How to Grow Potatoes

Next to rice and corn, potatoes are one of the most important carbohydrate food crops. They are versatile performers in the kitchen and can be stored through the winter. Not difficult to grow, they are suited for regular garden rows, containers and intensive planting. Two pounds of seed potatoes can produce 50 pounds of tubers.


Where Can You Grow Potatoes?

In two words – almost everywhere. With over 3,000 known varieties, potatoes are grown in all but the coldest USDA zones. However, it’s important to grow varieties that are best for your zone and to time planting correctly. Potatoes are frost sensitive and don’t do well in very high temperatures. In warm zones, plant early or grow in the winter. In cold zones, plant late enough to escape frost.

Can I Grow Potatoes From Seed?

You can, but the plants you grow may not be anything like their parents. Vegetative propagation with seed potatoes ensures you always get the same kind of potato in the subsequent crop. However, horticulturalists use seeds to create new potato varieties and to prevent the spread of diseases. You may have to search a bit to find true potato seed.

Can I Grow Potatoes in Containers?

Potatoes do well in containers with a couple of caveats. First, the container must be big enough. A single potato plant needs a container with at least 2.5 cubic feet of growing space. Second, the container must drain well – potatoes like moist but not soggy soil. Materials vary – you can grow potatoes in wooden, plastic or ceramic containers as well as grow bags. Water regularly and keep them in full sun.

What Varieties of Potato Should I Choose?

The possibilities here are legion. You can find colored potatoes, heirlooms, potatoes with different maturity dates, disease resistance and potatoes in different shapes. These are readily available:

  • All Blue
  • Burbank Russet
  • Carola
  • Desiree
  • German Butterball
  • Katahdin
  • Kerr’s Pink
  • Norland
  • Rose Finn
  • Yukon Gold.

What’s the Best Potato?

“Best” depends on what you’re looking for. If you want something that is disease resistant, Elba, German Butterball and Burbank Russet are blight-resistant. Elba and German Butterball are also resistant to scab. All Red, All Blue and Katahdin do well in drought-prone areas. Purple Viking and Russian Banana do well in containers. Red Chieftain and Yukon Gold store well.

What are Early Potatoes?

The term early usually refers to the maturity length. Potatoes can be early, mid-season or late varieties. Early varieties usually mature within 75 to 90 days – these are good for short-season areas. Mid-season potatoes reach maturity between 95 and 100 days, while late season potatoes may need 120 to 135 days. The term “new” potatoes doesn’t reflect the maturity rate – new potatoes are simply harvested before full maturity.

When is Potato Planting Season?

When you plant potatoes is determined primarily by your climate. In cold areas, wait until two to three weeks before your last expected frost. The leaves and vine are frost-sensitive, so this means they’ll emerge when the weather is warm enough. In desert areas, potatoes are usually planted as a fall crop and harvested before the weather gets hot.

How Deep Should I Plant Potatoes?

Planting depth can vary according to soil conditions and climate. If your soil is heavy clay, you may not want to plant too deeply as the soil remains cool in early spring. In sandy soil, you’ll want to plant more deeply for better moisture. The basic rule of thumb is to plant about three to six inches under the soil level. In wet areas, you might consider raised beds or planting on ridges.

What is Chitting?

Chitting is the practice of allowing potatoes to sprout before they are planted. You don’t have to chit your potatoes – they will grow just fine without chitting. However, chitting can allow you to start your potatoes growing while it’s still too cold to plant outside, giving you a two-week jump on the season. Chitting also lets you assure you’re only planting well-started potatoes.

What’s the Best Soil for Potatoes?

Potatoes are heavy feeders. The ideal soil for potatoes is a sandy loam that is rich in organic material. The pH should tend toward the acidic side and the soil should drain well. If your soil is heavy clay or high in sand, amend it with lots of organic material. Well-rotted leaves, aged manure and organic compost are good choices – don’t use fresh manure as it can increase the risk of scab.

How Do I Water Potatoes?

Potatoes need plenty of water while growing – the equivalent of one to two inches a week in most areas. Drip irrigation is a good choice as it conserves water and delivers it to the roots. Continue to water until the tops of the potato plants begin to die down. At that point, stop watering entirely to allow the tubers to finish maturing and develop thicker skins to promote better storage.

What’s Hilling?

Hilling is the practice of covering potato plants with soil. The tubers we eat are basically enlarged portions of the stem and develop along the underground stem. Hilling increases the amount of underground stem. Hilling also protects the tubers from light, which can cause them to turn green and become inedible. Green potatoes are high in solanine, which is toxic when eaten.

How Do I Hill Potatoes?

After you’ve planted your seed potatoes or cut chunks of larger potatoes, let them grow until they are about six to eight inches tall. Carefully hoe loose soil over two thirds of the above-ground plant. Let the plant grow until it is an additional six to eight inches above ground. Repeat the hilling process. Continue to monitor the plants to make sure no tubers have been exposed and add additional soil if necessary.

Do I Have to Hill Potatoes?

Mulching can achieve the same goals as hilling potatoes. Plant your potatoes at the usual depth and cover them with soil. Mulch with eight inches of hay, straw or leaves when they are about six to eight inches tall. Repeat the mulching after the plants have grown an additional six to eight inches. The mulch may pack down, so add more if necessary.

How Do I Fertilize Potatoes?

In rich, fertile soil, you may not need to add fertilizer. However, even in those conditions, your potatoes may produce better with a little boost. In the first two months, use fertilizer that is high in nitrogen and potassium. Once the potatoes flower, back off on the nitrogen. An organic commercial fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 15-15-15 or soil amendments like cottonseed meal, kelp, greensand and bone meal are good choices.

When Do I Harvest Potatoes?

Potatoes have two harvest periods. New potatoes are tender, delicately flavored tubers that should be used immediately as they don’t store well. Harvest them from any potato variety about two to three weeks after the plants flower. The main crop should be harvested about three to four weeks after the tops have completely died down.

What’s the Best Way to Harvest Potatoes?

If your soil is loose and fertile, it’s not difficult to harvest potatoes. Dig down about 18 inches from the edge of the plant with a potato fork or shovel. Lift the soil and remove potatoes. If you grow them in a container, you can turn the container over to harvest. Mulching offers another method – you can either reach down through the mulch or rake it aside.

What Potato Pests Should I Worry About?

The Colorado potato beetle is the worst pest and is present in every state. Hand pick bugs and remove the orange egg masses on the underside of leaves. Flea beetles chew leaves and are hard on young plants – cover potatoes with row cover for protection. Aphids suck juices from the plant – insecticidal soaps can help. Wireworms can be a problem if the planting area was previously sodded; grow other crops for a year or two first.

What About Potato Diseases?

Blight is probably the potato disease you should be most concerned about. In the 1800s, potato blight decimated crops in Ireland and Scotland, causing the death of millions. Scab and fusarium can also be a problem. Practicing good garden sanitation will go a long way to preventing disease – keep the patch weeded, don’t over-water, rogue out and destroy any infected plants. Rotate the crop each year.

How Should I Store Potatoes?

Whole potatoes store best in a cool, dark environment with relatively high humidity. A root cellar is ideal in many areas. They can also be stored in barrels buried underground. Potatoes can be dehydrated for storage. French fries and hash browns can be stored frozen; mashed potatoes don’t freeze well. Small whole potatoes or cut up larger potatoes can be canned.