Spring is the perfect time to plant potatoes – those slightly unsightly but extremely versatile family members of tobacco and tomatoes.
Potatoes are not a good choice for small gardens but you can follow the example of thousands of women in townships and plant a tuber or two in a container – even a tire. When the first consignment starts to flower, plant a few more tubers so that you can have your own stock up your sleeve when family and neighbors start complaining about the price of potatoes being ‘ridiculously high again’.
• Potatoes are sensitive to frost and grow best in the colder months (spring or autumn are perfect, while November and December are too hot). The soil must drain well and should ideally be prepared one to three months before the tubers are planted. If this slipped your mind, simply dig the soil well and work in lots of compost and some superphosphate.
• Buy tubers from a registered grower who will help you choose the best cultivar for your region and requirements. Otherwise, you can buy healthy tubers at the grocery store. Keep them on a kitchen shelf until shoots form, then cut them into pieces – each piece should have at least two eyes – and let them dry. The tubers can now be planted about 12cm deep with the shoots pointing upwards. Keep the rows at least 90cm apart to make the ridging easier and cover the tubers without compacting the soil. Immediately scatter bait for cutworms.
• When the plants are about 15cm high you can start ridging them. Work the soil up on both sides of the plants to form a mound at the top – the tips should only protrude about 4-5cm above the ground. Scatter a teaspoon of KAN around each plant, water and repeat the ridging process every three weeks until the plants start to flower after about nine weeks.
• Remember, potatoes do not like drought and must remain moist. The plants sometimes get fungal diseases and should preferably not be watered in the afternoon.
Potatoes can easily be planted in large, deep containers such as tires. Plant three tubers with sprouting eyes in a tire and fill it up with soil. When the plants reach a height of about 75mm you can add another tire and fill it until only about 4-5cm protrude above the ground. Repeat this process until you have four tires on top of each other.
• About six weeks after flowering you can remove the first young potatoes. Approximately 3-4 months after planting the tubers you will find that the leaves start to die, the plants stop growing and the potatoes will become harder. You now have about three weeks to remove the rest.
• If you have sandy soil use a fork to lift out the potatoes and use a spade for clay-like soil. Let the potatoes dry in the sun but pick your harvest up before dark. Remember, only pick enough potatoes for your immediate requirements as they always remain fresher when left in the soil.
Pests and Plagues
• Fungal diseases sometimes appear but the most important rascal is the potato tuber moth. Although chemical agents are available, ridging is the best way to make them feel unwelcome. The moths can lay their eggs up to 5cm deep in sandy soil – so if your potatoes are deep enough under the soil the larvae will not be able to reach them.
• Immediately pick leaves that show signs of disease and burn them – never throw them on the compost heap.
• Do not plant onions close to potatoes as they have an adverse effect on the taste. However you can plant green beans on both sides – they lure beetles away.
• Don’t plant potatoes in the same soil time after time. Rather follow up a potato harvest with legumes or vegetables with a smaller appetite, such as carrots, beetroot, radishes, lettuce, parsley or herbs.