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Kids love to start potatoes because you don't plant seeds - you plant EYES.

EWWWW!!!! But don't worry. They're not REAL eyes. The "eyes" of a potato are the small indented buds that are scattered around each tuber, and from which new potato plants can grow.

Potatoes are nutritious and come in many colors: white, brown, red, yellow, and even blue and purple ones.

Keep in mind that the ONLY edible part of a potato is the part that grows underground - the "tuber." The stems, leaves and every other plant part is poisonous - part of the nightshade family - so teach kids NEVER to eat anything but the potato.

The edible part - the tuber - is kind of like a refrigerator for the rest of the plant. It stores the plant's food!

The plant's leaves draw in the sunlight, water and carbon dioxide from above ground, and converts them into energy. The energy is stored below as the potatoes we like to eat.

Pulling up the potatoes and separating them from the green parts of the plant will kill the plant, but that's OK: we'll just plant new potato "eyes" next year and grow some more!

Two to four weeks before the date of the last expected frost, or in mid- to late April in the Omaha area, you can plant potato eyes. They will germinate most easily in soil temperatures of 65 - 70 degrees, so planting them much earlier than this probably won't pay off.

You have to plan ahead to plant potato eyes, and mark a couple of key dates on your calendar because potatoes require a couple of tasks later on.

Purchase seed potatoes, which are marketed specifically because they will produce good plants. You might get some plants out of store-bought table potatoes. But you'll be happier with your harvest if you use seed potatoes. Potatoes are very disease-prone, so it's best to use certified disease-free seed potatoes for a good crop.

Two days before planting, cut each seed potato into two-inch chunks, making sure that there is one "eye" in each chunk. Let them dry on a paper towel indoors at about 70 degrees, in high humidity so that the chunks don't begin to rot.

Make trenches that are about six inches deep and six inches wide, and cultivate well. Add a little compost.

Place each chunk about 12" apart, and cover with 3" to 4" of soil.

One week AFTER shoots emerge, mound the soil around the base, leaving a few inches of the shoots exposed. This is called "hilling." It is important to prevent your potatoes from getting exposed to the light and turning green in color.

Two or three weeks later, apply fertilizer about 6" away from the plant, and "hill" again, mounding up still more soil.

Your potato plants may reach about 24" to 30" in height and will spread out about 24" in width. They may reach as deep as 18" under the surface, or even deeper if you've dug down deep enough to loosen the soil and make it easy to grow underneath.

HARVEST during blossoming or about 10 weeks after planting, if you want small "new" potatoes. Harvest about 17 weeks after planting if you want regular-sized potatoes, when the vines have died back about halfway.

To harvest, gently pull or dig out the potatoes with a garden fork. Always do this in dry soil to avoid damaging the skin. If you decide they aren't large enough yet, just pack the soil back and try again in about two weeks.

If you intend to store the potatoes over the winter instead of eating them right away, dig them near the first fall frost, when the plant tops have died back. Dry them on the ground for a day or two, and then cure at 50-60 degrees in high humidity for 10-14 days, out of the sun so they don't turn green.

Once cured, store in total darkness in a single layer. You can try adding some English lavender, rosemary or sage, which are thought to keep potatoes from sprouting while in storage.

Good companion plants: Beans, catnip, coriander, eggplant, flax, goldenrod, horseradish, nasturtium, onion and corn.

Potatoes are incompatible when planted near cucumbers, peas, pumpkins, raspberries, spinach, squash, sunflowers or tomatoes.

By Susan Darst Williams • • Plants 02 • © 2010

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