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written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Published 4/12/2013

We live right in the middle of a major potato growing region of the US. We can get good quality standard variety potatoes fairly inexpensively here, so why waste garden space on growing potatoes? While quality standard potatoes are readily available, there are many varieties that gardeners are missing when they don’t grow their own potatoes.

Before my son graduated from high school he was in 4-H and had a vegetable garden as one of his projects for fair. While he did all the work, I had the job of buying the seed potatoes for his garden. It gave us the opportunity to try some different red and white potatoes that you don’t find on the grocery store shelf. Two of our favorites were Bison and Sangre, red potatoes with a smooth texture.

Because I have limited garden space I haven’t considered growing potatoes at my new home. After browsing through Irish Eyes Garden City Seeds catalog I may reconsider. Located just outside Ellensburg, Irish Eyes specializes in organic seed potatoes, garlic and vegetable seeds. In their catalog and on their website they give directions for building and growing potatoes in a four foot square ‘tower.’ If you grow the potatoes in the tower according to their directions, they indicate you may be able to realize a harvest of 100 pounds of potatoes. Wow!

How does it work? The first 2 foot by 2 foot layer of the tower is constructed out of 2×6 lumber on top of prepared garden soil. (There is no bottom to the tower.) This first layer is filled with soil media and the seed potatoes are planted four inches deep. The height of the tower is increased with additional ‘layers’ of 2x6s and additional soil media as the potatoes grow. Whenever the tops of the plants reach a height of 12 inches, add a new layer and four more inches of soil media. This layering stops when the tower reaches a height of six layers (approximately 33 inches tall.)

Irish Eyes recommends using potato varieties that keep forming new potato producing stolons over a longer time, such as Yellow Finn, Indian Pitt, Red Pontiac, or any of the fingerling types. They also recommend never covering more than one-third of the vine growth at one time and checking the soil moisture frequently because the towers will dry out quickly in warm weather.

You can find directions for constructing a this tower in the Irish Eyes catalog or their website ( If dealing with lumber and construction isn’t your area of expertise, you can buy commercially available potato bags made from polyethylene (although most available aren’t much taller than 12 to 18 inches) or you can make your own easily with cylinder made from wire fencing lined with paper (newsprint or brown craft paper) or landscape fabric.

I would like to recommend using potting soil to fill your potato tower, but because a tower contains as much as 11 cubic feet of soil most gardeners will want to use something less expensive. Less expensive options are compost-amended soil or well-rotted finished compost. The crucial factors to success are having a loose growing media, keeping the soil media moderately moist even through the hottest parts of summer, and using late season potatoes that continue to send out rhizomes and form tubers through the entire season. Maybe I’ll try this if I can find the right potatoes and enough compost-amended soil.

Why grow your own potatoes? It’s fun.


Now that spring is here and you are cleaning up your yard and garden, you are probably wondering what to do with all your garden refuse. Why not compost it so it can be recycled back into the soil? Tomorrow morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon there will be a Composting & Waste Reduction Workshop at the Mid-Columbia Library at 1620 S. Union St. in Kennewick. Marianne Ophardt, Garden Tips columnist and WSU Extension faculty member, will be teaching participants how to compost in your own backyard.

There is no charge for the class and it is open to all residents of Benton and Franklin counties who want to learn how to compost. All those attending the workshop will receive a free compost bin and book on composting at the end of class. The class will is sponsored by the Solid Waste Division of Benton and Franklin counties and the Cities of Kennewick and Richland, WSU Extension, and the Benton Clean Air Authority.

Published: 4/12/2013 11:15 AM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Something you may not know about me is that I’m part Irish, so I’d like to take this week to talk about growing potatoes. After all, the devastation of the potato harvests by a fungal blight led to the death of at least a million of the Irish people and the emigration of a million more. Definitely not cheery chatter, but fitting to recognize “spuds” as part of the Irish American heritage.

While Idaho is often recognized for its potatoes, Washington comes in a very close second to Idaho in potato production. What makes Washington and Idaho great potato production areas? The Washington State Potato Commission notes that russet potatoes grow so well here because of “favorable soil, day length, a 150-plus day growing season, proper temperatures during the growing season, warm days and cools nights during the bulking season, and controlled irrigation.”

With such an abundance of potatoes grown in our region, why would gardeners want to grow potatoes in their gardens? Commercial production is focused on growing commercial varieties, especially those favored by the food processing industry. There are many wonderful specialty varieties that aren’t readily available in the grocery store or that come at a premium price at local farmers’ markets. My favorites are some of the red potatoes, but some like fingerling potatoes or other heirloom varieties. I also think potatoes are fun and easy to grow.

Potatoes do best when planted early, about the time of the last frost date which is May 1st for our area. Potatoes are an early crop, forming tubers the best when soil temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees. Tubers won’t develop well when soil temperatures are above 80 degrees.

Purchase “certified disease free” potato seed. Novices need to know that “potato seed” isn’t like bean seed or carrot seed. Potato seed is either small potatoes or 2 to 2.5 ounce chunks of the tuber containing one or more “eyes” or buds.

