Mashed, baked, roasted or french-fried, potatoes can be enjoyed in countless ways. Perhaps their popularity over the last few hundred years has to do with the fact that they're not just tasty, but so easy to grow. If you're looking to get your hands dirty in the vegetable garden, the hardy and versatile potato is a great place to start.
Potatoes are as adaptable as they are delicious. You can plant them early for summer potato salads or later in the summer for a supply of potatoes that will last through the winter. Potatoes can tolerate multiple frosts and snow. Best of all, there are over 25 easily available varieties to choose from, and many more lesser-known types for curious palates.
While potatoes provide a great source of sustenance, they require sustenance of their own while they're growing. Potatoes like full sun and well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter. If your soil has too much clay in it, try mixing in 3 to 6 inches of rich garden soil like Miracle-Gro® Garden Soil for Flowers & Vegetables. Also, be sure to plant your spring potatoes about one to six weeks before the last frost, depending on how cold your climate is.
One method of growing potatoes is to start with small potatoes or chunks, called "seed pieces," cut off larger ones. With this method, it's best to start with certified seed potatoes bought locally or online, as you might not know the origins or growing process of store-bought potatoes. Make sure that you cut with a sterile knife, and that your pieces have 2 or 3 "eyes" or buds on them. Be sure to cut your pieces at least 2 days before you plant them. When planting, dig trenches as deep as your shovel blade and plant in rows, with seed pieces 12 to 16 inches apart. Then, cover with soil. As your potato plants grow, continue to cover their stems with soil, a process called "hilling".
The second way to plant potatoes is called the straw method, which produces potatoes of excellent size, color and shape. First, till the soil so that it is slightly sloped for better drainage. Lightly press potatoes (or seed pieces, cut side down) into the soil spaced approximately 12 inches apart. Cover the area with about 6 inches of loose straw and continue to cover over time as needed. If you're in a windy area you can lay wire or a thin layer of soil over the area to hold the straw in place.
When you're ready to start cooking, dig up your potatoes about 2 to 3 weeks after flowering and after the tops turn yellow and die. Carefully dig with a spade or pitchfork, making sure not to wound the tubers. If you've used the straw method, carefully remove the straw and pick the potatoes off the soil surface.
Now that you have your bounty, you may want to stash your potatoes away for later meals. In this case, you'll have to "cure" them. That means keeping them in a dark place for about a week, at about 70 degrees with high humidity. This helps the potatoes heal any bruises and conditions them. After that, you can store them in a humid area between 35 and 45 degrees until you're ready to eat them. If you still have blemished potatoes after the curing stage, you can just put them in your compost heap.