The allure of farming seems to be in my family’s blood. Every generation I’ve known has dabbled in its own way.
My paternal grandfather worked to farm it seemed. He worked at Goodyear, where he eventually retired from, and took side jobs as a carpenter to purchase the 52 acres my dad grew up farming.
When grandpa stopped farming the land himself, he leased fields to his neighbor and my dad farmed the rest. I remember riding on the hay wagon, while dad and mom baled hay; looking for new kittens in between the bales after they were stacked in the barn and tempting the cattle to come close enough to pet with handfuls of hay. It was fun for me, but maybe not so much for my dad.
In those days, dad worked his regular job pouring concrete full time with plenty of side jobs and overtime hours piled on and then he went up to my grandparents’ house after work to bale the hay, feed the cattle and take care of whatever else needed to be done. Those were long days. I’m sure he felt the weight of those hours, but he always enjoyed farming.
At 61 years old, a lifetime of work has slowed his body down but he still enjoys watching things grow. He doesn’t want the headache of weeding a large garden or countless hours tending to livestock. However, he’ll take on smaller projects.
This year I caught the gardening bug and bit off more than I could chew for the time I had available after I returned to the office. Dad warned me there were bound to be casualties in my garden, packed with an insane amount of vegetable plants for the space. We got some vegetables — more of some than others — but I learned a valuable lesson: gardening is more than planting. And I’m sure dad enjoyed the role reversal as I was now the one toiling over a patch of dirt.
Incidentally, the project we did together turned out a little better. We planted a potato patch. And actually, it was a lot less work than the garden. There was a bit of initial research, a couple of rounds of hilling and then, months later, we dug up our potatoes.
Of course, we’ve already started discussions on improving our strategies before next spring. But for a first attempt, it was kind of cool just to do something with my dad.
Digging up potatoes isn’t too difficult but there are some considerations for determining the timing and technique to harvest them.
When to dig up homegrown potatoes
Potatoes should be harvested late in the season so that smaller tubers have a chance to mature, outer skins have developed fully and flavor is optimal.
Let the vines die. Allow your potato vines to die back to the ground before harvesting. You should have discontinued watering your potato plants when their foliage started yellowing after they flowered. From the time yellowing begins, it takes about 2-3 weeks for the vines to die completely. Waiting to dig out the potatoes until the plant dies allows thick skins to form around the potatoes, which reduces peeling and bruising during harvest.
Wait for the temperature to drop. Wait to harvest potatoes until the temperature drops in the fall, but get them out of the ground before the first hard frost is expected — when temperatures drop below 28 F for at least four consecutive hours. In areas without frost, soil temperatures should still be above 45 F when potatoes are harvested.
How to harvest homegrown potatoes
We harvested our potatoes a couple of weeks ago all at once, but if you’re careful you can harvest them periodically, starting earlier in the season.
Harvesting potatoes earlier in the season. Dig around the outside edges of the plant, lift it up and remove the larger potatoes. After you’ve harvested what you can, put the plant back in place and make sure all the smaller potatoes that are still attached are covered in soil to mature further.
Harvesting potatoes at the end of the season
When temperatures have dropped and it’s time to harvest potatoes at the end of the season, start by digging a test hill to find and assess your potatoes. Mature potatoes will have thick skins that are firmly attached to their flesh. Potatoes with thin skins that rub off easily should be left in the ground for a few more days.
Again, start digging around the outer edges of your potato plants to avoid scraping, bruising or cutting the tubers. Damaged tubers will rot during storage and have to be used as soon as possible.
How to store potatoes
Removing soil. After potatoes are harvested, you can remove soil by brushing it off. However, you should wait to wash potatoes until you’re ready to use them as it can reduce storage life and encourage mold growth.
Curing potatoes. Next, cure your potatoes before tucking them into storage. They should sit in temperatures of 45-60 F for a couple of weeks to allow their skins time to harden and any minor cuts time to seal.
Storing potatoes. Potatoes should be stored at 40 F in a dark, dry place. Too much exposure to light may turn your potatoes green, which can cause stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea. Small green spots can be trimmed off, but potatoes that have a significant amount of greening should be thrown out.
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