Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


April 7, 2014

Plateau Gardening: Growing potatoes in small spaces and soil tests

CROSSVILLE — An old wooden half whiskey barrel is my usual potato plot. One year I went all out with container gardening. Pots with herbs and veggies lined the sunny sidewalk leading to our front door. That year I grew potatoes in empty sacks that once held organic compost.

Growing potatoes in creative containers can be great fun and a nice learning experience for both kids and those who are young-at-heart. When "eyes" on grocery-store potatoes in your pantry sprout, they can be used as seed potatoes. Or a pound of seed potatoes from a local garden center is an alternate source. Use a clean knife to cut large tubers with sprouts into "seeds" (chunks about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide and thick with one or two eyes each). Let the cut edges of your potato pieces dry for a day or two. (The callous that forms helps prevent rotting.)

Put potato "seeds" in the bottom of a deep container located outside in a sunny spot. Have about three inches of soil or potting mix in the pot. Add additional soil to cover the potato chunks. After the potato plants have three or four leaves start adding soil around the stem. Cover all but the top leaves. New potatoes grow along the main stem under the soil. When using the sack-containers, I rolled the top edge down to start the seed potatoes then unrolled to allow for greater depth as soil was added.

Each potato tuber is a starchy enlarged portion of a specialized stem-type called a stolon. The most active root growth and best new tuber formation occurs when soil is 59 to 68 degrees F but some growth occurs in soil that is anywhere from 50 to 95 degrees. The best leaf growth occurs from 68 to 77 degrees. Don’t over fertilize. Low nitrogen levels in the plant favors formation of more tubers. Too much favors above-ground leaf and stem growth.

Grow potatoes in soil with an acid-to-alkaline (pH) range from 5.0 (acidic) to 7.0 (neutral). Common potato scab is usually seen when soil is too alkaline (with pH readings higher than 7.0). Potato plants need about one inch of water (rainfall and irrigation combined) early when tubers are initiating and bulking up. However, wet soil around tubers later in the season encourages powdery scab. Wide fluctuations in soil moisture (sometimes very wet and at others excessively dry) creates knobby, mal-formed potatoes that may have growth cracks. Harvest in the fall by dumping the container and collecting the potatoes. Store potatoes in a dark, dry, cool place.

It is important to know that belladonna, deadly nightshade and tobacco are in the same plant family (Solanaceae) as potatoes. So are eggplant, peppers, tomatillos and tomatoes. (Best indicator is shape of the flowers.) Solanaceous plants produce substances that are toxic/ poisonous to humans. The toxins can cause nausea, vomiting and headaches. Do not eat green stems or leaves from plants in this family. The above-ground fruit of plants in that second list (eggplant — tomato) is safe to eat when ripe. Potatoes and the first plant grouping mentioned (belladonna — tobacco) produce above-ground fruit that is toxic and should not be eaten. The starchy potato tubers that grow underground aren’t harmful when ripe but potato sprouts, green potatoes and/or green potato peels that taste bitter should not be eaten. Cooking does not eliminate the danger. If using potato growing as a gardening experience for children, be sure the kids are old enough to understand and heed warnings not to eat plant parts such as leaves, sprouts, stems and green potatoes.

Soil Testing: Different plant species and sometimes different varieties within the same species have different soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) levels at which they grow best. Some plants do well in soil of almost any pH. If you are putting in or renovating a lawn, establishing a new garden or want to know which foundation shrubs will match conditions around a newly constructed home. Submit soil samples at your local University of Tennessee Extension office. More next week.

• • •

Plateau Gardening written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae (

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