What do you know about Spuds?
Not the vegetable … the small community near Hastings with a long history of potato farming. Starting with several Minorcan families settling in the area in the 1700s potato farming has been a major industry in the Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns County area.
By 1901, the area around Spuds had been dubbed “Potato Capital of Florida.” In 1911, Joseph Minton, a prominent local potato farmer, applied for a new post office and decided to give the community of Holy Branch a new name that better suited the area —Spuds.
Today, Spuds is little more than a few crumbling buildings at a wide spot on Florida 207, and some fading memories of the grandchildren of the farmers who once lived there. The post office may be long gone but not the potato farms that gave the community its name. Today these crops help make Florida an integral part of the supply chain for freshly harvested potatoes and ranked seventh in the nation for its high-value winter and early spring potato harvests.
So, with all these potatoes so readily available at our doorstep, why bother to try to grow them at all?
Well, why do gardeners grow anything? It’s exciting to see the things you’ve planted peek their heads out of the ground. It can be economical to produce your own food. And, let be honest … it tastes better than store bought.
Potatoes don’t have to have a lot of space to produce an impressive yield. They can grow in the ground, of course. But in raised beds? Yes. A five-gallon bucket on the patio, or on the terrace of a high rise? Yep. How about in a cardboard box? It’s been done. Regardless of the space or container, it all starts with a few simple steps.
Select a sunny spot that gets six to eight hours of full sun with loose, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. If the site is very sandy, add organic material. Potatoes do not grow well in flooded conditions, so if the soil is poorly drained, you will have to “hill” the rows to 10-12 inches high. “Hilling” involves piling up soil around the base of a plant or increasing the height of a row.
Potato plants are heavy feeders and require fertilization throughout the growing season, starting when you prepare the soil. If you haven’t had a soil test to determine its nutrient content, plan to add 7½ pounds of a general vegetable fertilizer 10-0-10 per 100 feet of row at planting. Generally, our sandy Florida soil requires additional nitrogen and potassium, the first and third numbers of the analysis on the fertilizer label.
And of course, be sure you have a convenient water source. Your crop will need one inch of water per week.
As tempting as it may be to pick up a few extra potatoes from the grocery store, resist. Tubers from the grocery store may have been treated with sprout inhibitors that will prevent them from growing. Find certified seed potatoes. Certification ensures that the seed tubers are free of disease. They are available at several local nurseries.
Additionally, grocery stores carry many different varieties of potato, including varieties that don’t do well in Northeast Florida, or aren’t planted at this time of year. For instance, most U.S. growers produce russet potatoes that don’t grow well in Florida. Russets take up to four months to mature and, being in the ground this long makes them susceptible to diseases, pests, and bad weather. Potatoes grow best when days are warm and the nights cool and rain is not torrential, making January through March ideal for planting. You can start your potato adventure right now.
There are several varieties recommended for Florida. Among them are the white-skinned LaChipper, Sebago and Yukon Gold. Of the re-skinned varieties,
Red LaSoda is a good choice for North Florida. In South Florida, LaRouge is a good red-skinned potato variety.
When the tuber is planted, it is called a “seed” potato. Typically, one pound of potatoes will make about six to eight seed pieces.
When the eyes, or buds, of a potato begin to sprout, cut your potato into seed pieces for planting. Each piece should have one or two eyes. Keep these seed pieces in a dark, humid, well-ventilated place at a temperature of 60 to 65 degrees for a day or two to begin to dry out and heal. This will help prevent rotting.
Plant the pieces with the cut side down and the eyes toward the sky, 4 inches deep and 6 to inches inches apart. Within two to three weeks the shoots should break the surface of the soil. About 50 to 75 days after planting, the tubers will begin forming.
When the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, dig a shallow trench about 6 inches away from the plants. Place fertilizer in the trench at the same rate as your original application. Cover the trench lightly with soil and water in.
Watch for potatoes pushing up above the soil and turning green from exposure to the sun. Green potatoes secrete solanine (glycoalkaloid), which has a bitter taste and is toxic at very low levels. To prevent tubers from getting sunburned, add two or three inches of additional soil on the potato row when the sprouts emerge from the soil.
Potatoes are a long-term crop and can take 80-115 days from planting to harvest depending on the variety. If you plan to store the potatoes, the plant should be allowed to naturally die and the skin to set (doesn’t rub off) before harvesting. Approximately two to three weeks after the plant has died, carefully dig below the potatoes with a shovel or spading fork and lift the potatoes.
If you can’t stand the wait, harvest the small new potatoes when the plants start to flower. They are close to the surface, and you can leave the rest of the crop in place to mature.
If you’re now convinced that you can grow your own spuds this year, check out the UF publication, “Growing Potatoes in Florida” (https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/lawn-and-garden/potatoes-home-garden/) There you’ll find more details about fertilization, varieties, harvesting and storing.
If it still seems like a daunting project, remember that potatoes can be grown successfully in containers: flowerpots, 5-gallon buckets, anything that will hold water and soil. There are several science-based articles on the internet to help you.
Now for a math quiz: If you have a 100-foot row with a potato plant approximately every 7 inches that produces an average of six potatoes per plant, how many potato-eating family members do you have?
Paula Weatherby is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.