Long live the spud

Peter Cundall’s potato tips

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE - Peter Cundall

IF you haven’t planted a potato crop yet, there’s still plenty of time. In frost- free dis­tricts they can still go in af­ter Christ­mas. How­ever, the later your cer­ti­fied seed tu­bers go in, the later the har­vest. That means potato plants will be still grow­ing dur­ing the warmer, drier parts of late sum­mer, so more ir­ri­ga­tion will be needed to ob­tain a de­cent yield.

I planted our own crop about a month ago. Due to over- wet soil con­di­tions I was a bit later than usual, but they are do­ing well. Over the past cou­ple of weeks the fo­liage has been push­ing through the soil. Once the leaves be­come en­er­gised by sun­light, they move very fast. This is a good time to ap­ply well- rot­ted an­i­mal ma­nure or pel­letised poul­try ma­nure along the rows. I also add a fist­ful of sul­phate of po­tash to ev­ery me­tre of row.

Once leaves and stems are well above soil level, the next most ur­gent job is earth­ing- up or mound­ing. I use a heavy hoe or a spade to draw up enough soil from around each in­di­vid­ual plant to com­pletely bury al­most all new growth. For ex­cep­tional yields and health­ier plants, mound­ing is best car­ried out three times dur­ing the life of the crop. The ben­e­fits are worth the ex­tra bit of ef­fort.

Seed potato tu­bers are dif­fer­ent to most bulbs, rhi­zomes or other tu­bers. Once planted in moist soil, usu­ally about 20cm deep, they do not send down roots. In­stead, they send sprouts up­wards to­wards the light.

Th­ese sprouts have a dou­ble pur­pose. They pro­duce the main feed­ing roots, above the seed tu­ber. At the same time tiny, pea- sized im­ma­ture pota­toes form at the tips of each sprout, also be­neath the sur­face. Th­ese even­tu­ally grow into the full- sized spuds we eat. In other words, a potato crop is al­ways formed much closer to the sur­face than the orig­i­nal seed tu­bers. The way pota­toes form and swell is partly why

mound­ing is so ben­e­fi­cial. Bury­ing lower stems be­low the sur­face forces ex­tra side- shoots to emerge so more pota­toes are pro­duced.

Mound­ing is also an ex­cel­lent means of con­trol­ling masses of small, an­nual weeds by dis­rupt­ing and bury­ing them.

An ex­tra depth of soil also pre­vents grow­ing tu­bers from be­ing thrust into the light, where they would be wasted by turn­ing green and too poi­sonous too eat.

Mound­ing is also an ef­fec­tive way to con­trol a se­ri­ous pest, the potato grub. In sum­mer, as crops are ma­tur­ing, potato moths lay eggs on any pota­toes that are ex­posed or too close to the sur­face. The grubs hatch and cre­ate dirty tun­nels through the tu­bers, mak­ing them ined­i­ble.

All potato crops ben­e­fit by deep ir­ri­ga­tion ev­ery 10 days. Once potato plants be­gin to flower, it is a re­li­able in­di­ca­tion that some tu­bers have al­ready grown big enough to eat. It is worth prob­ing around be­neath some of the more vig­or­ous plants to grab a tasty feed of early spuds while leav­ing the rest to keep on grow­ing. Th­ese first new pota­toes make par­tic­u­larly de­li­cious eat­ing.

Later we can see a potato crop ma­tur­ing be­cause the fo­liage starts to lose vigour, tak­ing on a yel­low colour and be­gin­ning to flop over the ground. When this oc­curs, all wa­ter­ing must im­me­di­ately cease, oth­er­wise the crop can be ru­ined.

Never leave pota­toes in the ground af­ter the fo­liage has fi­nally with­ered. The holes in the soil left be­hind by the dead stems be­come ac­cess points for potato moths. Also, just a cou­ple of heavy rains are enough to cause the tu­bers to rot, es­pe­cially in warm soil.

All pota­toes must be lifted, any soil blasted off with a hose, and then left spread out in the sun for a few hours to safely dry.

Fi­nally, pack into card­board boxes or hes­sian bags. If stored in com­plete dark­ness they will last in good con­di­tion un­til Au­gust or even later.

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