For those new to vegetable gardening potatoes are a great crop to begin with. Planting starts in mid-winter with the early varieties arriving in garden centres in June and continues through spring. We checked in with three experienced potato growers for some timely inspiration.
In Taranaki, Steve Linn and his wife Jo grow all the fruit and vegetables they need - and more - in their large country garden. Steve grows potatoes for the sheer joy of it, and to save money. “Our potato and kumara crops are a valuable food source throughout the year because they’re a good crop to store,” he says.
They’ve experimented with a range of different varieties over the years. “We usually put two varieties in each time. We generally stick to the ones we know but for a second variety we sometimes try something new. “We like good all-rounders such as Nadine and Desiree. Jersey Bennes are a good Christmas crop and are nice to have boiled with mint and eaten along with a salad.”
Steve says his rich volcanic soil is naturally fertile and great for growing potatoes. “Some years I will add pig manure, dig it over and let the soil sit for a few weeks before planting,” he says. “Other years I add potato fertiliser before planting. I don’t do much once they are in the ground, apart from weeding and mounding the soil.”
Pests and diseases? “So far, touch wood, we have been lucky and haven’t had blight yet. We have had the odd black spot, but it has not affected the whole crop.” It helps that they have room to change the location of their crop each year.
At harvest time, Steve says he cuts off the green tops of the potatoes after flowering. He then uses a large garden fork to loosen the soil around the rows so he can carefully lift them up without piercing them.
Once they’re dry, he stores his main crop potatoes in a 200L plastic barrel cut in half with holes drilled all around the sides for ventilation. The potatoes are spread between layers of newspaper and kept through winter in a cool shed. “Don’t store your potatoes near onions as it can make the potatoes sprout,” he reminds us.
Steve and Jo enjoy all sorts of potato dishes; salad, scalloped, and baked as wedges. Steve’s current favourite is “boiled with some onion and then mashed all together with butter and milk”.
In Katikati, Anne Billing likes to grow Jersey Bennes for summer and versatile Agria for storing and eating over winter. As a treat she recommends; “Agrias double baked and stuffed with goat’s feta and smoked salmon. But comfort food is mashed potatoes with gravy!”
She buys her seed potatoes as soon as they become available in winter, chits them, then tries to get them in the ground in June. “Psyllid is a problem here in Western Bay of Plenty, which is one of the reasons I like to get my potatoes in early,” she explains. “If I get them planted in June, I can start eating my Jersey Bennes early and get my Agria out of the ground by end of December.”
Anne’s soil preparation involves compost, chicken poo, EM (effective microorganisms) and comfrey. “I dig a trench, put dwarf comfrey in the bottom, then put in the seed potatoes and cover. Once I’ve mounded them, I leave them to their own devices, but it’s important to keep the weeds down so potatoes don’t have competition for nutrients.”
At harvest time Anne starts at the end of the row and digs wider than the original trench. “I still manage to get some with the spade!” Before storing she leaves her freshly dug Agria potatoes on the porch, covered with a hessian sack for a few days to dry the soil, then “I store them in the pantry covered with newspaper. What won’t fit in the pantry I store in a vermin proof cupboard in the garage, always covered from the light.”
In Canterbury, Grant Dawe of Morton Smith-Dawe grows seed potatoes (as well as yams, asparagus, garlic, and shallots) for gardeners throughout New Zealand. He’s been involved in potato growing since childhood when he helped in the family business.
At home, Grant trials the potato varieties he supplies his customers. “Haylo is what I eat most days,” he reveals. He rates this home garden favourite as one of the best for flavour, adding, “I also grow Haylo because we can eat it both early and late and it holds extremely well. We dug the last of the crop in April and we are still eating it now.” Bred at Plant and Food Research, Lincoln, Haylo is named after Grant's niece Haylee.
For December eating, Grant plants his early potatoes around mid-September. He also recommends Liseta. Purple Heart, also bred at Lincoln, is a good one to grow for its antioxidant content, and it keeps its colour when cooked.
Grant recommends adding fertiliser at planting time, but he cautions against being too heavy handed. “If the recommended rate is 15g per potato and you add 30g, you will end up with less spuds,” he says. “Make sure any animal manure is properly composted and use it sparingly to avoid scabbing.”
He agrees that earlier planting in warmer North Island climates is a good idea if you have a psyllid problem in your region. “In the South Island this pest doesn’t arrive until December or early January, but there is no point in spraying once the pest has arrived. It’s important to take preventative action,” he advises. Covering with horticultural mesh will prevent the adult psyllid laying its eggs on the leaves, but it must be fine enough to block the tiny insect and be completely sealed around the edges. Grant recommends burying the edges in the soil.
Another way to prevent psyllid damage, he says, is to cut off the tops once your potatoes have reached full size. “The soil can be the best place to store your potatoes, provided it is not too wet or dry. And of course, you need to lift them before frost,” he reminds us.
HINT: Take care to add fertiliser at the recommended rate, not too much or you risk poor quality and reduced yield.
Where space is limited or there’s no dirt to dig, you can grow potatoes in a bag. Planter bags with handles for easy lifting are ideal, but practically any large (30-40L capacity) container will do, if it has drainage holes.
The potato varieties you choose to grow in your garden may come down to the ones you have found to perform best in your soil and climate, the varieties Grandpa grew or simply how you like to eat them.
Plant these early to enjoy a pre-Christmas crop:
Harvest these early as ‘new' potatoes or grow to full maturity:
Plant these in spring and harvest when the tops die down for storing and eating over winter:
Grown in Aoteroa for over 200 years, these heritage varieties are easy to grow in all parts of the country. Harvest 110-130 days after planting:
Chitting potato seed
Potato rows mounded with soil
Planting seed potatoes in a grow bag
Modern potato varieties
Maori potato varieties