How to grow potatoes…

chitted potato

A chitted potato ready for planting

As a Dutch-born Australian my diet while growing up featured a lot of potato meals: curly kale mashed with potatoes, beetroot mashed with potatoes, carrots and onions mashed with potatoes, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes…you get the picture! As an adult I still love potatoes (and I still serve them up mashed with other vegetables from the garden) but now they taste even better as I grow them myself.

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A colourful variety of heirloom potatoes

There are many more varieties of potato available to home gardeners than the small selection of commercially grown ones you’ll find at the supermarket. Heirloom potatoes come in many different shapes and colours and  you may want to try some of these great heirloom varieties: Bintje, Burgundy Blush, Brownell, Kipfler, Pink Fir Apple, Purple Congo, Red Norland, Russian Banana, Salad Rose and Sapphire to name a few. To get started purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes (google heirloom seed potatoes in your country or state to find a retailer), this way you won’t risk introducing soil born pests and diseases of potatoes into your garden. These pests and diseases can also be prevented by not planting any vegetables in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, eggplant and tomatillos) in the same garden bed each year, but have them on at least a 2-3 year rotation instead.

potato bed ready to plant

Potato bed ready for planting

It is time to plant potatoes once there is no more risk of frost in your garden. I plant in late August here (as my garden is protected from frost) and by the time the potato shoots emerge above the soil, spring has arrived. You can sow successive crops of potatoes throughout the warmer months here in Melbourne by choosing a cooler part of the vegetable garden to plant them in during summer, that way they won’t get heat stressed. Make sure though that the last sowing has at least three months to mature before the first frosts arrive in late autumn. The instructions below are for growing potatoes in the ground or a raised bed but you can also grow potatoes in cylinders made from chicken wire, in hessian sacks or in a no-dig garden.

potatoes laid out

It’s best to plant your potatoes 30cm apart in rows about 50 cm apart

Potatoes prefer a soil that is rich and free draining with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, added and some pelleted organic fertiliser. To plant your potatoes dig a trench about 20 cm deep and plant your seed potatoes 30 cm apart in rows of 50cm apart. Fill the trench with soil and hill soil up around the potato plants as they grow and emerge from the soil. Keep your potatoes well watered especially during the warmer months. When the plants get even bigger, spread straw thickly around the potato plants to exclude any light from getting to any potatoes that may be developing just under the surface of the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green colour, which is chlorophyll and enables the potato to photosynthesise and sprout. At this stage it also develops a poisonous chemical called solanine which makes the potato taste bitter so animals are discouraged from eating it. You should therefore never eat potatoes that have developed green patches on their skins.

potato trench

Your seed potatoes should be planted about 20 cm deep as most of your potato crop will develop above the original seed potato.

Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in around 12 weeks after they’ve flowered and start to die back. If you have trouble waiting that long, you can harvest a few early potatoes by carefully digging around the base of your potato plant with your hands after about 8-10 weeks, but you’ll get a bigger harvest of larger potatoes if you’re prepared to wait! Once harvested, let the soil on your potatoes dry so you can brush most of it off and store your potatoes in a cool, dry and dark place. Don’t wash your potatoes before storing as this will make them more prone to developing rot during storage, the aim is to keep them as dry as possible. To store, you can put your potatoes in a hessian sack or in a cardboard box underneath a few layers of newspaper to exclude them from any light but still allow good air circulation. Any potatoes whose skins were cut or damaged during harvest should be eaten first and not stored with the rest of the potatoes. Regularly check your stored potatoes and discard any that develop rot. Stored properly your potatoes should stay good for at least 2-3 months.

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What to sow in August (Cool-Temperate climate)

August garden

Late winter in my garden…

One more month of winter and relative calm in the garden to finish of some winter projects like my new garden/potting shed, the recycled wash station for my vegetables and yes, I’ve found another spot I can squeeze in and build one more raised vegetable bed. Once the warmer weather of Spring arrives there’ll be no more time for such projects as everything (including the lawn and the weeds) starts growing at a breakneck speed.

potato chitting

I’m chitting my potatoes in egg cartons before planting them out

Late August in Melbourne is a great time to plant your first potato crop of the year (you can plant more potatoes right through to the end of December for successive crops). It’s also time to plant Jerusalem and Globe artichokes, shallots, onion seedlings, asparagus and rhubarb crowns.  You can sow into punnets for planting out in late September the seeds of; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, silverbeet, rainbow chard, kale, celery, leeks, lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, spinach, bok choy, pak choy, wombok cabbage and any other Asian greens. August is also time to sow directly into the garden the seeds of; delicious sugar snap peas, snow peas, broad beans, turnips and swedes.

growing broadbeans

Broad beans…I love them!

