepipe, try at all times to keep the water under the leaves as wet leaves often succumb to fungal disease. Obviously one cannot prevent rain from damaging the foliage.
Harvesting is the most exciting part of growing potatoes and a wonderful way to involve the children in growing vegetables.
Using a four-pronged fork, dig straight down into the soil a short distance away from the plant and lever the fork backwards. Try to lift the entire plant from the soil. If you don’t succeed in bringing the entire plant to the surface, the soil will have at least broken open and you can get down on your hands and knees and lift your new potatoes from the soil by hand.
Once a row – or as many plants as you wish to harvest at any one time – has been removed, work over the entire area again with the fork to ensure that you have not missed any tubers.
In dry weather tubers can usually be left in the soil for some time provided you withhold water, but in KwaZulu-Natal the mole rats will decimate your crop before you can blink, so it would wise to lift the tubers and store them in a dry place.
Never leave pieces of potato or diseased tubers in the ground to rot, as this will encourage pests and diseases in the soil.