How do you plan to grow your potatoes?
Just like everything else you grow fresh, a fresh grown potato is a huge step up from the store bought potatoes that have been in storage since last harvest. Its also a great thing to grow if you are trying to avoid chemicals. They are not hard to grow but there are a couple of things you need to know in order to have success. People ask us all the time, "which potato should I grow?" Our response is, "How are you planning to grow it?" and "How do you plan to use it?"
The first question, how do you plan to grow it, will drive the type of plant structure you need to select. What does the type of plant structure have to do with the variety I chose? Potatoes come in both determinate type plants and in indeterminate type plants. The potatoes grown on determinate type plants are grown on a single level at the same depth as the seed potato. Indeterminate plants grow potatoes on multiple levels with the lowest level being at the same depth as where you planted the seed potato. Determinate varieties only need to be planted 4 inches deep and don't need to be frequently mounded up. Indeterminate varieties can be planted the same depth but need to be mounded up several times throughout the growing season covering a large portion of the plant so additional potatoes can grow higher up the plant. If you are planting in a regular garden, it doesn't really matter which type you chose, but if you are planting in vertical container like a potato grow bag, box, or in a tower, you must chose an indeterminate variety if you want the plant to produce any potatoes (As demonstrated by every YouTube potato tower fail video by people who didn't know the difference). Common indeterminate varieties include German Butterball, Elba, and Burbank Russet (the classic Idaho baked potato). Breeding efforts over the last century have resulted in earlier maturing varieties many of which are determinate varieties making it sometimes challenging to find indeterminate varieties in big box or farm supply stores.
Generally speaking, indeterminate varieties take longer to mature because they grow on levels higher up the plant, so they are considered long day or full season varieties, however, not every long day/full season variety is an indeterminate so you have to do your homework if you are specifically looking for an indeterminate variety to plant in a potato grow bag, box, or a tower. Shorter day varieties (sometimes called early or mid season potatoes) are almost always determinates.
How will you cook your fresh potatoes?
The second question, how do you plan to use them, will help finalize your decision. Are you canning them, or making roasted new potatoes, potato salad, chunky mashed potatoes, creamy mashed potatoes, or baked potatoes? Potatoes fall along a spectrum with waxy on one end, starchy on the other end, with various grades in the middle we generally call all-purpose (some of which are more waxy and some are more starchy).
Waxy potatoes which are low in starch and high in moisture are great in any dish in which you want the potato to hold its structure. They have a firmer flesh and thinner skin than starchy potatoes. They are great roasted, in potato salad, and they hold their shape well in soups or if canned. Waxy potatoes will never make light and fluffy mashed potatoes, but they are perfect for their intended uses. French Fingerling and Russian Banana are examples that fall squarly on the waxy end of the spectrum. Dark Red Norland and Red Pontiac are examples that fall on the waxy end of the spectrum, but lean towards the all-purpose center. They make excellent fried new potatoes and are delicious in potato salad.
On the other end of the spectrum, starchy potatoes are the classic baked potato and they make excellent fluffy mashed potatoes. Starchy potatoes flesh breaks down easily making then prime candidates for mashed potatoes. They absorb the flavors of the toppings so they are commonly paired with butter, sour cream, and other delicious flavors. Russets are the classic starchy potato. Elba and Gold Rush are outstanding dry and floury russet potatoes
All-purpose potatoes fall in the middle of the spectrum and can be used for most commonly created potato dishes. Red Gold and Belmonda are great all-purpose potatoes that are closer to the waxy side so they have a more moist texture than the other all-purpose varieties. German Butterball and Kennebec are great all-purpose varieties that are closer to the starchy side so they have a more smooth consistency, but are drier than the other all-purpose varieties. The famous hyper-versatile potato that fits right in the middle of the spectrum and many people love is the Yukon Gold potato with a great balance of between waxy and starcy, wet and dry so that it can be used for just about anything a home chef can cook up.
