In case you forgot to order your seed potatoes or your onion starts didn’t work out, you can get seed potatoes and onion sets or plants in the produce section at Jones’ Food Center again this year.
They’re not organic, and the varieties are pretty humdrum, but the varieties are for the most part good storage types, so putting a little money into plants, sets, or seed is a good investment toward your winter larder.
Too, while the seed potatoes aren’t organic, if you grow your potatoes organically, or even being somewhat restrained in your chemical use (an idea I’m not promoting), your end product will still be better than non-organic potatoes you buy in the store.
That’s because most big conventional potato growers aerial spray their fields with herbicide to kill off the potato plants at the end of the season before they dig up the potatoes (instead of waiting until the plants die back, which is what most home gardeners and small farmers do). This means the tubers you’re buying sit in soil very recently sprayed with toxins just before they’re harvested.
So, what’s the difference between a seed potato and a regular eating potato? Nothing, really, except conventionally grown eating potatoes are also often treated to a anti-sprouting treatment. Most organic potatoes are not treated in this way, which is why you’ll often see co-ops hiding their organic tubers under burlap or some other light-blocker.
You can use any old potato you buy in the store as a seed potato, as long as it will, in fact, sprout. Generally good-sized potatoes are cut into two or three pieces with one to three “eyes” (those little divots) before planting–when you cut your seed potatoes make sure to give the cut ends a day or so to dry out before planting.
Plant potatoes early–as soon as the ground can be worked. I put my potatoes in little trenches with the soil hilled up on either side of the bed. That way, when it comes time to “hill” the row in order to force more of the stem to sprout roots and tubers, I’m basically just filling in the trench with soil that’s right there.
This method also helps a little with the inevitable freeze-off of the first growth when we get a late spring frost–they’re somewhat protected by the soil mounds and a little below soil surface level, so sometimes escape being blackened by the cold (not always, but they do come back).
I’m not as familiar with conventional methods for onion growing, and since the onion you plant is the onion you’ll be eating (whereas the potato you sow produces the plant that produces more roots and more potatoes), you might want to think about ordering organic sets or plants if you’re concerned about chemicals.
Still, the onion you’ll be eating will be getting much bigger in your own home soil, where you know what it’s feeding off of, so it’s really up to you. I would still expect those onions produced by non-organic sets or plants and grown organically in good soil to be far superior to conventionally-grown onions from the store.
I’ve used both onion sets and onion plants in the past, and I think the plants are a better way to go. The onions I’ve grown off of plants are much bigger and nicer. The only trick is to make sure to keep the roots of the plants moist up until you get them into the ground, so the plants aren’t pulling moisture out of the nascent bulb to keep the leaves going.
Onion sets and plants can also go in the ground early–they’re big enough to withstand some of the early cold and bad weather, and you want to get them well-established and growing good-sized bulbs before mid-summer, when they are at about the biggest size they’re going to get.
You can plant onion sets or plants in a square of four if you’re in a square-foot gardening, raised bed or wide bed situation–they’ll expand outward in their little corner of the square nicely.