Simple to grow, potatoes are a good starting point for people interested in growing their own produce
Like blaming the dog for eating your homework, John Mills was blaming his tractor for missing my interview call.
“I had to duct-tape my tractor radiator back together to get it working,” he said.
Mills, a fourth-generation farmer from Bowden, Alberta, is still using the same tractor his father bought second hand when John was a boy. His father started growing potatoes commercially in 1987 for the french fry market. Mills now grows 45 different kinds of potatoes, including the traditional Russet Burbank french fry potato.
Now that I had him on the phone, I ask Mills about growing potatoes – not warm climate sweet potatoes or yams, but the old fashioned Irish potatoes that are really from Peru, not Ireland. I want to know more about the tuber we commonly call spuds or white potatoes, and about the expansion of Eagle Creek Farms (www.eaglecreekfarms.ca) beyond french fries and toward organic growing.
“It was more of a transition out of that commercial world of growing (one variety of) potato to exploring the hundreds of varieties of potatoes out there,” said Mills.
“I don’t want to put down anyone who really likes Russet Burbank, but I find them a little dry,” he said. “It takes a lot of butter to really moisten them up – and salt and pepper and a lot of other seasonings.”
Mills prefers “anything that has a nice buttery texture” and he names the purple Viking and Agria a baking favourite. He also loves the yellow fleshed types, like fingerlings, banana, Sieglinde and German Butterballs, because they are so moist and tasty when baked.
Conventional store-bought potatoes are sprayed all summer with pesticides to control blight, sprayed in the fall with desiccants to kill plants evenly, and sprayed in the winter with sprouting agents to stop them from sprouting at the store.
I often get frustrated by people thinking growing potatoes or vegetables is some secret art. There is nothing hard about growing vegetables.
The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) says conventional potatoes have more pesticides by weight than any other fresh food.
Mills grows organically and wants everyone to grow potatoes because it’s simple and rewarding.
He suggests preparing the potatoes indoors before planting them outside. This process, called chitting, involves laying the potatoes out in a single layer so they form little sprouts from their eyes.
“We start shipping in early April and the best thing is to take that potato and put it in a well-lit room, not necessarily in warm sunlight,” said Mills.
Mills say potatoes can be stored that way for four to eight weeks without doing any harm. When you’re ready to plant the potatoes outside, they’ve have a good head start.
For anyone who finds a bag of sprouting potatoes in the back cupboard, not all is lost. Mills suggests breaking off the long sprouts and going back to step one: chitting them in a well-lit room.
Once the soil outside warms to 10 C (50F), you can plant potatoes outside. If they freeze after you plant them, the sprouts will die back and then sprout again. Make sure to pile soil up in a small hill against each growing potato right after they sprout, so the spuds won’t see sun and won’t turn green.
Early varieties have only 5 – 8 potatoes per plant and are ready to dig up right after they bloom. Later varieties stay in the ground until September or October because they produce twenty potatoes per plant.
“I often get frustrated by people thinking growing potatoes or vegetables is some secret art. There is nothing hard about growing vegetables,” said Mills.
“I make mistakes every year and I learn from it. I like potatoes because they are easy, you don’t need to start them inside, and you don’t need any special equipment or soil or container to grow them in. Just have fun with them, all right?”
For a video about growing potatoes see my web page, www.donnabalzer.com where I help gardener’s grow and beginners’ blossom