There is nothing more fascinating for a farmer than digging potatoes out of the ground. It brings out the treasure hunter who exists within each of us.
And anyone can grow potatoes. These high-yielding veggies are easy to grow and, contrary to conventional wisdom, do not require a lot of land. A kilo of seed that takes up a 10 foot row can yield up to 10 kilos of delicious tubers.
Growing potatoes is not difficult. Fertile soil, loads of organic matter and good seed are the key ingredients in producing this great-tasting food. Mashed, baked or fried, potatoes are universally loved. And I have never eaten anything tastier than home-grown potatoes!
But the path to success is not smooth. One of the joys of living in Kodaikanal is waking up each morning to a melodious chorus of birdsong; however, the symphony is often drowned out by the noise of a petrol sprayer. These sprayers squirt out droplets of Dithane M-45 fungicide over every potato farm in the area. Many years ago, I set out to discover why people feel this spray is needed in these hills and if there was any way to avoid using it.
So what does Dithane actually do? It prevents the spread of blight in the potato crop by inhibiting spore development. One problem that torments every potato crop is blight, a fungal attack that thrives in wet and humid conditions. The leaves turn brown in patches and the stem turns black. Within a week, the plant just disappears, as if it has been burnt. Where does the blight come from? Poor farming practices have resulted in the potato seed storing the blight spore within it.
Dithane M-45 is toxic if absorbed by the skin, and direct contact must be avoided. Like all fungicides, its overuse depletes the soil of useful fungal activity in the long run.
As soon as the plant emerges from the ground (around 15 days after planting) the spraying must begin and has to continue till harvest time. This is the training that Agriculture University scientists, along with pesticide manufacturers, have consistently given our farmers.
As for me, my first seeds were a variety called Sikkim Red, a potato that has no problems with early blight. The Sikkim Red traces back to a Dutch variety called the Lady Rosetta, known for its red outer skin and dry matter. The Sikkim Red also contains less moisture compared to the Kodai varieties and, therefore, prevents easy fungal attacks. I set off on my potato-growing journey and have never looked back since.
If you use the growing method I’m about to describe, you will have great-tasting potatoes without the chemicals used in store-bought ones, which have been sprayed with pesticides and have been in storage for so long that they have lost much of their flavour.
Although classified as a cool-weather crop, potatoes are flexible and will grow under a broad range of conditions. While the plants tend to be more productive in elevations above 3000 feet, they can be grown anywhere in the country. In the Palani Hills, at an altitude of 7000 feet, they can be grown all year round. The plants do not like temperatures above 30oC. Potato foliage can handle temperatures up to freezing point. In the Palani Hills, the best time to plant is between March and July. Too much rain does make a blight attack likely.
I like to use seeds that are around the size of a chicken’s egg, but larger ones can be cut into two as long as each piece has at least two to three eyes. Rest the cut seeds in a warm, dark place so that the cut side heals and protects the seed from rotting. I prefer not to cut the seeds I plant.
The time between planting and harvest varies with variety. Some come in early, from 70 to 90 days, but the best for storage are the ones that mature between 90 and 110 days from planting.
Potatoes need at least six to eight hours of full sun every day, and at least 25mm of water each week from either rain or deep watering. They will grow in any soil but prefer a light, well-drained soil, rich in organic matter and slightly on the acidic side. For most vegetable crops, heavy soil can be amended with manure, but for potatoes, manure increases the chance of infection from potato scab, a disease that causes superficial reddish-brown spots on the surface of tubers. For soil amendment in the case of potatoes, use only compost or dried leaves.
Potatoes are planted in trenches that are 6 inches deep and are spaced 24 inches apart. Put well-rotted compost into the trench before placing the potatoes on top and then fill in the mud to bring the level back to the soil surface. The spacing between rows should be 24 inches.
When the plants are 8 inches tall, give them their second and last feed. This should be around 45 days from the date of planting the seed. Pull the soil up on either side so that they are half buried (see photo above). Make sure that some leaves show for continued growth. From now till harvest time there is absolutely no work you have to do other than making sure the plants get adequate water.
Pests and diseases
Strong, healthy plants can normally deal with mild pest attacks. For dealing with blight there is an organic solution. Take 4 cups of curd and let it sit in a bucket for 3 weeks till it becomes sour. Dilute this with 10 times the quantity of water and strain the liquid. Using a watering can, pour this liquid on your plants, once every 10 days from the 50th day to the 70th day, and the dreaded blight will be under control.
There are three factors that affect potato yields: fertility—rich soils produce greater yields; watering—the soil surrounding them should be consistently moist but not soaking wet; and disease control—to what extent you keep blight at bay. If all these factors are monitored well, you can expect a yield of ten times the amount of seed that you have planted.
Potato tubers are ready when the flowers on the plants begin to fade. After that the crop can be harvested for immediate consumption. To harvest potatoes for storage, wait until the plants have completely died. Dig the crop out and store in a dark, well-ventilated room at 18oC for ten days. After this the potatoes can be kept for several months without sprouting if stored in a cool, humid room in complete darkness.