potatoes for dinner, but not for storage (yet)

Fresh-dug early red-skinned potatoesIFELT LIKE BAKED POTATOES TO GO WITH the green beans I was steaming up for dinner the other night, and at first lamented I’d forgotten to buy any, and then…aha! Out I went to the potato row, where the foliage is about half-withered, and stuck a hand down into the hilled-up soil to find my prey. Perfect for eating, but not ready yet for storage, it seems, so I’m leaving the rest, minus the occasional supper requirements, right where they are awhile longer. Here’s why, and what I’ll do at harvest time:

My hero James Crockett of the original vintage 1970s “Victory Garden” PBS fame said he just left the carefully dug tubers out on top of the former row for a few hours to dry a bit, then put them in burlap or mesh bags in a cool, dark place at once. Even with a few days of light exposure, the potatoes would turn green and inedible.

He didn’t bother with curing the crop, exactly, which is the more conventional advice today:

Dig when the soil is dry, not wet, after the foliage has died down. I normally leave them right in the ground until I am ready for them in late fall, long after the plants have faded, to reduce indoor storage time, hoping for a dry spell later in the year.

First, to gauge readiness, carefully dig a hill or two of potatoes, starting about a foot outside the hill itself and working inward, since potatoes can sprout on long roots nearly a foot to either side of where you started. (The “seed potato” from a hill I uprooted earlier, above, is the one at the end of the stem, sending off satellite roots to form more tubers.) They don’t really go deeper than planted, but go a bit sideways and even closer to the surface than the seed potato was placed. Exploring with your hands will guarantee no pierced or otherwise damaged potatoes; if you use a fork and any tubers get damaged, eat those first.

Check these first tubers: Is the skin thin and easily rubbed off, like mine (top)? Fine for eating, but not good for keeping yet; let them wait awhile longer underground; I’d check in another week.

Once harvest time is right for the rest, plan to put them in baskets or trays and cure them—unwashed, just as they come from the ground with any heavy soil clods brushed gently off—in a dark spot that’s counter-intuitively humid (like 90 percent) and between 50 and 60 degrees. Guess I’ll be turning off the dehumidifer in my very primitive Victorian-era basement, or using the space under the bulkhead door between outside and the basement perhaps, depending when I harvest. This treatment lasts for two weeks, and then they go into a colder spot for storage.

First cull any soft or bruised potatoes, or any showing signs of shriveling; one bad potato (like the apple of the traditional phrase) will spoil the whole lot. Longterm storage is also humid and ideally at 40 degrees and dark, with a tolerance range of 38-45 degrees. Close to 50 and they will start to resprout in a couple of months, and I think you know what happens to frozen potatoes. This is where a root cellar would be heaven, but not one shared with apples or other fruits that give off ethylene gas (which like too much warmth starts things growing).

And this is why I wait: My bulkhead or cellar won’t be cool enough for awhile for the storage phase, but if I time my digging right it will be 50-something falling to 40ish a couple of weeks after I dig. I suspect this is why Crockett “skipped” the formal curing: The space he used probably got cooler gradually as desired, without moving the crop again.

Some people have an extra refrigerator that they use as a root cellar by turning it up a few degrees; no room for that here. In slightly warmer climates, an unheated but insulated garage would suit.

Again, I’ll use the a spot in my cellar or bulkhead, which is cool enough come winter, but mouse-proof the stash first inside a big hardware-cloth mesh chest made from framing lumber with the mesh stapled on. Good air circulation is essential, despite the preferred humidity, so closing them in a plastic foot locker or some such repurposed device isn’t an option.

In years when I only grew enough for eating in the fall, I simply left the whole crop in the ground, under an extra mulch layer, and harvested once-weekly what I’d use, much as you would carrots or beets. Sometimes I’d miss a few tubers, which would surprise me and start growing again the next spring, or find themselves magically unearthed, in perfect condition, when I was out there planting my next round of potatoes.

  1. Chiot's Run says:

    I haven’t started harvesting potatoes yet since my vines haven’t died back yet. I helped my mom harvest hers. She grew Yukon Gold because they freeze well.

    I like you don’t have a proper storage space, although I’m considering turning my bilco into a sort of root cellar.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Chiot’s Run. Maybe everywhere around America home gardeners will turn their Bilco doors into root cellars. We can start a trend. Just have to animal-proof, make a big locker. Working on perfecting that part now. See you soon again, I hope.

  2. We just harvested our first potatoes, like you though they were for dinner (roasted with green beans, olive oil) ours aren’t ready for storage yet. We grew ours in barrels this year, it is fun tipping over to harvest the spuds. We then throw the soil into the compost pile…I highly recommend this method! Kim

  3. Margaret says:

    Welcome, The Inadvertent Farmer (Kim!). I love the barrel idea, and keep meaning to get it together and do that and save horizontal space. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Janice says:

    We dont grow a lot of potatoes in the garden, as we have a problem with scab. After trying all kinds of permutations and combinations of ph and NPK combinations, I now just grow potatoes for late summer/fall dinners in containers, and buy large sacks for storing from a local farmer.
    Glad to hear your potatoes are just fine — apparently the same blight that affects the tomatoes also goes after potatoes!