If you have a very warm spot, such as a greenhouse, and are impatient for spring to arrive, you could start sowing into punnets the seeds of tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, pumpkin and eggplant for planting out mid Spring. They will need to be planted out into your warmest spot in the garden or they’ll just sit there until the soil warms up in late Spring. If you’re in a colder area wait until next month with these seeds.

If you have asparagus growing in your garden, keep a close eye on them…your first asparagus spears for the season should be popping up soon…Enjoy!

August seed sowing

What to grow in July (Cool-Temperate climate)

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The vegetable garden where I work at the Gawler Cancer Foundation.

The mornings here in the valley hover only just above freezing, but there are still the occasional days that the sun makes an appearance and being outdoors is a joy.

July is onion seedling planting time here in cool/temperate Australia. Onion seedlings can be planted as individuals or in little groups of three or four, if you prepare your soil well the developing onions will still get to full size and you’ll fit many more onions in a small space. It’s also time to plant spring onion seedlings and shallots now.

onions

If you have an established rhubarb patch that’s getting a bit crowded, you can dig up your rhubarb plants and divide them, planting divisions at least 50cm apart. Leftover divisions make great presents for friends or neighbours. If you’re not already growing rhubarb, July is a good time to buy some crowns and plant them out in your garden.

rhubarb

Who doesn’t love freshly harvested asparagus? If you’ve never munched on an asparagus harvested straight from the garden, do yourself a favour and buy some asparagus crowns to plant now. Asparagus crowns are a small investment that, when looked after well, will give you fresh asparagus for the next 20 years!

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Lastly, if you still have some space in the garden for more vegetables you can plant out seedlings of Globe artichokes or tubers of Jerusalem artichokes.

 

 

Winter in the garden

 

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Photo credit: Mieke Florisson

Working outdoors as a gardener I know winter has arrived when… I arrive at work at 8am in so many layers of clothing that I can hardly move my arms…and my colleagues who work in the office complain how cold it is (although they have little blow heaters placed under their desks to warm their feet)…and no one says ‘it must be so nice to work outside all day!’… and I’ve lost all feeling in my nose, toes and fingers by the time I’ve walked up the hill to unlock the garden shed and gather my tools. That said, I love working outdoors and experiencing the changing weather with each season…it helps me feel connected with nature.

securing bird netting

Hammering some clouts around my garden bed edges for securing bird netting

Although things are growing more slowly in the garden now, there is still plenty to do. If you haven’t done so already, you can safely remove your insect exclusion nets from your brassicas as the cabbage white butterflies disappear with the onset of the colder weather. The fine mesh of the insect netting can restrict light and air circulation so is best removed for the winter months. If you have problems with birds or possums attacking your vegetable seedlings you can replace the insect netting with bird netting as I’ve done. The larger mesh size of the bird netting will allow more sunlight to reach your seedlings and improve air circulation which can help prevent disease. Leave your framework of hoops in place and drape the bird netting over them, you can secure the netting by hooking it over some clouts nailed along your garden bed edges. If you keep your netting secured tightly over the hoops and don’t leave any gaps along the bottom of the nets, birds won’t get tangled or trapped.

netted garden beds

Some of the beds in my vegetable garden in the front yard

In winter I also like to remove any thick mulch from around my vegetables. The straw mulch is much needed during the warmer months to help retain moisture in the soil, but during winter the straw not only makes a perfect breeding ground for slugs, it also keeps what little sunshine there is from warming up the soil.

organic snail pellets

 

Although I don’t normally promote or advertise any products on my blog, if slugs and snails are eating your young seedlings, I recommend using Protect-us snail pellets which are the only snail pellets I’ve been able to find that are registered for use in organically certified vegetable crops here in Australia and are safe for wildlife and pets. It uses elemental iron which forms  an iron salt when consumed and causes the snails and slugs to stop feeding and hence leads to their death. Uneaten pellets break down in the soil and add iron nutrients which can be used by the vegetables you grow. You can buy Protect-us pellets online or ask your local garden centre to stock it for you.

What to plant in June (Cool-Temperate climate)

 

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My greenhouse increases the variety of crops that I can grow over winter…and is a great place to potter on a cold, wet winter’s day.

June, being the start of winter and cooler weather, marks the start of a quieter time in the vegetable garden. There are some crops though that need to be planted now; it’s time to sow onion seed (brown, red, white and spring onions), sow a succession crop of english spinach, broad beans, snow peas and broccoli (in punnets). It’s also time to divide or plant asparagus crowns which are now dormant, as well as rhubarb, artichokes (Jerusalem and globe), shallots and chives.

If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse with vegetable beds to extend your growing season, then you can still plant out any of the seedlings from the May planting list into these beds. Lettuce, rocket and other salad greens as well as herbs such as dill, chervil, parsley and coriander will all thrive and give a regular harvest over winter in this protected environment.