Planting Potatoes; IPM Flea Beetles and Aphids

We’ve got a lot for you in this post: first, we’ll talk about planting potatoes! Then, we’ll move on to ways to deal with the earliest spring pests – flea beetles and aphids.

Potatoes can sometimes be intimidating for new growers, but they are actually a very simple crop to grow. Potatoes can be planted about 4-6 weeks before the last frost (which is usually in mid or late May in New York). People typically use “seed potatoes” for planting, which are potatoes stored from last year, or sold specifically to be used for seed. It can be possible to use potatoes from the store to plant, however, these potatoes are sometimes treated with a “growth inhibitor”, which prevents the potato from sprouting, and are more likely to bring in disease to your garden. It is best to go with potatoes that are labeled as seed potatoes to avoid a failed crop. You can buy seed potatoes online from places like High Mowing Seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds. You can also buy them at Agway or Tractor Supply. Another good place to find seed potatoes is at farmers markets; many farmers often have potatoes that have sprouted that they may be willing to sell to you at a reduced price (local farmers do not treat their potatoes with growth inhibitors).

If you are using small potatoes to plant (golf ball size or smaller), you don’t need to cut them up, but for large potatoes, you’ll want to cut them into sections, with an eye in each section. The eye of the potato is actually where the new plant will sprout. You can see a person cutting their potato into sections in the picture below.

Here is a link to a helpful video that will also help you identify the eyes on the potato, and help you figure out which ones to cut and which ones to plant whole. In the video she mentions that she likes to have 2 eyes per plant – this is ideal, but not totally necessary. As long as there is one eye on the plant, your potatoes should sprout. She also mentions that she leaves her potatoes out to dry for a day before planting – this is a good idea, because it causes the potatoes to “scar” where you cut them, which helps them avoid rotting in the ground.

Potatoes are a plant that grows very well in containers. Many people use grow bags, buckets, deep pots, and even old tires. Potatoes are great in pots because they are easy to care for and easy to harvest – simply dump the containers and get the potatoes out of the dirt. To plant in containers, fill the container with about 4 inches of potting soil or garden soil. Place your cut seed potatoes in with the eye facing up. You can usually put 2-4 cuttings per container. Cover potatoes with about 4 inches of soil. Water after planting. Once the potatoes sprout, and the plant reaches 3-4 inches tall, add more soil to the container, so just the top of the plant is sticking out. This is called hilling. The more you are able to hill a plant, the more potatoes you will get. It will also prevent your potatoes from being exposed to sunlight, which causes them to green. The green part of the potato is not edible. Do this throughout the season, until you can no longer add dirt to the container.

To plant them in the ground or raised bed, make a trench about 4-6 inches deep. Place the potatoes in the trench with the eyes facing up, with 6-12 inches between potatoes. The more space you give them, the more potatoes you will get. Fill in the trench and water. Just like with growing in containers, you will want to hill your potatoes. You can use your hands to push soil up around the plants, until just the top of your plant is peeking out, or you can use a rake. Be careful not to damage the plants or the roots when using a rake.

Potato plants can handle a light frost in the spring, but it’s best to cover your plants if frost is expected. Frost can set your plants back, and protecting them will make sure you get the best harvest.

Harvest time depends on the type of potato that you plant – some are early and some are late. A good way to tell that your potatoes are ready to harvest is when the plants have begun to die back. When harvesting potatoes from the ground, use a digging fork or shovel – just be careful not to stick the fork in too close to the potatoes, so you don’t damage them.

The next part of this post is dedicated to two of the biggest pests that gardeners deal with – flea beetles and aphids.

Flea beetles are small and black, and aphids are small and usually green, but can be orange/yellow or black. Flea beetles and aphids do different things to your plants, but they both show up early in the season, can stay all season, and can cause a lot of damage to your plants.

They usually affect leafy greens, brassicas (like broccoli, kale, and collards), and eggplant.

There are many ways to fight these little terrors:

  1. One of the best ways is to start right from the beginning. Cover your plants as soon as you plant them, and keep them covered until you are ready to harvest. The cover should be something breathable, that lets light and air through. Covering them with something too heavy will block out sunlight and airflow from your plants and stunt their growth. Farmers often use floating row cover, a lightweight fabric that is designed to protect crops from frost and pests. This can be hard to find in stores, and is usually purchased online from places like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Farmtek, or Amazon. However, many people use supplies they already have at home as row cover. People often use lightweight white sheets or old sheer curtains. You can also use clear plastic, however this will create a “greenhouse effect”, and it can burn your plants or cause them to overheat on sunny days.

You’ll want to have your cover “floating” above the plants – if it’s laying directly on the plants, it can damage them. You can use many things to lift the cover up off the plants – many people use sticks, rebar, or anything you can stick into the ground and lay the cover over. Farmers often use bent metal hoops that they stick into the ground a couple of feet apart and put their cover over that. You may want to weight your cover down along the edges with rocks or dirt to avoid the cover blowing off on windy days.

  1. Beneficial insects are great for controlling aphids and flea beetles. Leaving ladybugs in your garden is a great way to combat aphids. Birds also feed on small insects, so leaving habitats in your garden that will attract birds (bushes, trees, etc.) will help to keep them around.
  2. Many people use sticky traps to catch flea beetles and aphids once an infestation has started. Many sticky traps are bright yellow colored to attract the bugs. The one downside to this is potentially catching beneficial insects, like spiders and ladybugs.
  3. Watering – you can wash these small bugs off of your plants with a bit of water pressure from a hose. This won’t be a permanent fix, but it can help stop them from damaging your plants a bit.
  4. There are some plants that help repel flea beetles and aphids, like basil, onions, and dill. Plant these crops next to your sensitive plants to help keep bugs away. Mint and catnip are also said to help, but be careful with these plants in your garden – they are perennial, or come back year after year, and can be invasive in a small garden.
  5. Some people use organic pesticides to control bugs, but I would advise against this. In a small scale garden, pesticides can have a big effect. Some people use diatomaceous earth to kill flea beetles and aphids – it is not toxic to ingest, but it is toxic to inhale, so it should be used with caution. Other people use a solution of dish soap and water or neem oil and water on their soil and plants, which is often seen as a less harmless pesticide, but I would avoid using it on leafy greens or on any part of the plant you are going to eat – both of these things are toxic to ingest. Dish soap can also damage plants.
  6. If you have the time and patience, you can also remove these bugs by hand!

It is worth noting that, although these bugs can cause damage to your plants, they are not dangerous to people. Many gardeners’ solution, especially to aphids, is just to wash them away before eating their veggies, and if they can’t wash them away, they just eat them! However, it may be better, and more appetizing, to keep them off your plants!