I was reminded by Facebook this week of how far we have come in the last six years. Six years ago we decided that we really wanted to garden and make it matter. We had always gardened, but more in a fun hobby, but still buying all of our food from the store kind of way. We wanted a garden that fed us for most of the year. The week of Valentines Day we found a small greenhouse at Menards that was on sale for $99.99 which was way out of our price range, but the last day of the sale we got a rebate check from Menards in the mail for about $90. What was a real blessing! We called it our Valentines gift to each other. Steven was sure we would never fill it up. He half jokingly said that if I would plant a few extra plants, he would try and sell them. In that way we could help offset the cost of the growlights and trays and greenhouse. He was thinking 15-20 plants. I planted over 100 extra. They sold really fast so we planted more. It turned out that lots of people were interested in growing vegetable gardens, and so to keep up with demand we have been adding an additional greenhouse every year. This year we will be setting up six greenhouses, and will not have any extra space to spare. It's been fun to help others grow great gardens.
That first year we grew tomatoes, and a few peppers, then we added more vegetables and herbs, Then we added strawberries, cucumbers, sqaush and melons. Last year we really increased the number of herbs we grew. This year we added onion seedlings and seed potatoes and seeds from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. (If you're local check out our 2021 plant sale here!)
We have seen a big uptick in demand every year, but especially this year and last year. The pandemic caused a huge increase in people interested in vegetable gardening. Its a security thing, and a therapy thing. Plants don't argue about politics or worry about things, they just keep growing toward the sun, and it turns out being outside in the sun is good for you too. Also, growing food is more fun than growing grass. It's delicious, and it feels really good to participate in the process of feeding yourself and providing food for your family. It really does. Everytime the economy goes down interest in gardening goes up. A garden can be a big help to the grocery budget and is a great hedge against inflation.
This year we have seen another surge in demand for garden starts. We already have more than 20 times the orders in that we did this time last year right before the pandemic. We are busy planting peppers this week. All the hot peppers are planted, next I will plant the sweet peppers. In a couple weeks, I will be planting tomatoes. Steven did lots of research to find the best varieties, and we ordered early, so we got what we wanted. Seed companies are seeing the same surge in demand. Some have shut down their websites, restricted the number of orders recieved for the day, or limit orders to only those with professional accounts. Most have anounced delays on shipping as everyone does their best to keep up with the unprecedented demand.
Amidst the hussle of the month, we recieved an invitation to talk to a group of high school aged Girl Scouts as they are working on a badge about food. One question they asked was if we had always been interested in gardening and food production. Steven laughed when he responded that as a kid he thought gardening was only for old people, like his grandparents who grew victory gardens. How refreshing it was to see a group of high school aged Girl Scouts interested in gardening and learning where their food comes from and how it is grown. I guess gardening isn't just for old people after all!
What is my last frost date?
As soon as the seed orders show up eveyone wants to know if it is time to plant seeds. The answer is, "It depends." I'm right there with everyone hoping for spring and missing the green of my garden. We live in plant hardiness zone 5a. We do not get spring first so we watch gardeners on YouTube from warmer places with a little envy this time of year. But there are some things I can plant even in January. Lets talk about starting seeds early indoors to transplant into the garden later. The first question we need to ask is what is my last frost date? Lets look at a frost chart like this one, https://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/ or another frost freeze day calculator, and enter your zipcode. You will get a chart like the one below. You will find that your frost date is really a series of dates with a certain risk attached. In the example below, you can see that on an average April 13th, this location has a 90 percent chance of having another frost, and even a hard feeeze. By April 25th of an average year, it only has a 50 percent chance of another frost, and likely won't get another hard freeze. By May 7th, the chances of a frost of any kind drops to just 10 percent so warm weather is likely to stay. What does this have to do with when you start your seeds? A lot! This leads to our second question which is, what is my risk tolerance?
What is my risk tolerance?
The weather is not totally predicable. If you garden, you are going to accept some risk. How much risk is up to you. Answering these four questions can help you decide how much risk you can handle.
1. Are you willing to watch the weather closely? Early spring weather is unpredictable. The earlier you plant the more vigilant you have to be about watching for freezing or near freezing weather, storms and other hazards.
2. Are you ready to cover your plants? If a late season cold snap comes, are you willing or able to cover tender plants, move plants indoors, or take other precautions like row covers to make sure that your early planted garden does not freeze?
