How to Grow Potatoes in New

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The Heart of New England
Growing Potatoes
in New England
by Jeanne Prevett Sable

One year, while sifting the contents of my compost bin, I discovered several
smooth, new
potatoes – “volunteers” that no doubt had sprouted from the eyes
of much older, discarded potato parts. I was reminded of what fun digging
potatoes can be, though I’d never had much luck growing them myself.

The Incas were the first to cultivate potatoes in Peru. Though potatoes were
introduced to Jamestown Virginia from Bermuda in 1621, the first permanent
potato patches in North America are believed to have been established right
here in New Hampshire around 1719—most likely near Londonderry,
according to Potato 101 on the Internet.

Family potato patches were common in my parents’ generation, during the
Depression. I learned recently that the family for whom our road was named
tended a potato field several decades ago not far from my home. The children
were often expected to have all the potatoes picked by the time their father
came home from working the local sawmill, I’m told.

Today, a five-dollar bill can purchase enough spuds to last a small family the
better part of a winter, but increasing uncertainty about what goes into and on
commercially grown foods has renewed my interest in growing this popular

By all counts,
we should be able to grow potatoes here in New England. For
one thing, they prefer a slightly more acidic soil than other veggies – 5.6  to
about a 6. PH. Potatoes are actually the tubers that grow on roots running
laterally 10 to 18 inches, and downward to about three feet below the potato
plant. The plant’s green leaves and stems are poisonous, as it is closely related
to deadly nightshade.

Potatoes are best grown away from other members of this family, which
include tomatoes, eggplant and peppers.
You should also avoid planting them
near squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers. Potatoes benefit corn, beans, melons,
and members of the cabbage family by repelling bean beetles. They do well
when rotated with legume crops such as beans, which contribute nitrogen to the

My previous attempts at growing potatoes were largely thwarted by
infestations of flea beetles.
I suspect this happened because I sequestered my
potato patch on a hill away from the rest of the garden, to facilitate mounding
the soil up around the plants as they grew. There, they lacked the benefit of
companion herbs and other plants that may have discouraged the tiny beasts
from making lace of my potato leaves. By the time the rest of the garden was in
full gear, I’d written off any tubers that might have formed beneath that now
weed-choked mound.

Experts recommend that seed pieces be cut from tubers no larger than 10-12
ounces, to give better plant stands and more tubers per hill. Fortunately, we
garden hobbyists needn’t be concerned with maximum yields, marketable
shapes, shelf life, and other concerns of the commercial growers. We are content
to experiment with whatever potatoes we have leftover from winter.

Several years before I met my husband, he sprouted some spuds in a barrel of
sawdust. As the plants grew up, he covered them with more sawdust,
encouraging the growth of more tubers below the surface. He reports relative

So last year, I thought I’d try this approach. Inside a plastic trash barrel I buried
a tangle of long roots that had shot up from our bag of winter keepers. It proved
one of my more embarrassing crop failures— steady rains filled the barrel to
overflowing before I got a chance to drill drainage holes in the bottom, and we
ended up with a very foul-smelling liquid we called potato-leak soup.

Last year, we went overboard with a new, specially constructed potato “tower”
– a wooden box whose sides can be increased in height as the potato plants
grow. We piled on lots of sawdust—perhaps too much, incrementally adding
boards, which the plants climbed like mountaineers. By harvest time, all had
keeled over and died. No homegrown spuds for us that year.

This year is another story. Charlie plied the now better decomposed sawdust
with manure, ashes, and other organic material, but kept the sides of the
container low enough to admit plenty of sunlight. Vigorous green plants are
spilling over the sides as I write. We dug up a few “new potatoes” a couple
weeks ago, and if they are any indication of what is to come, we’re in for a hefty
potato crop this year. And so far, the leaves show no symptoms of flea
beetlemania, knock wood. If those critters should return, however, I’m ready for
them. Mulching with catnip is said to do the trick.

I’m open to suggestions on how to get rid of the cats.  

About the Author:

Jeanne Prevett Sable is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer, organic
vegetable gardener and the author of the
Seed Keepers of Crescentville, a novel
about a Vermont farming community's struggle to preserve its organic fields,
heirloom crops and old time breeds from the genetic pollution sweeping the
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