In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2005
Regional Report

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At this time of year the thought of creamy new potatoes ignites the gustatory imagination.

Early Comfort from the Garden

Nothing is as comforting as a dinner plate with a hearty serving of steaming mashed potatoes, unless it's maybe crisp French fries, a large baked potato with sour cream, luscious creamy potato salad, or new potatoes with baby peas. Only a few years ago, most people didn't give much thought to different potato varieties, but now garden catalogs list dozens. There are varieties for various seasons and different cooking purposes. At this time of year, it is the thought of creamy new potatoes that ignites the gustatory imagination.

Growing Potatoes
Potato tubers form best when soil temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees F. They can withstand light frosts in the spring, although the tops may die back a bit. You may want to wait a bit for a main planting of potatoes, but the earliest planting can be made six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Just remember that if planted too early in damp, cold soil, the seed pieces may rot before they grow.

The best soil for potatoes is deep, light, loose, and well drained but moisture retentive. Raised beds are excellent for potatoes. When preparing the soil, it pays to work in some well-decomposed compost. The pH should be slightly acid. If the soil is poor, work in cottonseed meal at the rate of 1 to 2 gallons per 100 feet of row.

If your seed potatoes are small, plant them whole. Otherwise, cut them into pieces that have several eyes. Let the cut potatoes heal for a day before planting. It can be advantageous at this time of year to pre-sprout seed potatoes by placing them in 70 degree F temperatures with medium light. In a week the sprouts are usually about 1/2-inch long and the potatoes are ready for planting.

Spacing depends on your method of cultivation, but for most gardens set seed pieces 12 inches apart in rows 2 feet apart. Dig a trench 6 to 8 inches deep, set potatoes in the bottom, and cover with 2 to 4 inches of soil. As the potatoes grow, fill in with soil. Mulch potatoes to keep the soil evenly moist. Potatoes are usually ready to harvest when they bloom.

An Alternative
Recently, I read of someone growing potatoes in a large pot using potting soil, so I'm going to experiment with that just for fun on one of these cold, damp, early-spring days.

Some Varieties to Consider
Although "new" potatoes -- those precious little tubers that you dig for while the plant is still growing -- can be harvested from any potato plant, varieties that mature early will give you the earliest new potatoes. The following are some of the best early varieties (a 55- to 65-day maturity) to consider.

Amandine - A fingerling type; almond-shaped with golden skin and flesh; buttery sweet flavor.

Anoka - This white potato won a taste test at Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine. It has tan skin with white flesh. Excellent yields. Some scab resistance.

Bison - Round, uniform size; shallow eyes; bright red skin; smooth firm texture.

Butterfinger - Also known as Swedish Peanut. A fingerling type; teardrop-shape; nutty-tasting yellow flesh in a light russet skin; firm when cooked; good for salads.

Caribe - Bluish purple skin with snow-white flesh; great for fluffy mashed potatoes; widely adapable; excellent yields.

Charlotte - One of the earliest; oblong to crescent-shaped; thin golden skin and yellow flesh; great for salads; stores well.

Dazoc - Great flavor; deep, red eyes; stores well.

French Fingerling - Purple-pink skin and yellow flesh; great flavor.

Red Bliss - Also known as Bliss Triumph. Heirloom variety with great taste; pale red skin and creamy white flesh; deep eyes; favored as early creamer and steamer.

Red Norland - One of the earliest; smooth red skin and white flesh; shallow eyes; good yields; stores well.

Red Pontiac - Very adaptable and easy to grow with consistent good flavor; red skin and white flesh.

Reddale - Large, round-flat tubers with red skin and white flesh; uniform and prolific; scab resistant; stores well.

Red Thumb - Fingerling type; brilliant red skin and flesh.

Yukon Gold - The variety that started the potato revolution; smooth yellow skin and flesh; good keeper.


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