How to Grow Potatoes in Clay Soil

The Snarky Gardener loves growing potatoes even though heavy clay soil dominates his region of Northeastern Ohio.

New potatoes
New potatoes

I recently came across an article on the Internet about growing potatoes in the garden from the Penn State Extension Office. I decided to read through it even though I’ve been successfully growing them for the last 10 years or so. According to this article (much to my chagrin), I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.

Potatoes mulched with fall leaves
Plants mulched with fall leaves

“Potatoes grow best in soil that is well drained, loose and high in organic matter. Soil that is too sandy, rocky, or clay is not good for potatoes.”

This is true, but we don’t always have perfect conditions. My research found mention of taters being used to break up clay soil back in the day, especially in areas previously covered with grass. I believe the process of hilling up soil and organic materials around the growing plants assists in the soil building process. I’ve used both straw and fall leaves to cover the stems with nice results.

“The soil should be tilled at least 10 inches deep or double shoveled and raked. The PH for growing potatoes is 5.5 to 6.0 which is lower than most vegetables as potatoes favor a more acid soil.”

Um – normally I don’t till and all this shoveling and raking sounds like work to me. Usually I just dig a small hole or run my hoe down east and west to make a furrow. Then I drop seed taters in and cover them up with soil and/or leaf mulch. As for pH, it’s never been a major concern for my little gardening mind.

“Last years potatoes or grocery store potatoes should not be used as seed potatoes, use only certified seed potatoes which are state inspected.”

This rule is usually not broken unless I have spouted stored potatoes and extra ground to bury them in. I’ve been known to plant a potato variety I’ve seen at the farmer’s market if I haven’t seen anywhere else. This being said, my recommendation is to buy certified seed whenever you can.

Potatoes need 1.5  inches of water per week, more during dry spells. Do not water from above but by drip irrigation or soaker hose. Weeding potatoes is essential to disease and pest control, however you can grow potatoes using plastic mulch. The mulch can be cut with a bulb planter every 12 inches and hand planted in rows about 18 inches apart. Drip irrigation works well with this method of planting.

As a rule, I don’t water my garden unless we are in a drought. Spuds I’ve grown in the past seem to have survived just fine without the water. Hoeing and hilling the dirt around the potatoes keeps weeds down naturally. Also, I’m not one to use non-organic materials for mulch, but if you want to, be my guest.

“Potatoes can get early blight which are small circular brown spots with a target like spot in the middle. This will kill plants and is caused by plant debris overwintering in the bed you plant them. Plant rotation is extremely important with potatoes. Do not grow in the same bed for 4 years. Clean up the garden in fall.”

I try to keep from growing members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and ground cherries) in the same place for 3 years, which is the minimum time suggested by most experts. I’m not always able to accomplish this as I grow A LOT of tomatoes and taters. To keep this all straight, I utilize GrowVeg.com planner software. This platform lets me know if I’ve grown something from the same family in a specific spot in the last 3 years. I don’t always take the advice (especially with legumes like beans and peas) but the Nightshade family does get my respect.

“Common Scab is caused by a bacteria that can be in the soil for a long time, even when potatoes were not planted  in that spot. The main cause is decomposing material such as vegetable matter not cleaned up. Using an acid based fertilizer can sometimes help, or find another place to plant.”

The Snarky Gardener’s tubers were infected with common scab a few season’s back. They tasted just fine, but it was a concern. After reading up on the subject and doing a soil test the following year, I traced the problem down to high pH (7.4). I haven’t planted nightshades in that area since and haven’t seen scab on my taters grown in other places either.

Mulching potatoes with straw
Mulching potatoes with straw

My takeaways from the Penn State Extension Office article:

I’ve been growing potatoes in our Northeastern Ohio clay for the past decade. Besides a small common scab issue, I’ve had little to no problems. I do appreciate advice given by people who have WAY more experience and knowledge than the Snarky Gardener. The article was written from the “maximizing potato output” point-of-view. My gardening designs lean towards minimizing labor, soil disturbance (“low-till”) and “outside my property” inputs. This means I might not get the biggest or best harvests, but I will always get something. And isn’t that the goal of every gardener?

I’ve also learned that I don’t follow instructions well (never have, never will). For me, gardening is as much art as it science. If we aren’t allowed to try our own systems and practices, the fun of the garden is removed. And I’m all about having a great time out in my yard, even if it’s hard work sometimes. Nothing beats growing plants, harvesting produce, and eating meals created with food that you grew (even if you are not following the directions).