3. Can you afford to lose it? We occasionally plant things too early and they get nipped by a late frost even if we have been careful to watch the weather and cover them, Covers can blow off in the wind, If you can't afford to replace it, you might want to wait a little longer.
4. Do you have a greenhouse? If you only have a few lights indoors, you will want to plant on the later end of the spectrum of frost dates. As the seeds grow into plants, you will run out of room under the lights. You don't want them too crowded, and transplanting seedlings into bigger pots takes exponentially more space. We can plant earlier, because we have greenhouses and can transplant seedlings into larger pots to prevent crowding and grow them out the greenhouse. They will have more space and better light. Its still a risk, because we have to run heaters and watch the temperature, but we can plant much earlier.
Now that you have decided how much of a risk you can handle, and have a target last frost date in mind, let's go to a seed starting calculator. Johnny's Seeds has a really good one at: www.johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/seed-planting-schedule-calculator.html You'll need to enter your target last frost date and it will give you a range of planting dates. Lets pick tomatoes. If I choose May 7th as my frost free date, then the range that it gives me for planting is 6-8 weeks earlier, March 19th-April 9th. Tomatoes like a warm soil, so the calculator notes that I should plan on planting my tomatoes in the garden around May 14th-May 21st. That is a week or two after the last frost date and is a good planting time here in central Iowa.
Now, I like to plant tomatoes a little earlier than that, but we have the heated greenhouses to transplant them up into. You may be willing to wrap or cover yours to be earlier too. Last year I planted tomatoes the first week of March. By May, they were 18 inches tall and we had ripe tomatoes near the 4th of July. It is more work, but we end up with a bigger and earlier harvest. Check out our seedling-starting-strategies post for more information on how we start our seeds successfully.
Decide how much space and time you have.
What should you plant and when? Using the information from the seed starting calculator, you can make a schedule for starting your seeds. We have a pretty good set up with multiple shelving units with lights and multiple greenhouses, but we still don't have room to start everything at once. Luckily, not everything should be planted at once. Do not plant everything all at once! Onions need upwards of 10 weeks of growing time before they are ready to go outside. Zuchinni, cucumbers, and melons only need 3-4 weeks. Some things can be planted outside earlier than the last frost. Lettuce, onions, celery, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and more can all be planted and set out in the garden a little earlier. They like the cooler weather. Melons, sqaushes, peppers, eggplants, cucumber, and tomatoes all like a warm soil and air. They will be happiest going into the garden a week or more after your last frost date has passed. Write down a list of the things you want to grow from seed and how long they will take and make a plan. Write it down! This will really help you stay organized, and as you keep a record you can remember when you planted last year and make minor adjustments as needed.
Here are a few tips from my experience:
1. When trying to determine what to plant, remember that when you plant seeds early, you are buying time. For example, if you plant tomato seeds inside 8 weeks before you could plant the seeds outside, you could get approximately 8 additional weeks of harvest. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and big onions all take too long to grow from a seed planted directly in the garden after frost in zone 5 and have a good harvest, so they should be planted indoors first.
2. Look at the germination time. Plant things that grow at the same rate together. For example, parsley can take three weeks to germinate, but tomatoes sprout in about one week. I find that the quick growing plants will shade out the others under the lights, and it makes keeping humidity domes on hard when half of your tray has germinated and the other half won't come up for 10 more days.
3. Get an early start to the season by planting cold weather crops like cabbage, kale, chard, and herbs indoors.
4. Beans, peas, squashes, melons, and cucumbers will all be fine seeded directly in the ground. If you are tight on space under your grow lights, just plant them outside when it gets warm. However, if you have space under your grow lights for them starting them inside will still give you a 3 week headstart which can mean getting a good harvest before summer heat or bugs get it.
5. While many crops do well when started under lights inside, some don't. Most root crops should not be started in pots. Beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, etc. will grow better directly seeded into the garden.
6. Write it down! Keeping a record of when you plant things will help you stay organized, and as you keep a record you will be able to remember when you planted last year and make minor adjustments as needed.