Right now, we are in the process of getting ready for another spring crop, but before we get to the spring crop there are some vegetables that need to be planted this month, such as the potato.
Potatoes come in many different sizes, shapes and colors. They have various maturity times, are used in different ways, and are an excellent source of nutrition.
Potatoes can be boiled, baked and fried. Red- and white-skinned varieties are often preferred for boiling because they have a creamy texture and hold their shape when cooked. This texture is the result of low starch content, often called low specific gravity. These are the kinds of potatoes that do best in Georgia.
In contrast, russet-skinned varieties might have high specific gravity, giving them a more granular or mealy texture, suitable for baking or frying. Russet types don't do well in our climate.
We can start planting early potatoes when the soil temperature reaches 45 degrees, usually before the danger of the last spring frost has passed. Our soils typically reach this temperature in mid- to late February. When planting this early, we can still get light to heavy frost. This might kill back above-ground stems during some seasons, but new growth takes place at the ground line, and the plant will still produce tubers.
Growing potatoes is possible from true seeds produced in the flower of the plant, but home gardeners can obtain better results growing plants from pieces of a tuber with at least one lateral bud or eye, called seed pieces. This practice is called vegetative propagation.
Unfortunately, plants that are propagated vegetatively are more likely to harbor plant diseases, especially viruses, than true seeds. To avoid this problem, it is best to buy certified seed potatoes. Certified seed potatoes have been inspected by a certification agency at least twice during the growing season to ensure that any disease present is within strict tolerances.
Potatoes from the supermarket should not be used because they might carry viral diseases or be treated with a sprout inhibitor that can prevent the tubers from germinating.
When you prepare the potatoes for planting, they should be cut so that each seed piece has at least two eyes. Each piece should weigh at least 1.5 ounces (about the size of a small egg). Make the cuts to expose the least amount of cut surface. During cutting, discard any that show dark rings or discoloration inside.
Seed pieces should be planted immediately. If weather delays planting, cut seed may be stored for a few days at 55 to 60 degrees. High humidity (85 percent) is recommended to promote surface healing.
There also are companies that offer potato eyes, but these are not recommended. They do not contain sufficient reserve food sturdy plants.
There are many ways to plant potatoes. The most common is planting them in rows in the garden. About 12 pounds of potatoes are needed per 100 feet of row, and rows should be spaced 30 to 36 inches apart.
Although potatoes can be planted on flat ground, forming a hill around the plant is preferable. Hills provide room for developing tubers to expand and prevent greening by the sun. Hilling is also important for drainage. Because rain collects in gardens with heavy soils, blocking the flow of air to the plant roots, a hilled row of potatoes will shed water. Hilling keeps the soil better drained and more productive because the earth will not pack around the plants.
Potato hills can be formed by mounding dirt around the seed piece, or they can be formed after the plants are up. The hill should be formed within four weeks of planting.
Hilling potatoes once or twice during the season will greatly improve production. The additional loose soil allows the developing tubers to expand easily up into the growing areas. Also, hilling buries and kills weeds around the plants before they become a serious and time-consuming problem.
Potatoes are considered heavy feeders and require a good amount of fertilizer. However, over-fertilizing will produce a heavy top growth and few tubers. A soil sample will help determine the amount of fertilizer to use. Potatoes need a soil with a pH from 4.8 to 5.4. If the soil pH gets above 5.5, the potatoes can get a disease called scab that attacks the tubers and causes them to be deformed and more subject to rot. If fertilizing with manures, the manures need to be completely composted.
Columbia County Extension Agent Charles Phillips can be reached at (706) 868-3413 or by e-mail at email@example.com. The extension's Web address is www.ugaextension.com/columbia.
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