By the way, here’s a really cool Ruth Stout interview including her planting potatoes. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

The Snarky Gardener’s Beginning Vegetable Gardening Video

On April 21, 2016, the Snarky Gardener gave a presentation on vegetable gardening for beginners at the Kent (Ohio) Free Library. The audio isn’t the greatest, but hopefully you’ll gain some new information.

Subjects covered:
1. Gardening Definitions
2. Plant Families
3. Easiest to Grow Veggies
4. Gardening Advice

Here’s the video of my dog that didn’t work:

Weeds Can Be Your Friends

The Snarky Gardener knows how to turn weeds into allies. Or at least keep them from being a problem.

No-till, mulch and homemade weeds - what a combo!
No-till, mulch and homemade weeds – what a combo!

On the Mother Earth News blog, I wrote an article describing my techniques to bring your weeds down to a dull roar. There I listed 5 different ideas to mitigate garden weeds (including eating them). I personally think “weeds” are misunderstood. Unless an unwanted plant is literally shading out one that needs the sunlight, there is no reason to remove them. Most of my weeding is preventative, meaning I remove plants going to seed that I believe I have plenty of (grass and quickweed for example).

So here’s the list:

  1. Low till – tilling brings up weed seeds
  2. Mulch – to keep weeds from growing in the first place. I usually use fall leaves or straw, especially with my potatoes.
  3. Utilize them – many “weeds” are edible
  4. Cover crops – keeps the soil covered while enriching it
  5. Make Your Own – turn your seedier veggies (like lettuce and turnips) into edible weeds
  6. Plant closely (especially beans) – closely planted vegetables naturally shade out other plants

I left out number 6 from my Mother Earth News blog post mostly because including it didn’t occur to me until after it was released. It’s worked with green beans but I might try it with bush zucchini also. Just have to find the right sweet spot between crowding and too weedy.

Turkey Cottage Pie with Sunchokes and Turnips

The Snarky Gardener welcomes Brooke the Cook to the blog. She has created a recipe to use up his abundance of sunchokes, potatoes, and turnips.

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Photo Credit: gkdavie cc

Turkey Cottage Pie: is it a shepherd’s pie or pot pie?

Inspired by the bounty of root vegetables at Snarky Acres, this recipe combines the rich filling of a shepherd’s pie (sans sheep), the abundance of turkey left-overs available after the holidays, and is topped with low-glycemic white root vegetables to balance the body.

sunchoketubers

I recommend pairing this delicious casserole with a side of steamed asparagus or green beans, and a fresh salad of mixed greens.
Serves 6.

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 cups root vegetables (choose low GI: (Jerusalem artichoke/sunchoke, celeriac, white turnip)
  • 1 potato (see note below)
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 cup sweet peas, fresh or frozen
  • 1lb / 450g turkey
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp chilli powder or reduced sodium Old Bay spice
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup flour (all purpose, gluten free or chickpea)
  • 1 cup white wine (or filtered water)

Topping

  1. Roughly chop the root vegetables and potato. Boil in 3 cups of water until soft (15-20 minutes). Partially drain and set aside.

Note: Russet potatoes will give it a lighter-fluffier mash. Yukon Gold will give a smooth but heavy texture. Red or white skin potatoes can quickly turn gummy. For the best texture use a masher. Do not use a mixer or it will go gummy.

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Filling

  1. Finely dice the carrot, onion, garlic and celery. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Sprinkle flour and add wine and spices. Stir well and cook for 3-5 minutes more. Set aside in a dutch oven or oven-proof casserole dish.
  2. Scramble fry ground turkey, drain. If using left-over roast turkey, chop finely 1-2 cups and pan fry 3-5 minutes to warm. Add the turkey to the vegetables. Note: For a vegetarian option, replace the turkey with 1-2 cups of cooked lentils and/or quinoa, combined.

Assembly

  1. Mash root vegetables with a pinch of salt. Beat until smooth. Spoon evenly over the filling. Bake 40 min at 375F. Let stand 5 min.
  2. Serve with steamed asparagus or green beans, and a salad.

What’s your favourite way to use up left-over turkey?

In health and friendship,
Brooke

Brooke loves to cook, hence the nickname. She is passionate about eating for pleasure and nutrition. Her recipes are health-conscious, though she does enjoy a satisfyingly-rich dessert. If you like what you read, please leave a comment below and subscribe for new recipes at weekbyweek.ca.

Seed Starting Tips

The Snarky Gardener has plenty of seed starting tips and tricks. Please enjoy.

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I recently guest blogged on weekbyweek.ca, a weekly recipe food blog called “Brooke the Cook”. Starting seeds can be intimidating but it’s not too difficult if you follow my helpful advice.

Remember: your starts are basically baby plants. They will need your constant care until they are planted (and then a little more after that).