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Home-grown potatoes ... as superior as home-grown corn.

Why grow potatoes? Because they taste better, say gardeners who grow their own. "Fresh tubes are as different from ones you buy as home-grown corn is from market kinds," says one enthusiast.

To get the tender-skinned morsels most gardeners favor, you have two choices. You can harvest immature tubers from any potato variety. Or grow early varieties (listed at right) to full size--these stay crips and tender even when mature. Now is a good time to plant in all but the hottest climates. You don't need much space--one plant can produce 1 to 3 pounds, more in ideal conditions. If you have room, grow six to a dozen plants.

How to plant. Use seed potatoes that are certified as disease-free--grocery store tubers may carry diseases that can ruin tomatoes, peppers, and related crops planted in the same area for the next several years.

If you can, buy whole tubers and cut them into golf-ball-size chunks with two or three eyes. Let cuts callus for two to three days in a cool, dry, fairly dark place.

Then plant in rich, loose, well-drained soil in full sun. Put a small amount of fertilizer in the bottom of each planting hole (one expert recommends 1 teaspoon of nitrogen-and-phosphorus fertilizer such as 16-20-0). Place the potato chunks eye side up, 6 inches deep and 12 inches apart; space rows 2-1/2 feet apart. Whenever stems lengthen by 6 inches, pull more soil or mulch around them up to and even covering the lower leaves. Most tubers will grow on the covered stems. Keep new tubers covered as they grow; sunlight turns them green and possibly toxic.

Water regularly throughout the growing season. In warm areas, mulch 6 inches deep to deep soil cool. To increase tuber production, pinch off any flowers.

The harvest. About 90 days after planting, you can probably begin to harvest the little tubers called new potatoes. The more of these you raid, the smaller your total crop will be, but many gardeners grow potatoes for this privilege alone.

For easier harvesting, use a thick layer of straw or similar material instead of soil to cover growing stems. When potatoes are ready to gather, just pull aside the mulch. Or use a device such as the potato barn shown above. This one is made of 5/8-inch rough-sawn plywood siding. Other gardeners have used bottomless garbage pails, compost bins, or even plastic garbage bags with drainage holes poked in the bottom. In each case, plant tubers in a loose potting mixture inside the container, about halfway from the bottom. As plants grow, add more soil and give the care already described. At harvest time, reach inside, gently detach the tubers you want, and replace any dislodged soil.

If you also want a mature crop, leave some plants undisturbed until the tops yellow or die back, then pull them up. Let tubers dry for several hours in the sun, or several days in the shade to cure before storing. Don't leave them in the sun longer, or they'll begin to turn green.

Choose varieties that suit your needs. Early-maturing varieties stay crip and thin-skinned; they're best sautted, boiled, or steamed and cannot be stored more than two to four weeks. These include red 'La Soda', 'Norland', and 'Pontiac', and white 'Norgold', and 'White Rose'.

When mature, most late varieties develop the thick, brown skin and dry, mealy quality associated with baking potatoes; they store well for months in a cool, dry, dark place (not the refrigerator). 'Burbank' and 'Kennebec' are two such varieties.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1984
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