How to Grow Potatoes
Potatoes Look Gorgeous in Every Garden.
Not only are potatoes fun to grow, but they can actually be unexpected show-offs in your garden. They flower in a range of colors and often carry a sweet scent.
- Potatoes can be grown in the ground, in planter boxes and in containers (think laundry baskets, stacked tires, and grow bags).
- Potatoes prefer loose soil with lots of organic matter, but they can tolerate clay, especially if planting is prolonged until after spring rains have passed.
- Bumble Bees love buzzing all over potato flowers; however, self-pollinating potatoes don't actually need their help.
- A well-loved potato will also produce fruit! Called a potato berry, this (poisonous) fruit looks very similar to an un-ripe cherry tomato. This is where potatoes store their 'true seed'.
When to Plant Potatoes (When it's Warm!)
Potatoes are often planted early in the season for a summer crop, or later in the season for a fall harvest.
Many vegetable farms will try their hand at producing two crops during the growing season.
A safer approach is to focus on one harvest and wait until the soil is nice and warm before planting. This makes for happier, stress-free plants that produce tastier potatoes.
You can, however, shop for varieties that are bred to perform best at cooler temps, if that timing works better with your garden schedule.
Potatoes should only be planted when the soil is reliably above 50 degrees F.
Seed Potatoes vs. Potato Seeds
- Although potatoes do produce seed, gardeners very rarely plant them. This is because 'true seed' will yield varieties that are not similar to their potato parent. Growing out new and unexpected potato varieties is a hobby of passion!
- Instead, almost all gardeners plant 'seed potato'; chunks of last years potatoes. Always source certified seed potatoes from a reputable supplier to ensure that they are disease-free.
- You'll want to plant seed potatoes that are smaller than an egg. You can cut them to size before planting.
- Each piece of seed potato should have at least one 'eye' - aka the sprout. If you don't see any, set your potatoes on a sunny windowsill for 1-2 weeks, which will encourage sprouting.
How to Grow Potatoes
Proper Potato Spacing
"While it's important to consider what's happening under the ground when planting potatoes, it's also good to think about what's going on above the ground. When plants grow closer together (say 8”- 10” apart) the tops will quickly join forces to shield the ground in-between them and may help to save time when it comes to weeding. Here's a trick the local first grade class uses on planting day to keep their spacing at 8” center-to-center (see photo below)."
How to Plant Potatoes, Step by Step:
- Dig a trench, one-foot deep. Add a couple of inches of compost or rich soil to the bottom of the trench.
- Place your seed pieces, eyes up, eight to twelve inches apart.
- Cover seed potatoes with three to four inches of loose soil.
- When plants are four to six inches tall, use a hoe or your hands to 'hill up' more soil up around the stems, trying to keep the leaves uncovered.
- Repeat this process twice more throughout the season, about every two to three weeks.
- Alternatively, you can use straw, or rotted leaves as a mulch, in place of loose soil to hill your plants.
How and Why to Hill Up Potatoes
Planting potatoes is a decidedly unusual process. You're going to bury them in a shallow trench, wait for them to grow, bury them some more, wait for them to grow and then bury them again!
While it's really important for your growing plants to access good soil at root-level in order to grab the nutrients they need, the actual potatoes that you'll harvest are produced off of the upward-growing stems.
For this reason, you'll need to keep adding soil to protect the light-sensitive tubers from the sun. You're literally burying them to keep them away from sunlight, which can cause potatoes to release solanine, a substance that's toxic to humans. For this reason, you should be ultra-aware of re-hilling any dirt that gets washed away by heavy rains.
While more dirt will also give potatoes extra room to multiply, there is a limit to how much each variety will yield.
You can't increase potato yields by adding loads of extra soil, though many have tried!
In other words, you'll harvest the same amount of spuds grown in 3 stacked tires as you will in 6 stacked tires.
To recreate the hilling process in a container, place several inches of soil in a grow bag, short garbage can, laundry basket or stacked tires. Plant your seed potato, eyes-up and cover with soil. Keep adding more soil (or straw) as plants grow, taking care not to completely cover the leaves.
The Secret to Truly Healthy Potatoes
Potatoes, like most edibles, can be easy prey to garden pests and disease. To help them naturally fend off attacks, a good strategy is to eliminate as much stress as possible. You can do this by:
- Choosing a site with good drainage
- Amending the planting trench with compost
- Siting your plants in a spot that gets at least six hours of sun each day
- Watering your plants deeply, yet infrequently during dry weather; ideally one inch per/week
While all of this can help immensely, there is one trick that gardeners rely on to keep potato plants nice and healthy; Foliar Feeding.
Foliar feeding is simply the practice of spraying liquid plant food on both sides of your plant leaves.
The easiest way to accomplish this, is to fill a spray bottle with properly diluted plant food. A great choice for potatoes is a sea mineral blend, made up of both fish and seaweed fertilizers, such as Neptune's Harvest.
You'll want to apply the spray:
- Once every two weeks, or once per month, or once a season if that's all you can pull off - it will still be worth it!
- Early in the day when leaf stomata (similar to skin pores) are the most open. Again, if it ends up being later in the day or during the evening, go for it. It's better to do it than not!
- Ideally, on a dry day
You'll be the spraying the equivalent of a well-balanced nutrition shake. If you have access to a pressurized sprayer, that will make the job even easier. However, you'll need to be sure that no harmful chemicals previously occupied the sprayer.
Harvesting and Storing Potatoes
You'll know that your potatoes are ready to harvest after the plants die off. Sadly, pre-harvest time is not always a very pretty occasion in the garden, but it is a sign that your yummy potatoes are ready to be pulled!
Ideally, your soil is nice and loose, making harvesting an easy chore. You may even be able to use your hands to dig around and find loose tubers. Admittedly, this works well when the soil is dry, but if you've had lots of rain forget it - you'll need some helpful tools.
Pulling the whole plant up is the first step, but you'll also need to scavenge around to find any extra spuds. The best tool to use is a long-handled, pronged fork, like a pitch fork. Approach your hill from the side, wiggle the fork underneath the soil and lift upwards, sifting the potatoes up through the loose dirt.
Some potatoes, such as new potatoes and fingerlings, are grown for their fresh, gourmet taste. These potatoes generally have a thinner skin and will not keep for very long.
Others, such as Kennebecs and Russets are selected for their long-term storage qualities. These potatoes usually have a thicker skin and should always be stored in the dark.
Potatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator. While the fridge is dark, the ultra-low temperature and humidity force a potato's starch to turn to sugar, causing both discoloration and an unpleasant taste when cooked.
While all potatoes need to be kept away from sunlight, the short term keepers usually get eaten before the situation becomes dire. Because they don't hold as long, you can count them as exceptions to the 'no refrigeration' rule.
Spuds that need to be stored throughout the cold season will need to be kept dark, cool, and dry. A basement, root cellar, or the coldest room of an old farmhouse will usually do the trick. If you don't have any of these options available, you'll have to improvise - try dresser drawers, locations against a north wall in your house, or even a drink cooler.
To keep your potatoes firm and sprout-free, store them with a few apples.
© All articles are copyrighted by American Meadows, Inc. Republishing an entire American Meadows blog post or article is prohibited without written permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.