Growing your own Potatoes

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.


Book Review- Gardening when it counts

Gardening when it counts – Steve Solomon

If you need an introduction to vegetable gardening this is the book to get. It will lead you through the steps of creating your garden one by one and with the minimum of equipment required. Even if you are an experienced gardener, and know it all, Steve Solomon will have heaps of valuable information to share with you.

If you are a square foot/doorway gardener and are looking for a way out of this high intensive gardening method, this is the book for you. It will explain how to go about gardening in a low input high output method that will keep you gardening for years to come. Some of the techniques that I use are very well explained in this book and it will become an asset for people that have a busy lifestyle and still want to get the best from their veggie garden.

Especially important in South Africa is the chapter on drought gardening, where tips and techniques on planting and growing vegetables in water stressed environments is crucial. This book will enable you to raise and grow enough food for your family literally ‘when it counts’.


The Wilson’s get rid of the (City) menace… Part 2

[Here is part two of the Wilson’s efforts in becoming self-sustainable, in part 1 Tristram laid our the groundwork and what/why their family is embarking on this journey. Once again we wish him and his family well and all the best for the coming season.]

A nice frosty morning.. but watch out for the tender veggies.
A nice frosty morning.. but watch out for the tender veggies.

Well, it has been an interesting time. Winter has brought with it a few surprises. The frost has been slightly more than anticipated and I think I may have lost my beans in the result. After a little thinking as to how to overcome this, I have made a basic latte cover.  It is cheap to make and shouldn’t blow away- now we will have to see how the rest of the bed manages!

Simple and effective frost protection
Simple and effective frost protection

We have also since acquired a golden retriever pup and she has had a great time in the vegetable garden biting out my plastic (old milk bottle) row markers. I have managed to solve the problem by using large white river stones that were close at hand and then writing the description on them with koki.

We have been happily eating our lettuce, peas and radish; the poor old peas haven’t even had a chance to grow up, as we are consuming them at such a rate! (Our first heirloom crop I might add –thanks Sean!)

Plant markers
Plant markers

Of course being winter in the Cape we have plenty of rain, so at this stage we are not having to water at all, just a bit of weeding and mulching. I had originally had in mind to use the bottom of my compost heap for this, as it should have matured by now, but when recently checked out, we realized that it wasn’t ready enough. We may use some straw or dead grass clippings instead. The original compost layer (if you remember, started out at about 100mm high) is now starting to reduce. This is also a good sign as the earthworms are hopefully very active and it is all rotting down and enriching the unturned soil underneath.

Compost heap brewing in the sun
Compost heap brewing in the sun

The seed room is almost ready (Black wattle main posts with thinner latte for the roof). I am waiting for the cob walls to dry so that I can lime plaster them and put some old scaffolding planks on top as a surface for the seed trays.

Cob walled seed room
Cob walled seed room

We have also started a small herb potage garden also using cob for the low central wall. The idea will be to plant a bay leaf tree in a pot in the middle of it. We also hope to grow both culinary and medicinal herbs. Hopefully being able to include some weird and wonderful species!

The start of the potage garden
The start of the potage garden

For some or other reason my carrots have not been a success. I have a suspicion that when I first sowed them, the sun killed them off during the odd warm day and I hadn’t managed to surface water in time! I am considering trying out seed trays so we shall see. Be careful in this regard as it is very easy to get caught out.

Some veggies have not come up at all and to fill those gaps, I am planting both garlic and ordinary chives and some marigolds and nasturtiums as insect repellents.

Have also started a “manure” compost heap using dog doo and which will later be followed with our first compost loo. I used old pallets which I wired together to make four sides. An excellent book to read on the subject is Joseph Jenkins’ Humanure.

The pond is maturing nicely (dug out a few months back), with tadpoles aplenty (always a good sign). We have also noticed a visiting kingfisher and cormorant obviously enjoying the tadpoles. Some indigenous plant life has been planted around the edges and some waterblommetjies too. The pond has also been dug close to a willow tree to encourage the weaver birds. We are also hoping to introduce some indigenous fish. Dog of course loves this, and wet muddy feet in the house goes down a treat!

Hungry looking Cormorant
Hungry looking Cormorant

Our rainwater tank is full and encourages one think of erecting another one. All our drinking and cooking water comes from this. It should also see us through summer. The plan is to purchase a much larger one and plumb it into the house for showering and the loo’s (Hopefully the compost loo will be kicking in by then!). Having thatch on the roof tends to make our water look a little brown, but hey, that’s part of the deal.

Until next time……


Book Review: Seed to Seed

Seed to Seed by Barbara Ashworth is probably the best reference work available for the seed saver. This is a book that I regularly reference for any information that I need with regards to seed saving, pollination habits and minimum stand sizes to ensure that always provides the best seed to you, our clients.

If you are in any way serious about heirloom or open pollinated seeds, this is the book to buy. Jam packed full of information (somewhat technical but still very readable) that will allow you to confidently save your own seed from year to year. It is filled with handy advice on isolating plants, making day cages and hand pollination of every vegetable variety on the market.

This book would suit any vegetable gardener that has the remotest interest in being able to keep individual vegetable strains pure, and has been written specifically for the heirloom and open pollinated seed saver. I have spoken to many seed savers locally and internationally and this is the book that they always reference when looking for information pertinent to a crop that they are working with.

Probably the best information that we as South Africans can use is in understanding how the various plants are pollinated and what steps can be taken in preventing cross pollination of similar vegetable groups. Modern South African vegetable gardeners have almost lost the art of seed saving and this book would be your first natural step in re-learning lost techniques.

The book is primarily aimed at the US market and growing conditions, however that is only a small portion of the information available. The balance of the information covers over 160 different vegetables and Seed to Seed is a reference work second to none and well deserves its place on your gardening shelf.


The Edible Quote

There is virtue in country houses, in gardens and orchards, in fields, streams, and groves, in rustic recreations and plain manners,  that neither cities nor universities enjoy.
~ Amos Bronson Alcott