planting potatoes

UNTIL I STARTED growing them more than a decade ago, I didn’t know the world of potatoes was anything more than simply baking, red, or new.

For those who grow their own (or shop the farmer’s market), there can be spuds in a range of colors from blue to white to red and yellow. They come small as your thumb (fingerlings such as ‘Austrian Crescent’ are great for potato salad, or for roasting). Others are as large as a pound-and-a-half meal (‘Nooksack’, a whopping russet-skinned type that could support a whole container of sour cream). Best: You can harvest baby potatoes and eat them minutes later, which is one of vegetable gardening’s greatest rewards, right up there with the first ripe tomato.

Choose not just for size and color but also for texture, since potatoes may be mealy or smooth. It likewise makes sense to stagger the harvest by selecting some early varieties (65-plus days to harvest), midseason (85-plus days), and late (90-plus). Potatoes go into the ground early, but according to conservatives that means a week or two before the final frost, like late May for me. In cooperative years, when the soil is workable and no longer sodden and cold, I jump the gun and get them in at the end of April. They won’t start growing until the soil reaches 45 degrees; they will rot if it’s cold and wet. Under ideal conditions, potatoes will yield about 14 pounds per pound of seed potatoes planted; I haven’t achieved those results, but I keep trying.

They do best in a light, loose and slightly acid soil that is kept weed-free while they grow. Plant in 6-inch-wide, 6-inch-deep trenches, leaving about a foot to a foot and a half in the row between each seed potato (a smallish potato, or a wedge of a larger potato that was cut to include some eyes, then allowed to cure a few days in the air before planting). As the foliage emerges and gets near a foot tall, I hill the plants up with extra soil.

Here’s where the work comes in. Where does the needed soil come from? Since my soil is not rocky or too heavy, I sometimes dig a deeper trench to start with, leaving the loose excavated soil along each side of the trench. At hilling time, I just move it back onto the row of plants, never covering the foliage completely, but simply most of the way. When the plants grow up a bit again, I mulch them with a thick layer of oat straw.

An even easier method is to merely lay the seed potatoes on top of soil in a row, a foot apart, then heap 6 to 8 inches of straw or hay mulch on top of them. Each time the shoots of the potato plants emerge, top-dress with more mulch; water regularly. Back-saving gardeners who use this method rave about the simplicity, and also about the clean potatoes they harvest, which were never underground. Potatoes are so eager to grow (as anyone who has kept a bag of them too long in the kitchen will confirm) that they can even be grown in a compost heap or a bin (as long as it has slits or holes for water and air).

Order from a specialist like Ronniger’s or Fedco Moose Tubers, who have extensive collections and lots more tips to help you succeed. Whichever method you choose, do not give them lots of nitrogen (you’ll get leaves, not tubers) or any lime, and be generous with the watering and sunshine. Best not to plant potatoes in the same place within three years of the last potato crop or another Solanum relative; they must be rotated.

New potatoes (dig just what you’ll use each day) can be harvested carefully starting about two to three weeks after flowering of the plants stop. Or let them keep growing.

I leave my potatoes in the ground and use them from there as needed well into the fall, then dig the rest carefully, working slowly so as not to pierce the tubers, and let them cure a bit in the last sunny days on the picnic table before putting them in bushel baskets in a spot where it is cool and dark, but not near freezing. (The details on potato harvest and storage.)

A sampling of the best potatoes of each variety (no, not the runts, or any at all if you experienced any diseases in your crop) can be carried over for next year’s starts, so long as they are still firm and vital when the time comes to plant again. The safest way is to order a fresh supply each year of “seed potatoes,” as the starts are called.

  1. Alicia P. says:

    Hi Margaret,
    If you have a chance to answer, I am wondering about something — I planted a potato (got it as a seed potato from the nursery) in a big pot on Sunday, and put 4″ of soil/compost mix on top of it like the handout that came with it said to do. It’s pretty deep in the pot, which isn’t gigantic — but do you think I can put hay on top of it now as the shoots appear? And do you know when I get to stop “hilling” it and just let it grow (when I get to the top of the pot, obviously — but I think there are only about six inches left)? I don’t even know what a growing potato looks like and I can’t seem to figure this out from the books I have that mention growing potatoes. Perhaps my pot is not big enough. I think the potatoes are red fingerlings. Thanks Margaret, and no worries if you don’t have time to answer all this!

