Gaia Grows: Sustainable Spuds of the West

PHOTO BY NEDNAPA / SHUTTERSTOCK. Fresh organic potatoes in the field.

Kathleen Miller, Gaia Grows, Gaia’s Farm & Gardens
Sustainable Living, Gardening & Farming in Northern Colorado

Sustainable living, gardening and farming is based on an understanding of ecosystems, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. It has been defined as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that will last over time. Having a harmonious relationship with Gaia (Mother Earth) provides food for people, enhances the natural environment upon which the community depends, makes efficient use of resources and integrates natural cycles that sustain economic viability as well as enhances the quality of life for the community as a whole.

Sustainable Spuds of the West

PHOTO BY NEDNAPA / SHUTTERSTOCK. Young potato plant in the field on an organic farm.

April is the month to get your spring on and start some sustainable spuds in your home garden or farm in Northern Colorado. Potatoes are one of the world’s major food crops and are related to the eggplant, pepper and tomato. Though killed by frost, potatoes do best in cool weather. They thrive in well-drained, loose, slightly acidic soil enriched with compost. If you have the space in your garden, potatoes are a rewarding crop, for the harvest is well worth the upfront time you invest when planting this tremendously terrific tuber.  

Potatoes can be raised from sets (small tubers) or seed potatoes (medium sized tubers breed for propagation). A set is used whole; seed potatoes are cut into pieces the size of a small hen egg or an ice cube, each containing one or more sets of eyes. Potatoes sold in grocery stores are not recommended as seed pieces for they are often contaminated with disease and many treated with chemicals that inhibit them from sprouting.  

If you are using seed potatoes, spread the seed pieces on a clean surface or on a sheet of newspaper, and allow the cut surfaces to dry out for 1 to 10 days. This permits the cut surfaces to heal and reduces the chance of infection from decay. Plant sets or seed pieces 3 inches deep and 12-18 inches apart, in rows 24-36 inches apart. The tubers form close to the surface of the soil, so cultivate no more than an inch deep to avoid injuring them. As the vines grow, mound up soil. Mulch with straw or compost to shield the tubers from light: sunlight not only turns potatoes green, but produces a poisonous alkaloid called solanine in the green portions. If a potato should have a green portion, cut it away before cooking.

For new potatoes, harvest when vines blossom. For mature potatoes, intended for storage, dig up when the vines have died. Dry tubers for several hours, and store them in a cool, dark place, between 40-45 degrees. Another method of planting is to set the seed pieces directly on the bare, prepared soil and press them in lightly to ensure good contact with the soil, then cover them with a 12-inch layer of straw, hay or other organic mulch. When the mulch settles, add 6 inches more. Potatoes raised this way are cleaner and easier to harvest, since no digging is necessary. You need only pull the mulch away. You will harvest your sustainable spuds in 100-120 days or 8 weeks after planting.

Gaia’s Grow Tips

PHOTO COURTESY OF www.gurneys.com. A row cover like this one can prevent insects and help with keeping moisture in the soil.

The easiest and best way to prevent damage to your potato crop is to create a barrier between the pest and the plants with a lightweight floating row cover. Place the row cover over the potatoes after planting, and leave it on until you are ready to harvest. If you don’t use row covers, regularly inspect your plants and destroy any egg clusters you find, as well as larvae and adults. Also, place a heavy layer of straw mulch around your plants.

Research indicates that the mulch inhibits the Colorado potato beetle’s ability to actually find the plants, and the mulch acts as a microenvironment that encourages the beetle’s natural predators, including ground beetles (which feed on larvae) and lady beetles and lacewings (which feed on both eggs and larvae).

  • Leafhoppers (look like tiny grasshoppers) can stunt the leaves and spread viral diseases.  Spray infested plants with insecticidal soap or with a botanically derived insecticide such as pyrethrum, sabadilla, or ryania. Rotenone five percent and pyrethrum are effective controls for blister beetles and Colorado potato beetles, which if left unchecked can defoliate potato plants. 
  • Companion plant with coriander, dill, sweet alyssum, fennel and cosmos around your potato patch to attract the beneficial insects, or purchase beneficial insects such as lady beetles and lacewings at your local garden center and release them into your potato patch.  
  • Plant potato varieties that mature before pest populations reach their height in early summer, such as Caribe, Superior, and Yukon Gold.
  • Don’t forget to leave a few potatoes for the leprechauns, for it is long-held tradition and believed to bring good luck to your potato patch.

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