Question: Gardening centers are now selling potatoes to start in the garden. I would love to grow potatoes in my garden. Is there anything specific you need to know to be a successful potato grower?

Answer: Potatoes, a relative of other common garden vegetables tomatoes and peppers, can be grown successfully in most New Jersey gardens but a little extra attention to insects and disease is required. There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes available including many of the specialty types such as fingerlings and purple varieties. There are also varieties for early, mid and late season harvesting.

Potatoes are started from pieces called seeds which may be very small whole potatoes or cut pieces that include at least one "eye". It is recommended to buy certified disease free seed potatoes rather than using potatoes bought from the store. These seed potatoes are less likely to harbor disease especially viruses.

Your planting area should be well draining sandy loam soil, with lots of organic matter. The pH of your soil is very important for disease prevention when growing potatoes. They prefer a pH of 5.0 to 5.5, slightly more acid than most vegetables. Before planting apply your fertilizer slightly below the seed potato and two to three inches to each side. The seed potato should be planted two to three inches deep and ten inches apart.

When the plants emerge, take a hoe and mound up the soil around the plant. Continue to mound up the soil throughout the summer. Be sure the tuber is covered with soil at all times. Light triggers the production of chlorophyll as well as a substance called solanine. In small quantities solanin will produce a bitter taste but in larger quantities it may make you ill.

Some recommended varieties that are readily available are Kennebec, Norgold russet, and chieftain. Kennebec is a white main season variety that produces medium to large potatoes. It is a vigorous grower and is resistant to late blight disease. Norgold russet produces medium potatoes and is resistant to scab disease. Chieftain is an early red potato that produces medium to large potatoes and is moderately resistant to scab disease.

For best storage wait two weeks after all the vines have died down to harvest. This will allow the potatoes to form nice skins and reduce skin peeling. After digging up the tubers, leave them outside in a shaded area for a few hours to dry. To store your potatoes cure them in a dark location with temperatures around 60 to 65 degrees and 85 percent humidity for 10 days. After that, they can be stored in a cooler dark place, 40 to 45 degrees, which should prevent sprouting for several months.

Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: bawgus_mona@aclink.org