How to Grow First Early Potatoes

Early potatoes, varieties that grow quickly and are harvested while small and tender, save money and time in gardens while providing unique growing and eating experiences. “First earlies” are the cream of the crop.
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How to Grow Potatoes 05:02

Joe Lamp'l shows how to plant, grow and harvest potatoes.

Nothing is quite as tasty – or gives better bragging rights - as newly harvested home-grown potatoes. Early-producing potato varieties are preferred by home gardeners who love their sweet flavors; the earliest of all – often called the first early potato varieties - are the sweetest of them all, small and with skins so tender they slip right off.

They are especially useful for gardeners in climates where the season gets hot very quickly and reduces tuber formation, or who have to plant in the late summer for a fall crop. Plus, because small “new” potatoes are fairly expensive at the store, so growing early potato varieties saves money while freeing up space for more valuable summer vegetables.

Because early potato plants can tolerate light frosts but not hard freezes, and produce best before temperatures start saying in the upper 80s, most gardeners plant in early March through April.  Planting too early can lead to rot from soils being too wet and cold, or exposes plants to late freezes.

Potatoes require at least six or eight hours of sunshine daily, and are planted from small pieces of mature tubers, each with at least one or two stem buds called “eyes.” To avoid rotting in cold soils, most gardeners allow the cut pieces to dry a few days before planting, so the seed pieces heal over and start sprouting early.

For good drainage, plant early varieties in very well-drained soils or on top of the soil with fresh soil pulled up to them. They also do very well in raised beds, or in containers such as grow-bags, large buckets, or even stacked car tires.

Protect from light frosts with lightweight “row cover” fabric which lets in sunlight, air, and water, but protects from light frosts and insect attacks.

Because shallow tubers exposed to direct light may turn green and bitter, and build up poisonous levels of a poisonous alkaloid called solanine, it is crucial to cover newly-emerging plant stems as they grow with fresh soil or a thick layer of hay or straw. Repeat as needed until at least six or eight inches of lower stem are buried.

Begin harvesting early potatoes within about three months of planting. Gently probe the soil close to plant stems to feel for the ones you want to harvest first, leaving others to stay in the ground to preserve their fresh taste. Small early potatoes are usually not as prolific as long-term “main crop” varieties, and they often do not store as well so are best harvested early and eaten within a few days or a couple of weeks.  First earlies can store in the ground for about a month

A Few Good Varieties

It is hard to find the perfect early variety, so try several. If you can’t find any locally to plant, order online – but order early because these delicacies sell out early.

Irish cobbler is an irregularly shaped light brown variety ideally suited for early planting. Some of the best red-skin varieties with white flesh include Colorado Rose, Rio Colorado, and Norland. Red Gold has red skin and a golden yellow flesh.

Yukon Gold is a very popular yellow fleshed variety with an almost buttery flavor; its small plant size allows for closer spacing and better harvests. Augusta has yellow skin, pink eyes, and gold flesh.

British gardeners grow a lot of the ultra-early, high-yielding Lady Christi, Red Duke of York, and Home Guard which is the traditional first early potato grown in Ireland.

There are many others, of course, but these are great starters.

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