One of the things that I learnt this week was that we are in for a potato shortage. OK I must admit, I’d read it a few weeks back in the Farmers Weekly and also heard about it on the radio, however. On Tuesday I went to see my friendly seed potato supplier to pick up the balance of a shipment that was short delivered. In chatting to Hennie it was clear that he was harassed. I asked him what the problem was and his simple answer was that he has no potatoes and farmers are fighting with him because he has no stock.
A bit later after he had vented his spleen he explained exactly what the problem was. There have been a number of crop failures throughout the country, some due to disease , others like in the north due to frost in areas where frost does not occur and this has lead to a sharp jump in the market price of potatoes.
Being a tad naive I wondered why that would hurt him, and said as much. Hennie looked at me with that look reserved for dolts, and slowly explained that he has contract growers that supply him with seed potatoes. If the market price exceeds what he contracted for, the farmers will exclude a portion or their entire crop from certification and sell them to the market for the higher price.
On Tuesday of this week he had 8000 bags and orders for 13 000 with no new potatoes coming in and more than a handful of irate farmers. The net effect of this is that we are literally eating our seed and this could have a knock on effect for the next year or two until the balance in potato supply and demand is restored.
So what is one to do? Simple, plan to grow your own. We have just managed to get a small shipment in of seed potatoes. (I begged Hennie for a few extra bags) and we will also be planning a late season supply so that you can plant two crops this year.
Below is some info on how and what to do to get the best out of your potato planting.
If your seed potatoes are slightly wrinkled when you get them don’t worry, just dump the whole lot into water overnight and they will quickly fill out. Your then have two options to plant them out.
The first is the direct method.
Basically take your seed potatoes as is and plant them directly into your prepared site. The sprouting will be uneven and you can enjoy your harvest from the plants that mature first while waiting for the other plants to catch up.
The second is the ‘Chitting’ process.
1) Lay the potatoes in a box or crate in bright light. Not direct sunlight. (The shade under a tree would be perfect)
2) You can cover them with some gardening hessian to help keep the moisture in.
3) Sprinkle water over the potatoes at least once a day. The idea here is to get the potatoes to ‘chit’ or turn green.
4) Once the potatoes have started to sprout eyes you can then plant them into your beds. This process will give an even maturing on all of your plants thus enabling you to harvest the all at once.
Note: It is not essential that all tubers have eyes when planted, however it will ensure that you get the fastest growth from your plants.
In either case above the following care practices are used.
Plant the potatoes between 50 and 100mm deep in soil, do not plant them directly onto fresh manure, however soil enriched with well rotted compost is best. Be careful when planting the tubers as the eyes (if they have formed) are easily knocked off. Planting distance is 400mm to about 600mm depending on the size tubers you are looking for.
As growth commences, (approx 2-3 weeks from planting) be careful with walking on or working in the soil near the tubers as the growth points are very easily snapped by the lightest pressure. Once the stems start to emerge, slowly bank up the soil around the plant to encourage the development of new tubers. Without ‘hilling’ the plants your will greatly reduce the amount of potatoes that your will harvest.
Watering your potatoes is best done with a hose directly onto the soil. A number of points must be kept in mind here. 1) Potatoes do not have extensive root systems so frequent watering is essential. 2) Try to keep water off the leaves as a very humid environment is the perfect habitat for fungal diseases. 3) the most important part of the watering cycle is once the flowers start to show, this is when the tubers are busy growing, any water stress from this point will decrease your harvest. 4) Try to water in the mornings as evening watering will leave moisture on the plants, encouraging fungal infections and slugs/snails.
Harvesting. This is the best part. Once the leaves start to turn yellow, slowly cut back on the watering to encourage the potatoes to mature. You can now start sneaking your hand under the soil to pick baby potatoes for your dinner. Don’t be too greedy at this point as you want some to mature. Once the plants have died back completely your can do a couple of things. 1) Just leave them in to soil, as long as you are not expecting rain then they will keep for months like this. 2) harvest the whole lot and store them. Don’t wash them before storage. Best storage is in a cool dark place, with dry straw or dry grass packed between the layers. DO NOT use old potatoes bags for storage, you will lose the lot. As those bags often have disease residues in them.
For those of you that want to try the tyre stack method, here is a link that you can use to assist you as I have no experience with this method.
Finally don’t plant potatoes near tomatoes, they are incompatible crops and each will disadvantage the other. Your potatoes will be glassy and your tomatoes will not produce a proper harvest.