Potatoes are a well-loved vegetable and are excellent baked, fried, mashed, roasted or boiled. Thankfully, they are also easy to grow and taste better coming out of your garden than they do from the store. Use these tips to help you get started growing your own potatoes.
Choose a Planting Location
Potatoes grow best in full sun with a loose, well-drained soil that is still able to retain moisture. A sandy loam that is slightly acidic is ideal, but potatoes are adaptable and often produce well even when the soil is not ideal. Potato plants are susceptible to diseases and pests that stay in the soil. It’s important to have three areas for growing potatoes so that you can rotate on a three-year program.
For those with limited garden space, a variety of containers are suitable for growing potatoes. From grow-bags to a repurposed trash bin to a stack of old car tires – as long as it has proper drainage, just about any vertical container can work. Don’t fill the planter getting started; you will want to add soil as the potato plants grow. (Information on “hilling” potatoes follows.)
Prepare Seed Potatoes
Buy certified seed potatoes from a seed company or garden center to make sure they are disease-free. The last thing you want to do is introduce soil-borne disease in your potato patch. A week or two before planting, place the seed potatoes in a warm location to encourage sprouting. When the potatoes start growing roots, cut them into pieces so that each piece contains two or three sprouts, or eyes. Small potatoes can be left whole for planting. Leave the cut pieces exposed to air for a day or two so they develop callouses over the cuts before planting.
Plant Your Potatoes
The ideal time to plant potatoes is one to two weeks before or after the last frost date in your area, but they can be planted as late as mid-June. Potatoes are traditionally grown in rows, but if you have limited space, then mounds, boxes, cages, and other methods work as well. The main thing is to be able to add soil to keep your potatoes covered as they grow.
With rows, you dig a trench about 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) deep and only fill it partially when you plant. With other methods, you plant the potatoes around ground level, then build up soil as they grow. Whatever planting method you use, the steps are similar. Plant seed potatoes about 12 to 15 inches (30-40 cm) apart in rows, or slightly closer for other methods, with the sprouts facing up. Cover the seed pieces with 4 inches (10 cm) of soil.
Hill Potato Plants Regularly
When the potato plant is 8 inches (20 cm) tall, mound more soil around it to cover the plant so only the top 4 inches (10 cm) show. It’s fine to bury some of the lower leaves. Repeat this hilling in two or three weeks by adding 1 or 2 inches (3-5 cm) of soil regularly, depending on how quickly your potatoes grow. This protects the potatoes from exposure to sunlight, which can cause them to turn green. The green parts may be toxic and shouldn’t be eaten.
Water Potatoes Carefully
Keep the soil moist after planting potatoes but avoid heavy watering before the plants sprout. Once the plants emerge, water regularly to provide consistent moisture. Provide extra water while the plant is flowering, and shortly thereafter, as this is the time when the plant is producing new tubers. After this period, you can water less often, and stop watering completely after the leaves turn yellow and begin to die. It is best to water in the morning so that the plant has time to dry out during the day to minimize the risk of fungal diseases.
Prevent Potato Pests and Diseases
Proper watering and crop rotation are critical to growing healthy potato crops and protecting your plants from disease. Colorado potato beetles are the most common pest to afflict potato plants; they quickly consume the leaves and can strip a plant in a couple days. Keep an eye out for these striped beetles, and hand pick them off the plant and either crush them, or drop in a cup of soapy water, if found.
Harvest Your Potatoes
When are potatoes ready for harvest? The answer depends on how you’ll use your potatoes.
- Harvest new potatoes two to three weeks after the plant finishes flowering. Carefully dig these small potatoes from under a potato plant so that you don’t damage the roots.
- Dig up full-grown potatoes to eat promptly when the leaves begin to die.
- For storage potatoes, allow the leaves to die back then stop watering for two weeks but leave the potatoes in the ground to allow their skins to harden for storage. Harvest in the morning on a cool, dry day and carefully dig up the potatoes using your hands or a small garden fork.
Potatoes are easy to grow and a great choice for beginning vegetable gardeners. Kids will especially love harvest time when unearthing the fresh spuds becomes a treasure hunt! If you’re new to growing your own vegetables check out our article on how to Start a Small Vegetable Garden. Learn how you can grow an abundant harvest in a space as small as 4 x 4 feet!