Before planting, till the soil deeply working in some type of quality organic matter, such as compost. Plant the seed pieces about 4 to 6 inches deep and 12 inches apart with rows 2 to 3 feet apart. When the plants are 8 to 10 inches tall, you should “hill” your potatoes. This is done by mounding the soil eight inches tall and a foot wide along the bases of the plants in the row. This prevents the tops of the potato tubers from exposure to sunlight which turns the skin green, making it bitter and poisonous to eat. Hilling also keeps the tubers cooler.

One of the critical factors in growing potatoes successfully is watering . You must keep the soil evenly moist. Irregular soil moisture conditions alternating from too wet and then too dry will result in knobby potatoes.

Here are several garden mail-order companies that specialize in potatoes. Check them out and get your potatoes ordered today.

Irish Eyes-Garden City Seeds in Ellensburg, WA: or call (509) 964-7000

Ronnigers Potato Farm LLC in Austin, CO: or call: (877) 204-8704

Potato Garden in Austin, CO: or call: 970-835-4500

Published: 3/20/2010 11:26 AM


written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Nobody told me. Did they tell you? This year, 2008, is the International Year of the Potato! Here in the Columbia Basin the potato certainly isn’t a second class vegetable. It’s importance to our regional agriculture is recognized by many. However, for those of you that aren’t impressed with the history and importance of these soil grown nuggets, let me enlighten you.

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is an herbaceous annual in the Nightshade family and is related to tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and the deadly nightshade vine. What’s unique about the potato is its tubers that develop underground. Tubers are modified stem tissues that the plant uses to store starch.

Potatoes are truly an American crop. About 8,000 years ago farmers in the Andes mountains of South America first began growing the potato. Through selection they were able to improve this humble wild tuber into a crop that provided food security for their burgeoning population. The potato helped give rise to the South American Huari and Tiahuanacu civilizations. While these civilizations collapsed with the rise of the Incas, the potato persisted and was a staple of the Incan diet. The Incans even developed a freeze-dried potato product and had numerous storages for harvested potatoes.

The invasion of the Spanish in the 1500

s brought about the demise of the Incas, but again the potato survived. The conquistadors took the potato back to Spain and the Spanish introduced it to the rest of Europe. However, the potato wasn’t quickly embraced as a nutritious food crop and was first viewed as more of plant oddity and a food source for animals.

Suspicions about the edibility of potatoes slowed the Europeans embracing the potato as a food crop. The potato’s slow acceptance was also due to its poor performance as a crop under European growing conditions. The potatoes that were first planted in Europe were better adapted to the cool short day conditions found in the Andes mountains. Over time, the Europeans were able to make selections and developed potato varieties that produced better under longer day length conditions. Due to famine, the potato became an important food security crop throughout Europe in the1700


Through European exploration, colonization, and emigration, the potato became cultivated throughout the world. It’s now part of the global food system. It’s ranked fourth as one of the world’s most important food crops, with only corn, wheat, and rice ranking higher. The world’s biggest potato producer? It’s China. Behind China are Russia, India, Ukraine, and the U.S. Top consumers per capita of potatoes are Europeans, with almost double the per capita consumption of North Americans!

Potatoes are a fairly easy crop to grow and gardeners might want to consider adding them to their gardens if they don’t grow them already. When my youngest son had a 4-H garden project, his best crop was always potatoes. While not in touch with his “inner green thumb,” he was still able to grow blue ribbon potatoes.

Of course, many gardeners don’t want to bother growing a crop they can easily buy relatively inexpensively at the grocery store. However, you’re missing out on a number of heirloom varieties of potatoes that offer a greater diversity for tasty consumption. My favorites are red-skinned varieties, such as Sangre, Cherry Red, and Viking Red. Seed potatoes of these and other types can be ordered from two Northwest producers, Ronniger Potato Farm LLC ( and Irish Eyes Garden Seeds (

To plant potatoes, till your garden to loosen the soil and then plant mini-tubers or seed potatoes (cut pieces of potato with one or more eyes) in rows. Make a trench and place the seed pieces about a foot apart and then cover them with about three inches of soil. If you have more than one row, space the rows about three feet or more apart.

Plant early in the season when the soil has warmed a bit to above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Potatoes are a cool season crop, and grow best during the moderate weather of spring and early summer. However, when planted too early they will just sit in the ground and rot before sprouting and growing. A good date for planting is about six to eight weeks before the last average frost date for your area. (May 1 to May 15 is the average date for the last frost in our area.)

Obviously, potatoes do well in most well-drained Columbia Basin soils. The special trick for success with potatoes in our gardens is providing even moisture through the season and fertilizing with nitrogen. Irish Eyes Garden Seeds recommends fertilizing the vines early in the season with an organic foliar fertilizer, such as a fish emulsion or seaweed product. You may also add a nitrogen fertilizer to the soil at planting time. My son worked rabbit manure into the soil before planting tubers.

Since this is the International Year of the Potato let’s celebrate it at Thanksgiving by eating some of these nutritious American tubers that have become a staple food around the world.

Published: 11/22/2008 1:33 PM



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