The Garden Patch: You can grow spuds and squashes

052514-garden-excericiseWell, here we go on another gardening adventure with a crop you have probably been growing in your garden already – or at least plan to grow. Today, let’s talk ‘tators!

Growing potatoes in your home garden can be an adventure! Choose unusual varieties you can’t buy at the grocery store or a favorite variety you’ve discovered through your local farmers’ market.

Sun and Soil. Potatoes need full sun. They will grow fine in moderately fertile soil enriched with organic matter. If the site isn’t well drained, build a raised bed, or at least surface-plant your potatoes as described below.

Planting. It’s critical to buy certified disease-free seed potatoes. Potatoes grow best when the soil is at least 50 degrees F. If you plant potatoes in a 4-inch-deep trench, cover the seed potatoes with at least 2 inches of soil right away. Fill the trench as the foliage emerges and then use a hoe to hill up loose soil around the plants at least once (twice is better) as they continue to grow. By the end of the season, the plants will be covered by a low mound of soil.

If you surface-plant, expect a lower yield than with trench planting. Loosen the top few inches of soil. Lay the seed pieces on the soil, cut side down. Mulch with shredded leaves, leaf mold or clean straw. Add mulch as the plants grow, maintaining a layer several inches thick over the tubers. The mulch will protect the tubers and minimize weeding. Spraying foliage with a fish emulsion and seaweed spray shortly after sprouts emerge and again just before plants flower may help make up the difference.

Growing. Potatoes have shallow roots and need lots of water, especially once foliage is fully developed and tubers are enlarging. If your soil is sandy, you may need to water as often as every three days. Cut back on water when foliage starts to turn yellow; otherwise, the tubers will rot! Cover newly planted areas with row cover and seal the edges to protect young sprouts from aphids, Colorado potato beetles and other pests.

Problem solving. Crop rotation is very important for potatoes because many of the problems that affect the tubers are carried in the soil. Scout plants for foliage-feeding pests and handpick any that you find. Spray garlic or hot pepper spray to repel insect pests. Coat plants with kaolin clay before leafhoppers become active. Bacterial wilt, Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt and root-knot nematodes can cause stunting and wilting. Cut through a stem. If brown ooze drips out, bacterial wilt is the cause. If the stem shows brown streaks inside, the problem is Verticillium or Fusarium. Uproot a plant to check for bumps on tubers and small galls on other roots. These are signs of root-knot nematodes. Stunted and wilted plants will not yield well. Remove the infected plants. To prevent bacterial wilt in the future, plant in well-drained soil.

Harvesting. Vines may die back on their own as the potato crop matures, but if they don’t, cut them off at soil level two weeks before you want to dig your potatoes. This will trigger the potatoes to harden, which helps them last longer in storage.

OK! That’s it for spuds! Now, let’s do squash

You can grow great crops of summer squash (zucchini, yellow squash and patty pan squash),winter squash (butternut, buttercup, acorn, spaghetti and more), and pumpkins.

Sun and soil. Squash grows well in full sun in average, well-drained soil.

Planting. Plant seeds or transplants in soil that has warmed to about 60 degrees F. It’s common to plant squash in hills, sowing several seeds in raised mounds of soil about one foot across. Work a generous shovelful of compost into each planting hill before you sow seeds or set out transplants. You can start seeds indoors in 4-inch pots, too; seedlings will be ready for the garden about three weeks after sowing. Be sure to harden them off by moving them outdoors to a cold frame or other protected spot for the last week before transplanting. Check the seed packet for plant spacing.

Growing. Cover seedlings or transplants with row cover immediately at planting time to prevent early attack by cucumber beetles and other insect pests. Leave the covers on until the plants outgrow them or start to flower. By then, they should be better able to withstand some pest damage. If you had to squeeze plants in more closely than the recommended spacing, pinch the growing tips after each vine has set a few fruits. Support the vines with sturdy trellises or tepees.

The first flowers that form on squash vines are male flowers, which produce pollen but no fruit. If female flowers have appeared and aren’t forming fruit, the problem is lack of pollination. Insects pollinate squash flowers, and if the weather is cloudy and cool, the insects may not be working the blossoms. You can hand pollinate the female flowers: Use a cotton swab to pick up pollen from a male flower and transfer it to female blossoms. One male flower has enough pollen to hand pollinate several female flowers. The best time to pollinate is in the morning, after the dew has dried.

Problem solving. If leaves have pale areas or yellow flecks, examine the leaves closely to see if squash bugs or spider mites might be the culprits. Look on leaf undersides and young shoots for small greenish squash bug nymphs of shield-shaped gray adults. Spider mites look like tiny specks and make fine webs on the leaf undersides.

For spider mites, aim a strong stream of water from your garden hose at infected plants, turning the stream at many angles to wash all plant surfaces clean. Handpick squash bugs. If a spider mite or squash bug problem is severe, spray insecticidal soap.

Harvesting. Cut the stem of summer squash with a knife or garden shears when the fruits are three to six inches long. Allow winter squash and pumpkins to reach mature size before harvesting.
Watch for the rind to become a little dull, and lightly scratch it with your fingernail. If it doesn’t leave a mark, the squash is ready to harvest. Use pruners to cut winter squash and pumpkins from the vine, leaving a 2- to 3-inch long stem on each one.

That’s it folks! When we continue, we’re gonna talk about the veggie that practically everyone that gardens raises – tomatoes! Stay tuned – we’ll keep you informed! Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.


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