Watching Matt Damon’s character grow potatoes on Mars in “The Martian” has sparked a national frenzy of growing potatoes indoors. Okay, that may not be true, but it should be. It’s easy, and you can grow more diverse and tasty varieties than you find in most stores. Here’s a basic guide.
For the way many Americans eat potatoes — mashed, mounded and covered with gravy or French fried and super-sized — your basic spuds from the giant bin at the supermarket are just fine.
But if you want to try potatoes as the star of more flavorful, colorful, and healthful dishes, a great first step is growing your own indoors. It’s easy and you can do it year-round. Homegrown taters also leave a MUCH smaller carbon footprint than those grown far away on industrial farms.
You’ll find a large variety of methods for growing potatoes indoors, but here are some basic steps to get you sprouted — er — started:
1. Choose Your Seed Potatoes
We recommend using “seed potatoes,” which are grown specifically for planting rather than eating. They’re treated for protection against many of the diseases that can afflict store-bought potatoes.
Gardeners who’ve grown enough potatoes indoors as well as outdoors will generally tell you that indoor potatoes have far fewer disease issues than those grown outdoors. This gives you more flexibility in choosing varieties.
If you do choose to use store-bought potatoes (i.e., grown for eating rather than planting), find a store that sells a variety of organic potatoes. Authentically organic potatoes aren’t treated with a chemical that retards sprouting (to increase shelf life).
Try a crop of fingerling potatoes in different colors. Cooking these fresh from the harvest — nothing fancy, just boil, grill or bake and a just a bit of olive oil or butter, salt and pepper — is the way to really enjoy potatoes. These varieties also add color and depth to salads and soups.
2. Sprout the Spuds
The easiest way to plant potatoes is to use tubers that have sprouted, which may take two to three weeks or so, depending on conditions. They should sprout faster in a cool, dark place. Some folks put them in egg cartons or on paper bags — they don’t need any soil in which to germinate.
Two things to look for on the seed potato when you plant:
* Not too many sprouts: Plant tubers that have two or three spouts. You can cut them in half to achieve this number, or rub off all but two or three of the sprouts. If you cut them, allow the sections to dry and heal, which can takes about three to 10 days.
Keep in mind that the more sprouts per potato (or cut section) that you plant, the smaller the potatoes will likely be at harvest.
* Healthy, Semi-firm flesh: Try not to let the germination continue to point that the tuber is shriveled before planting. Sprout enough seed potatoes that you’ll be able to cut a few open to see if they’ve got any diseased-looking flesh (such as a brown/black ring just under the skin).
Potatoes can be susceptible to a number of diseases and pests. If you grow them indoors in a contained space such as this Eco Garden House, you’re improving your odds of a healthy crop significantly. The three-ply cover blocks ambient light (and reflects internal light inward). This, and the automated watering, lighting, heating and exhaust systems (you can see two exhaust ports on either side of the digital control panel), minimize your plants’ exposure while making it easy to maintain consistent grow cycles
3. Choose a Container That Fits Your Space
A popular place to plant potatoes is an empty 40-pound bag of fertilizer. They’re the perfect size for an indoor growing space, and they’re lined in black polystyrene. You can roll down the bag when you first plant, and then roll it up as you add layers (see #4), so the plants get more sun.
You can also use a five-gallon bucket, like a pickle barrel. Or a waste basket. These vertical containers have a small footprint, so they’re great for an indoor greenhouse.
Drill or punch holes in the bottoms of these containers, and/or include a three- to five-inch layer of gravel for drainage. Waterlogged roots turn tubers into mush. Not pretty.
4. Build up Layers as the Plants Grow
The key to a good yield is to continue layering on soil, straw, or other growing media as the plants grow. The tubers you harvest are part of the root system that wants to grow up and out from the seed tuber. Potatoes will continue forming all the way up to the top of the soil.
Follow these steps:
* Start with a four- to six-inch layer of potting soil. In a foot-square container, plant three seed potatoes with the sprouts facing up. Increase that number by one for every additional four square inches (so, four seed potatoes for a 16-inch by 16-inch space).
* Add another layer of soil, burying the seed potatoes by about two inches. Water them in.
* Keep the soil moist, but just barely. Never wet. Never dry. That’s why an automated watering system is a real advantage for this crop.
* When the plants have grown to about six to eight inches above the soil, clip any yellow leaves and add more soil to cover between half and three quarters of the green foliage. Try to repeat this until you get to the top of your container (or about 18 to 24 inches).
* You can use dry, clean straw for layers above the original soil layer. Again, keep it moist but not wet. Some gardeners keep the soil loose with one part sand per 10 parts soil, or with certain mulches. Fertilizer probably isn’t necessary if you start with good soil.
5. Harvest When the Plants Turn Yellow
This is the easy part. When the plants begin turning yellow, just dump the container out and pick through the contents for your prizes.
Brush the potatoes off gently and let them dry in the sun or under a grow light for a few hours or so. Don’t eat green potatoes, or cut away green parts before eating them — they may contain high levels of a toxin, solanine, that can make you sick at high enough quantities.
Store your potatoes in a paper bag in a cool, dark place. Better yet, eat some right away — taste the homegrown difference!
As with anything as popular as potatoes, many “turf” wars rage over every growing technique: soil vs. straw; bags vs. chicken wire towers; fertilizer vs. no fertilizer, and so on. But this simple procedure should get you started, even without a heroic Martian botanist to help you.
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?