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Home Garden 1.0 - Planting Potatoes and Starting Seeds

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It has been a few days since the last HG column but that is because I am running about in step with Mother Nature, and the past few days it has been raining all day and below freezing at night.

So we have been starting indoor seedlings and getting cold weather seeds into the ground.

Seedlings are easy; get some good sterile seed-starter soil (about your only necessary expense) and some sort of pot or even old cans/cut-off milk cartons or bottles, or invest $2 in a plastic tray and plant inserts.

seedtray
Seed starter tray with excess plastic to keep soil moist until plants emerge.
Photo by John McCormick, Highland Ranch Sanctuary, www.15767.com

Just make certain anything you use has a drain hole in the bottom - both to keep from flooding out the young plants and because you will bottom-water most of the time. Other than rice, most food plants will die if you submerge their roots for a long time.

Initially you can wet the soil but after you cover the seed (see seed packet for depth) you want to be able to sit the planter in water - this may involve a sheet of plastic under the pots as seen here.

When cutting for each tray, I leave the painter's tarp plastic ($1 or less for one 8x10 sheet) long enough to pull over the new seed bed and mark the plants on the plastic - keep warm and uncover periodically to prevent mold. Again, a garbage bag works fine also - just make it new; seedlings are delicate and disease-prone.

There are hundreds of online resources for seed starting, check out several but don't get carried away with their technical or expensive suggestions.

http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/tomato/2005015135020413.html
http://www.organicgardening.com/feature/0,7518,s-5-19-178,00.html
http://gardening.about.com/od/gardenprimer/ss/SeedStarting.htm

AND, for an especially neat way to make your own planting pots from old newspapers, be sure to check out:

http://www.ehow.com/video_1745_create-seed-starting.html

Like I say, don't be misled by expensive advertised tools you don't need, a wooden tool to do this costs upwards of $30 - ehow.com's method costs $ZERO.


How to Create Seed-Starting Pots From Newspapers - powered by eHow.com

Potato Planting

The other thing we can do this early in central PA is plant potatoes, thanks to the black plastic tarp that kept the ground from becoming soaked and also killed off the weeds and grass, as well as warming the soil.

If you are on an extreme budget, plant those old potatoes in the pantry - the ones with big eyes growing but no sign of mold or rot.

What we are planting are certified "seed" potatoes. Potato seeds are simply selected, disease-free potatoes.

Now the hard part - Planting!

seedpotato
You hardly even need to bend over, just drop the potato seed and push it to the right place with your foot.
Photo by John McCormick, Highland Ranch Sanctuary, www.15767.com

Pull up the black plastic, rake over any dying weeds, and drop seed potatoes on the bare ground separated by about 18 inches in all directions.

If you have straw, especially old straw that animals (not dogs) have been using for bedding, pile it deep over the potatoes.

seedpotato2
Adding the straw.
Photo by John McCormick, Highland Ranch Sanctuary, www.15767.com

seedpotato3
Throwing is best to get it nice and fluffy - that protects from cold nights and makes it easier for the plant to push through the hay. Ever seen a root break through concrete? So have I - nature is a powerful force, but we are making it easier because we want to get some food growing.
Photo by John McCormick, Highland Ranch Sanctuary, www.15767.com

If not, hoe up dirt over the seed in hills.

Above all, potatoes need to be kept from the sun. The green growth and green on some potatoes is mildly poisonous, which is why we eat beet and turnip greens as well as dandelion greens but not potato greens.

The straw and/or dirt will also keep the seeds from freezing. Pulling the black plastic back over the whole thing is a good idea at night or on cold days.

That's it; your potatoes are planted!

Now if you till the soil heavily and dig holes to bury the seed you will probably get better yield, but you will also lose some when digging in the fall and that digging is a LOT of work; even here, where we do it with a skid loader and pick potatoes out of the raised bucket, it simply isn't much fun.

If you are wondering; on big potato farms they either till the rows of potatoes out and hand-pick them, or scoop up the rows onto a conveyer belt. Using the straw method, you just lift up the straw, pick a few young potatoes, and drop the straw back to continue growing.

By the way, if you aren't blessed with lots of peed-upon straw bedding, you can buy bales of straw inexpensively at a lot of places even around cities. Given a choice, pick wheat straw; the usual alternative, oat straw (where oatmeal grows) is much coarser and is good for other jobs.

You can start with a layer of old dry leaves and build it up with dried mowed grass also, adding more around the green plants as they grow up through the bedding.

You can even grow potatoes in barrels, starting with a layer of soil in the bottom (don't forget the drain hole), and adding more soil/compost as the plants grow. This can work but takes a bit of practice - the big upside is that it takes no ground space and at the end of the season you just dump out the barrel, getting nice soil and, with luck, a pile of potatoes.

You will want some "red" potatoes for potato salad and that new potato taste. I also suggest perhaps Yukon Gold - great for mashing and expensive in stores.

Ten pounds of seed potatoes will probably produce 100 lbs. of eating potatoes, even if you don't give them much care - and, by the way, too much fertilizer will cause hollow potatoes so don't get carried away but it is unlikely you could enrich soil that much.

Note that desperate farmers had been known to plant potato peels. If you buy seed potatoes you can cut larger ones into small pieces as long as each one has one eye. Just leave the pieces out to air dry all cut surfaces for a full day - otherwise they are likely to get a fungus.

Also, check around for potato (and other) farms that let you "glean" or clean up after the automated machinery is finished. Although you will probably get food grown in chemicals, this is what you buy in the store anyway unless it is, like ours, an organic operation.

John McCormick, Member, National Press Club of Washington and Harvard Extension alumnus, is a reporter, /science/medical columnist and finance and social commentator, with 17,000+ bylined stories. Contact John through NewsBlaze. Read more stories by John McCormick.

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