Potato harvest roundup

Every year Lee worries that our potato harvest is going to be a bust or under perform. This year he was pretty optimistic by midsummer as the plants were gorgeous, but when it came time to dig them up his hopes fell. There were a lot of rodent tunnels and chewed potatoes. It’s hard to be optimistic about the overall harvest when you are constantly sorting out rotten spuds.

We grew four varieties of potatoes, so we weighed them all separately. Our 58 feet of potato beds yielded 150 pounds of potatoes. That’s 2.5 lbs/ft, which is better than most yield estimates we’ve found online. The breakdown was as follows:

Variety Harvest Row feet Yield Rate
Red Pontiac 56 lbs 19 ft 2.9 lbs/ft
Yukon Gold 54 lbs 22 ft 2.5 lbs/ft
Russet 20 lbs 8 ft 2.5 lbs/ft
Purple Peruvian 20 lbs 9 ft 2.2 lbs/ft

While it’s hard to make judgments from such a small sample size, the numbers do support a few of our potato variety biases. Red potatoes really do grow the best for us. Russet and Yukon Gold grow larger (and bake better) but are preferred by gophers and their yield suffers. Long season potatoes like Purple Peruvian are harder to dig by hand because they are so small, but the yield is still respectable. Also, who doesn’t love bright purple potatoes?

I think one of the reasons Lee becomes so anxious about the potatoes doing well is because they are our most labor intensive crop. The tiller has simplified the work a little, but we still hand dig a long trench for the potatoes and successively hill the ridges of dirt into the trench. Harvest requires turning over all the dirt in the whole bed. Granted, it’s not that big of deal if you have a small plot, but 60 row feet of trenching and digging is a different matter. Maybe someone out there has a simpler method.

This year Lee saw a potato fork online for the first time and his eyes lit up. He was really hoping it would simplify the harvest. Unfortunately, our soil was too hard to turn with the fork directly and it didn’t seem to save much effort. Next year we are going to dry garden our potato crop, which may change the soil texture. We will give the fork another go before we make up our mind.

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14 Responses to Potato harvest roundup

  1. Rich says:

    I’ve never understood the reason behind or liked the whole “dig a long trench, and then cover the potato plant as it grows” way of planting potatoes.

    I usually (and I live in relatively dry OK, plant potatoes about March, and dig about July, so it might or might not apply to you), till in a bunch of leaves and/or compost over the winter to loosen up the soil and provide a little organic matter where I am going to put my potatoes. The deeper and looser the soil, the easier it should be to plant and dig my potatoes and potatoes are also supposed to like leaf humus.

    When I I just run the tiller over the row, jab a little garden shovel about 6 inches into the ground and drop a potato in. Then I cover it up and move on down the line.

    As they grow, I pull soil from between the rows and hill up around the plant (I have a hilling attachment for my TroyBilt tiller that I use or a use a hoe). Put your rows a little wider apart so you have enough soil to do your hilling and so you don’t damage little potatoes with your hilling. If I can get the leaf shredder to start, I sometimes mulch the plants with shredded leaves or I just dump some unshredded leaves in between the rows. (because potatoes like leaves and all that)

    When it comes time to dig the potatoes, the soil should be loose enough to easily dig with the fork because the potato grows up from the planted piece. Just dig away from the plant and level off the area as you dig. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll dig deeper with the fork to lift and loosen up the soil for next year’s crop (think of your potato fork like it’s a little broadfork).

    When I’m done, I try to throw some sort of cover crop or green manure crop down and then run the tiller over the area.

    I don’t know if my method works anywhere else, but there it is.

    • lee says:

      I think the idea of the trench is that you spend less effort hilling. Of course, you then spend several times as much effort digging, so it’s not a good trade.

      We’ll use your suggestions next year and try planting closer to ground level. I’d try the leaf compost idea too, but improving the soil texture with compost is a mixed bag here in Oregon. We have a definitely problem with Symphylans (tiny soil dwelling insects which eat root hairs) and their populations grow with organic matter content. I don’t think they affect potatoes, but there are some crops in our rotation which are severely damaged.

