Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are an annual root crop in the same plant family as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. They prefer to grow in cool weather, though the foliage is not very frost-hardy. In most areas, gardeners plant potatoes in early spring and harvest the crop in summer. However, there are options to grow and harvest potatoes in fall and winter, depending on the local climate.
Andean farmers have grown potatoes for millennia in the short summers of the high, cold mountains of Peru and Bolivia. All modern varieties stem from the thousands that were developed in this region. The preference of potatoes for cool weather comes from this history, but modern breeders have not yet succeeded in developing a variety that tolerates freezing temperatures. In the Andes, there are traditional varieties that tolerate subzero temperatures, but these all have a very bitter flavor and underwent extensive processing to be consumed in their traditional cultures. None of these varieties are commercially available in the United States.
Potatoes can be planted as early in spring as the soil can be worked. In the southernmost parts of the country and throughout the low elevation areas of California, is it possible to plant the tubers in the winter. They will begin to form a root system underground and, if the weather is frost-free, start to leaf out on the surface. However, frosty weather will kill the tops of any of the modern potato varieties. All is not lost, though, because the plants will sprout again and continue to grow until the new crop has matured underground.
There are many late-maturing potato varieties that are bred for planting in summer for a fall harvest. These are among the best varieties for winter storage. In areas of very mild winters, like southern Florida, these varieties can be planted in early fall for a winter harvest. "German Butterball" is a popular late-season variety with yellow flesh and a buttery flavor. "Russian Blue" is very late-maturing and has purple skin and flesh. "Bintje" is a white variety with very thick skin, a trait that allows it to be stored deep into the winter months.
Potatoes can be grown in fall and winter if they are protected from frosts by a cold frame or greenhouse. A cold frame is like a small greenhouse built on the surface of the ground to cover a single bed of plants. They are typically constructed with four wooden sides and a hinged lid of glass or transparent plastic. The heat of the daytime sun is trapped inside at night and the covering prevents cold air from settling on the leaves and causing frost damage. A well-insulated cold frame or greenhouse will be several degrees warmer than the outside air, though an external heat source can be provided if greater cold protection is needed.
- Ohio State University Extension: Growing Potatoes in the Home Garden
- niversity of Minnesota Extension: Growing Potatoes in Home Gardens
- Arizona Cooperative Extension: Potatoes
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Growing Potatoes in the Florida Home Garden
- Grain: Potato - A Fragile Gift from the Andes
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