Did you know that each American eats an average of 125 pounds of potatoes per year? Fortunately, there are many varieties that thrive in the Florida garden so you can grow them yourself. Growing russet potatoes is less common here since they grow best in northern climates, so most southern gardeners choose to grow white- or red-skinned potatoes instead.
Potato (Solanum tuberosum) varieties fall into four main categories: white-skinned, red/blue-skinned, russet, and new varieties. Within these categories, there are three types of potatoes: chipping, tablestock, or all purpose. Chipping potatoes are best for frying into chips or fries, while tablestock are meant for baking and mashing. All-purpose potatoes are suited to any use. Read on to discover which varieties are ideal for your garden.
- White-skinned: Most commercial growers choose ‘LaChipper’ since it does well in our winters. ‘Atlantic’ is another popular option that is prized for its exceptional flavor. Both ‘LaChipper’ and ‘Atlantic’ are chipping varieties. ‘Yukon Gold’ is a relatively new variety that you’ve probably seen at your local grocery store. This tablestock variety is praised for its golden flesh and good flavor.
- Red/blue-skinned: ‘Red LaSoda’ is the primary commercial variety here since it matures early and provides solid yields. In South Florida, ‘LaRouge’ is the most prized variety for its ruby skin and ideal boiling quality. Two popular blue options are ‘Adirondack Blue’ and ‘Peter Wilcox’. These varieties are all purpose, meaning they can be baked or fried.
- Russet: While we mentioned previously that russet potatoes don’t perform as well in Florida, there are still some varieties that can work. The key is to choose varieties that mature relatively early to make sure harvest happens during the cooler months. One such variety is ‘Russet Norkotah’, which matures in only 100-115 days and yields a large quantity of potatoes that are ideal for baking.
- New varieties: Many exciting new varieties are being cultivated around the world that can be fun to try here too. They may be a different color (i.e., blue or purple flesh) or size/shape (i.e., fingerling). Keep an eye out for these options, but make sure the ones you choose are a short-season variety.
Planting and Care
Planting times vary based on your location, but typically potatoes are planted in January or February for a harvest between April through June. Choose a planting location in full sun with loose, well-drained, and slightly acidic soil (pH of five to six). Potatoes can’t grow in flooded conditions, so keep this in mind when choosing your planting site. When building your beds, form hills that are at least 10-12 inches above the soil level to enhance drainage in heavy or poorly drained soil. For sandy types, amend with organic matter to help reduce nematodes and increase the soil’s water-holding capacity. Potatoes need plenty of nutrients to be healthy. Complete a soil test before planting to see whether your soil is deficient in nutrients and develop a fertilization plan.
Instead of growing potatoes from seeds like most vegetables, they’re grown from “seed potatoes.” You’ve probably seen sprouts starting to grow from old potatoes before; that’s actually how you start potato plants. Seed potatoes with sprouts are cut into pieces, and then those pieces are planted.
Although it’s tempting to grow potato plants from your old grocery store potatoes, it’s best to avoid this. Grocery store potatoes could have diseases or be treated with sprout inhibitors. Those varieties may also be suited to colder climates. Instead, pick up certified seed potatoes from a reputable garden store.
The seed potatoes you order will arrive as whole, dormant potatoes. If you’d like, you can help your seed potatoes break out of dormancy by placing them in a well-lit location at room temperature for a few days (just keep them out of direct sunlight). Next, cut your potatoes into egg-sized pieces with a clean knife (usually into quarters). The goal is to have at least one “eye” per seed piece. The eyes are the bud locations on the surface of the potato from which new plants sprout. After cutting, leave your seed pieces in a dark, well-ventilated place for a day or two to “heal” the pieces. This will help prevent rotting when you plant them.
Once your seed pieces are properly cured, it’s time to plant. Plant your seed pieces six to eight inches apart and four inches deep. Your rows should be at least 36 inches apart. The seed pieces should be arranged so the cut side is down and the eyes are facing up. Once you see sprouts emerging from the soil, pile another two to three inches of soil over them. This will help ensure that the tubers never surface and become sunburned.
Since potatoes are planted during the drier portion of the year, your plants will likely need supplemental irrigation for a good harvest. The goal is to sustain moderate soil moisture levels. Overirrigation can lead to root and tuber rot, while underirrigation can limit tuber size or cause them to form odd shapes. The sweet spot is right in the middle. Freezes can also harm potato plants, so protect them if a hard freeze is immanent.
Either use mulch or hand-till to keep the weeds at bay. If using tools to weed, be careful not to injure your plants including tubers that are just below the surface. If you choose to use herbicides, always follow the label directions and make sure it is safe to use around potatoes.
Problematic insects that you may encounter include: Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, aphids, leafhoppers, nematodes, fire ants, and wireworms. Crop rotation will help prevent pest infestations, so only plant potatoes in the same spot once every three years. For larger pests, hand-picking them from the plants can suffice. A widespread problem may need help from pesticides. Again, always use care and follow the label.
Common fungal diseases in potatoes are early blight, late blight, Rhizoctonia, Botrytis, Fusarium, and Pythium. Potential viruses include leafroll, mosaic viruses, and tobacco rattle virus. The symptom of tobacco rattle virus is corky ringspot (found inside the potato), and it is spread by the stubby root nematode. Scout regularly and remove infected leaves by hand or with pruners (making sure to sanitize between plants to prevent disease spread). Overhead irrigation encourages disease development, so irrigate in the furrows between planting hills instead. Irrigating in the morning is best to ensure leaves will quickly dry. Rotten potatoes, plants, and other residue should be destroyed since they can harbor disease. Call your county Extension office for advice if pests or diseases cause problems in your potato patch.
Potatoes are usually ready for harvest after 80 to 115 days, depending on the variety. If you plan to consume them immediately, go ahead and harvest them once the tubers are fully formed. If you would like to store them, wait for the plant to die and then add another two to three weeks before harvesting so the tubers can fully mature (you can also just cut the top of the plants off instead of waiting for them to die to speed up this process). Mature tubers have a tougher skin that isn’t easily rubbed off.
When it’s time to harvest, carefully dig up the tubers and remove them from the root system. Discard any remaining seed pieces and green potatoes. Green potatoes contain a toxin called solanine that is toxic even at low levels, so never eat green potatoes.
Store mature potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated space for about two weeks so any cuts and bruises can heal. Then, they can be moved to a final storage location that has high relative humidity, good air circulation, and cool temperatures. Any damaged or rotten potatoes should be thrown out. If you decide to wash them, allow them to dry completely before storing. In ideal conditions, mature potatoes can be stored like this for six months or more.
For more advice on growing potatoes, contact the experts at your county Extension office.
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