  2. Snowbrush says:

    I’ve never even seen a purple potato, but they look psychedelic. Do you get high when you eat them? Can they be dried and smoked, or are they better in brownies?

    • lee says:

      I can report that the potatoes are psychedelic in appearance only. They do retain their color after cooking, so I was impressed by that. Most purple vegetables we’ve tried (such as broccoli and beans) turn green when they are cooked.

  3. Our method is about the same as Rich’s – plant the potato seed piece or whole potato about 4” deep and gradually hill as the plant grows. I hill about 3 times until the plants flower, and dig when the plants die back. Dig isn’t really the correct term, as the potatoes are all basically above ground in the hilled soil. I use a spading fork to swipe off the hilled soil, not really that much work “if” I harvest potatoes before the fall rains start. Wide row spacing in order to leave available soil for hilling, and no water. This method works very well for us.

    • lee says:

      Ah, two votes for saner potato growing. We are definitely taking this route. I’m looking forward to dry gardening the potatoes as well. We have used drip lines on them for two years, and this year the tubors had several different kinds of water stress damage.

  4. I love how you keep track!

    It looks like a respectable harvest from where I sit. Our turkeys got into the potato patch and ate all the plants (which are supposed to be poisonous, but they survived just fine), so we had to harvest early. We got a measly 8 pounds from a 10×3 raised bed.

    The method we’ve used is to plant in the raised bed, and put chicken wire around it (which has the added benefit of keeping out chickens, if not turkeys). As the plants grow, we add leaves and compost, and the wire fence keeps it contained. It’s worked well in the past, and we’ll use it again next year, which we’re planning to keep turkeyless.

    • lee says:

      Well, we don’t measure our harvests nearly as consistently as you, but I’d like to. It’s hard to know if you are improving if you don’t keep at least some records.

      That would have been super annoying to lose potato plants to turkeys. I think I would have felt annoyed that they were all fine too, although losing the turkeys as well would have been worse. They should at have indigestion or something. ­čÖé

      I know some people use straw around their potatoes, so I can see how leaves and compost would work well. It sounds healthy for the potatoes, but we never have that much compost left by midsummer.

  5. ..wow, even with the losses that will make SOOOO much poutine!..on a related note, next year make sure you plant a curd tree and drill a gravy well…groan.

    nice work you two!

    • lee says:

      I love poutine! One of our new brewpubs in town serves poutine, and I’ve tried several different versions. Robin refuses to eat soggy fries, even when they are dressed up with cheese curd and pulled pork. I tell her it’s a character flaw.

  6. Regan says:

    Finally! After about two weeks of reading, I’m finally caught up to the current posts!
    I think we may be your dopplegangers on the east coast- cleaning up the previous tenants trash and everything. You guys are doing some amazing things-keep it up. You’ve definitely got two new followers in NC!

    • lee says:

      Wow, reading that many posts is a huge undertaking. I’m so sorry! So many bad jokes and burn pile reports. ­čÖé

      I’m glad you found us, and I don’t envy you on the cleanup work.

  7. Pat says:

    I enjoy reading your adventures. I recommend you watch backtoedenfilm.com (not www.), in which Paul does not need to hill his potatoes because the soil remains loose and moist under 4 inches of wood chip mulch. It’s a long film, 1:43, but very worth watching and backed by science. On the site, there are links to amateur gardeners who have tried his method, all across the country (and beyond). He doesn’t address underground pests, unfortunately (we have both gophers and moles).

    • lee says:

      Thanks for the movie recommendation. I’ll check it out. I’m curious if they address the nutrient impact of large quantities of wood chips. I was under the impression that this would cause nitrogen deficiency as soil bacteria sucked up all free nitrogen while attacked the high-carbon organic matter.

      We have gophers and moles too. We also have voles, which are like small mice with long noses.

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