How to grow Irish potatoes in red clay

You can have the luck of the Irish with potatoes grown in Piedmont clay

CorrespondentMarch 17, 2012 

  • What to plant Don’t try to grow a crop from spuds brought at the grocery store; such potatoes aren’t suitable for the garden. Go with certified “seed” potatoes, which sprout readily and resist disease. In this region, some of the better varieties – and the easiest to find – are “Red Pontiac,” “Yukon Gold” and (my favorite) “Kennebec.”
  • More information Where to plant Choose a sunny site, preferably one that is well-draining. With a shovel or pick, break up the upper 2 or 3 inches of soil to remove weeds, grass, rocks, dog bones and other debris. Then, sprinkle an application of common 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer (about 2 pounds per 30 to 40 feet of row) and rake it into the ground.
  • More information Prepare to plant A day or two before you plant, slice the seed potatoes into chunks about 2 inches in diameter. Each piece should have at least two “eyes.” Leave the cut tubers in a dim, cool place such as a storage shed until planting. This helps prevent rot. While you wait for the potato seeds to cure, buy a bale of straw (not pine straw), the secret ingredient to making your urban potato patch work.
  • More information Enjoy your harvest Wonder if your patch is producing? When plants begin to flower (about eight weeks after planting), stick your hand into the straw and carefully prowl around. You will likely find some small spuds – new potatoes, as they are called. Pull some out, find your favorite potato recipe, and enjoy. It normally takes a potato patch three to four months to fully mature. If you do everything right, you can expect a 15 to 30 pounds of spuds for every 10 feet of row – a bounty that would certainly make Irish eyes smile!
  • More information How to plant Place cured potato seeds cut ends down in the prepared soil, pressing them slightly into the earth about 10 inches apart. Scatter a 6-inch layer of straw over and around the potatoes. When plants begin to emerge from the top of the straw, let them have a few days in the sun, then add more straw, leaving just the top 1 to 2 inches of new foliage exposed. As plants grow, do this once or twice more until you have straw mounds 12 to 15 inches high. Five to six weeks after planting, sprinkle a cup of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer on every 10 feet of row. Also, if the rains don’t come, water the straw mounds at least once every seven to 10 days.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, creating an Irish potato patch would be a fitting project to launch the 2012 gardening season. But, first, let’s dispel some myths:

• Potatoes are only grown in Ireland and Idaho.

• The potato is better suited for northern climates.

• It is impossible to raise potatoes in thick, sticky Piedmont clay.

Sure, a lot of spuds are grown in Ireland and Idaho, and these northern locations might suggest potatoes favor colder climates, but this is not true because Southern gardeners have grown ’taters for centuries.

As for the difficulty of growing potatoes in the gooey yuck we call Piedmont clay, well, there is a bit of truth to that. Spuds planted in such inhospitable soil will struggle to produce a crop, but smart gardeners know the solution is to add compost, quality topsoil and other organic amendments to improve the soil and break apart the tough clay. Unfortunately, it can take years to create suitable soil deep enough for proper backyard spud production.

But there is another way to grow potatoes – one that involves minimal digging for maximum production. And such a potato patch can be started this weekend. Prime planting time is now through the first week of April.

The secret? Use straw to grow potatoes above, rather than in, the soil. Here’s how:

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to: askthegardener@newsobserver.com.

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