  5. CopyStrands says:

    Thank you for this informative post. We grew potatoes this year and after reading this learned even more! P.S. I love potatoes especially fried up for breakfast. Yummy!

  6. catjane says:

    Thanks for the mention of Jim Crockett. I can’t imagine how many TV viewers he started on the road to veggie gardens all those years ago. I still have his book, though some the advice is dated. Why don’t we have gardening programs like that any more? The recent “Victory Garden” programs pale in comparison.

    Did you know there’s a very pretty blue Boltonia named for him?

  7. dawn says:

    I harvested all my potatoes a few weeks ago after the tops had completely died back. It was a very warm and humid period…i was sure they’d need DRY air instead, but they have cured just fine and are quite hard. Do you know why humidity is called for? It does sound counterintuitive.

    I had to pull one of my tomato plants due to the blight, but amazingly, it hasn’t affected my remaining plants, even though i inadvertently tied back a few branches on a healthy plant after pulling up the blighted plant.

    So I’ve been eating tomatoes, but have only been able to freeze up a small amount thus far for winter use.

  8. Megan says:

    We can never seem to grow enough potatoes to have any left for storing. Maybe next year…I’ll bookmark this post. Thanks for all the informative tips!

  9. Rosella says:

    Ummm — foreigner (Australian) here. What’s a Bilco? Or is that one of those questions that if you have to ask, you can’t afford one?

  10. Alyssa says:

    All the advice is well and good if you are living in a temperate climate. If you are like me, trying to garden in the northern end of California’s Central Valley, you have many challenges like intense heat in September. Sure, we have almost a year-round growing season, but at what cost? Tomorrow is Sept. 10th and it’s supposed to 100 degrees here! I can’t plant fall vegies cause it’s too darn hot. As it is, I have to shield my pepper plants and tomatoes from the blistering sun.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Alyssa. Yes, sorry to be more Northern-centric, but gardening is on so many timeclocks here in the diverse US, and my expertise is really in the cooler half (though I did garden a little bit in Northern California for a couple of years a very long time ago). I think the areas of low rainfall and spells of intense heat like you describe are the hardest areas…although often also very beautiful in their own way. I hope that the heat breaks in time for you to get the crops in.

  11. Jan says:

    My potatoes have been stored in our garage. It has gotten cold in there, but not under 23 degrees at times. When I peeled my potatoes they were all black streaked inside. Did they freeze? Can they be eaten?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jan. So many factors can cause blackening inside potatoes, and though you say they got to 23 degrees the ideal temperature for storage of potatoes is more like 45. Have a look at all the causes of darkening inside tubers on this Cornell potato diagnostic site (it’s a little clumsy as the photos are not clickable right now, but if you see the one that looks like your situation you have to scan through text to find that image number and get the cause).

      But if your potatoes really got to 23 F, hurry and dispose of them before they degrade into a smelly pile of mush, which they will. Sorry not to have good news, but maybe it will prevent future mishaps.

  12. Stacey says:

    My husband will be really interested to read the finer points of potato storage….we never knew we should cure them first!
    We live even farther upstate than you, Margaret, and a couple years ago had a mud/laundry room built our of 1/3 of our garage. Unlike our garage, we insulated the laundry room, but saw no reason to heat it with anything other than a manual baseboard heating unit. The idea of the room was to have a place to leave the mud before coming into the house proper, and to have (relatively) clean place to do the laundry. (I also got a potting sink and seed-starting area out of it, just dumb luck, though.)
    So in winter it stays about 40 degrees—perfect for storing potatoes! For the past two years we have been storing them in one drawer of a long sideboard we put in the mudroom. Top drawer: mittens and hats; next drawer, old towels and dog accessories/products; side cabinet, dog and cat food, side cabinet, martini fixins’, THIRD DRAWER: POTATO STORAGE!! I layer them on old egg boxes to ensure good air circulation, and this system works like a charm! Maybe a few of your other readers could use our system to store their very own potatoes over winter.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Stacey — and yes, y mud room does the trick, too! Mine are on the closet shelf beneath the big box of candles, next to the vacuum cleaner, tee hee. Some varieties are good “keepers,” some aren’t, so even the best spot won’t work for certain varieties as well as others. Nice to meet you; see you soon.

  13. Peter Pepper says:

    re yr “Bilco” query: usually in U.S. it’s an added-on outside entry system for basements — steel doors over a steep stairwell leading to a cellar door. It readily becomes a root cellar.

  14. Laurie says:

    Please explain to me why green tomatoes that have been left in the sun are not to be eaten…
    My friend thinks they are edible and I say no..
    Thank you

    1. Kay Watson says:

      The greening of potatoes is caused by exposure to sunlight. The potato produces a substance called solanine, which is a glycoalkaloid. The purpose of these substances, is to act as a natural insecticide, that protects the plant form insect damage.

      Solanine is toxic. The presence of green doesn’t always indicate the presence of solanine. While some experts say we can tolerate consumption of *some* potatoes with green, it is best to always use caution and stay away from them.

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