Margaret Lauterbach

Peas, potatoes and St. Patrick’s Day: Real gardening time is here in Treasure Valley

Yes, we hear plenty of jokes, but Idahoans also grow plenty of potatoes. St. Patrick’s Day is traditional potato-planting day in many areas.
Yes, we hear plenty of jokes, but Idahoans also grow plenty of potatoes. St. Patrick’s Day is traditional potato-planting day in many areas. AP file

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day, the first day of gardening. If soil in your garden is wet, don’t compact it by walking on it. If it’s a fair time to begin planting, put down old boards and walk on them, spreading the weight. If you have raised beds and soil isn’t mucky, begin planting your vegetable garden with peas and potatoes. Spinach transplants could be set out now, too.

Some peas will eventually germinate if soil is only 38 degrees, but warmer soil will produce faster germination and more seeds will germinate. Some folks sprout peas between layers of wet paper towels tucked into a plastic bag and laid on top of the refrigerator or some other warm place. This temperature guide refers to all peas – shelling, sugar, sugar snap or snow.

These plants will tolerate some frost, having more tolerance in spring than in a fall crop. Most peas need some support to grow, such as prunings from fruit trees or trellises of some kind. Once they start setting pods, watch them closely for best harvest time. Snow or sugar peas should be picked before peas begin swelling inside the pod, and sugar snap peas after they’ve swollen inside the pod. Those are to be eaten, pod and all, not shelled. Of course, wait for peas to swell inside pods for shelling.

I haven’t chitted (sprouted) seed potatoes, nor have I thought ahead to cut them in time to callus over before planting, but I should have. I’ve not had seed potatoes decay, but it’s always possible. When you cut up seed potatoes for planting, try to cut so there are only one or two eyes per piece, and at least one cubic inch of potato with each eye. Some advise potato the size of an egg with an eye. Years ago, one vendor tried selling potato “starts” by using a melon baller per potato eye, but the outrage from people with failed potato “plants” persuaded him not to do that again.

Test your soil temperature, and hold off on planting potatoes until soil is at least 40 degrees. St. Patrick’s Day is traditional potato-planting day in many areas, but it may have to wait a few days. I like to plant potatoes in a trench, 8 to 10 inches apart. Potatoes produced by the plants will form above the seed potato, so a fairly deep trench. Even though our state is justifiably proud of being the “potato state,” our soil here is not quite acidic enough for growing potatoes. Plants may show signs of scab, according to some experts (others claim scab results from low moisture during “tuber initiation”), so to prevent scab, many gardeners line the holes or trenches for potatoes with some peat moss (it is acidic) and then water carefully. Scab is not a serious defect for the home gardener, however.

Potato foliage later may be blackened by frost, but it usually recovers quickly. Don’t overload potatoes with nitrogen fertilizer or else you’ll get a lot of foliage and few spuds. Some potato varieties bloom, but not all do. Those that do are sometimes followed by small “fruits” like little tomatoes where the blossom had been. These are toxic and not to be consumed, but they contain “true potato seeds.” These tiny seeds can be planted once the seed pod has matured, where they’ll produce small tubers that season. Those tubers may be planted the second year, when they’ll yield good-sized, disease-free potatoes that are edible.

The variety I’ve grown that produced best was Pontiac Red, but the best-tasting potato I’ve ever grown was Green Mountain. Butte, Katahdin, Yukon Gold, Kennebec and similar russet potatoes are great for baking. Yukon Gold is an excellently flavored potato, but if you plant that variety, you’ll find it has very few eyes (that will pop into sprouts), so you may have to plant the whole seed potato or just get two starts from one. Most potatoes can be cut into three or more seed potato starts.

None of the above refers to sweet potatoes. They are very tender to frost and can be easily killed by even a fairly light frost. Wait until about June 1 to plant those.

Send gardening questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.