Growing up, I never had to consult the Farmer's Almanac to know when my family would be hitting the garden to plant potatoes. It would be on -- or very near -- St. Patrick's Day. As an adult, I couldn't help but wonder if that rule was scientifically based or just another one of my mom's superstitions. In any event, it turns out the practice has some pretty strong agricultural merit.
Burpee Chairman and CEO George Ball says that "… planting potatoes on St. Patrick's Day continues to be a deeply rooted tradition," citing the increase in potato sales Burpee experiences each year in the weeks leading up to the holiday. "The potato's history underpins it as a unique symbol of strength," says Ball. "Combined with the usual proximity to the first day of spring, St. Patrick's Day potato planting is a deeply ingrained Irish tradition."
What and when to plant
Anyone who has ever let potatoes age in the pantry has seen a potato sprout. That sprout is actually a new potato plant. However, most potatoes purchased from a grocery store have been treated to stop, or at least reduce, sprouting. Therefore, it is better to purchase untreated potato pieces from a seed company or garden center.
It takes potatoes two to three weeks to emerge, so the earliest you should plant is two weeks before your last anticipated freeze date of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. About a week before you plant them, place them in a warm, sunny spot to bring them out of dormancy. This will help ensure they sprout quickly and get a head start on growth.
How to plant and tend
One to two days before planting, cut your pieces such that you're leaving two eyes per piece. Leave them out to dry a little so they can build a protective cover on the cut side. This will help protect them from rot. Dig a trench 4 inches deep and spread a little organic compost in it. Plant your potato pieces with the eye side up, 1 foot apart and 4 inches deep in the trench.
Potatoes must be "hilled" once they begin to grow. When the plants are about 6 inches tall, hoe dirt up all around it, leaving just a couple of inches sticking out. Continue doing this about every two weeks.
How to harvest
After about 10 weeks you can begin to harvest your potatoes. Harvest only what you need with a pitch fork, being careful not to stab the tubers. In late summer when the vines begin to turn yellow and dry up, you should harvest all the remaining potatoes to keep them from rotting in the ground.
How to store
Brush off as much dirt from the potatoes as you can, but don't wash them. Lay them in a single layer on a bed of straw or crumpled newspaper in a cool, dark place. They will keep for several weeks.
Cherri Megasko is an eco-activist with a degree in environmental science. She lives on a small homestead in Virginia with her husband and two dogs.