  2. margaret says:

    @ Alicia: Dare I tell you they can get to 3 feet tall? I think I probably end up hilling/burying them in stages with a total of maybe 12 or 18 inches of “stuff” (soil, mulch, etc.) on them before just letting them grow (meaning probably 2 feet is above ground). They look *somewhat* like a tomato plant but more multi-stemmed, and with purplish instead of yellow flowers. Mostly the containers that they are grown in are more like garbage-can size, or whiskey barrel, but that’s assuming you put a lot more than a single seed potato in.

  3. Kerry says:

    Hi – I grew potatoes last year for the first time. I was surprised when they tasted completely and deliciously different than store-bought. For organic seed potatoes, I love a Maine company called Wood Prairie Farms. . I’m also going to try growing mine in these cool fabric containers called Smart Pots. I think they make really good sense – especially for potatoes.

  4. Alicia P. says:

    3 feet! Okay, the handout did not say that! :-) A three foot plant in the pot I’ve got is going to be hilarious. Thank you so much for the info, seriously — I will hill until I can hill no more, and report back. Next year, must get a Smart Pot. Or a(nother) garbage can.

    Margaret, I have been having the best time with my little 8’x8′ veggie garden so far. Thank you so much for the inspiration. xo

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Alicia, and I hope the 8×8 will be the start of many great adventures (er, addictions). But watch out: Soon you will have to start attending meetings. It all starts small, and then it takes over your life…but don’t be embarrassed, you will be among friends.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Hi Margaret

    I have the worst luck with potatoes. Last year was my first year, and I decided to plant them in tires- all was working great till around July and then all of a sudden all the leaves disappeared.It must have been a bug- I got nothing in return. This year I bought these felt buckets from Gardeners Supply for the taters and covered them with straw- I got them at Ronnigers like you suggested. I planted them about 3 1/2 weeks ago but I have seen no growth. What am I doing wrong?? I live in the metro NY area- Northern Westchester- near Martha..Any suggestions?? Thanks

  6. Vicki Shuman says:

    I have always let the flowers alone on potatos but I have heard that they will grow bigger and more of them if you cut off the flowers. Is this true?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Vicki. I have never seen that suggested in any of the instructions from potato sources I get my tubers from, and though it makes sense, it also seems impractical…especially if you grow long rows of potatoes. Fascinating…now you have me curious, but as I say, I have not seen deadheading recommended by any of the big growers I get things from. Hope to see you again here soon.

  7. Rachel says:

    I grew Potato last year and I loved it… Just 20 plants. not much… This year I decided to order online. I am getting 16 pounds of potato seed a wide variety. If you were to guess about how many plants is 16 pounds?? My vegetable garden is 50 feet by 100 feet.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Rachel. Roughly speaking, a pound of seed potatoes plants 5 to 8 feet of row (the variation is because the seed potatoes themselves each vary; they’re not uniform in size). 20 pounds of seed potatoes plants a 100-foot row or thereabouts. You should allow at least 3 feet of width for the row (not counting a pathway beside it for access), since the plants get quite big; put the tubers in the middle of that 3-foot row). Hope we see you soon again with news of your emerging crop. :)

  8. Sharon says:

    I thought there was some connection between potatoes and tomatoes and read last year in the flurry of worry about ‘late blight’ that the soil in which potatoes were grown could harbor potential problems for tomatoes. I grow my potatoes in extra large black plastic nursery pots and discard the soil from those after harvest to try to prevent contamination of my garden beds. Am I worrying and working for no good reason?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sharon. You are correct….in the Northeast (or other cold-winter areas), potato tubers left in the ground accidentally are the only thing that could carry late blight over from year to year. You can read the particulars in this tomato update I did this winter. I don’t know where you garden — in warmer zones, things change a bit. The article will hopefully explain in more detail. Hope to see you again soon.

  9. Carmen at Old House Kitchen says:

    Should the row of potatoes be planted north to south or east to west? I’m thinking all rows should be east to west. Brain cramp! Help!

    1. Margaret says:

      All mine run roughly east to west. This gives me a shady side to the north, which kind of makes sense…and (again ROUGHLY) the sun is tracking over their heads.

  10. Lisa says:

    Some of the seed potatoes I have got really soft and a few started to mold. I’ve cut them up as recommended and have had them sitting out 2 days now in open air but they are still rather soft. They have great eye growth though – can I still plant these or should I not bother??? Thanks for any advice!

  11. Ashley says:

    Thank you for your help! I have one more question though. In another article that I read It said that potato plants should not be planted near sunflowers but mine are. This is the first year I have ever planted potatoes so I was wondering how I could help them for the rest of the season? The plant is already sprouted so I cannot dig them up and transplant so how can I help my plants flourish in the mean time? Also is this fact even true? Thank you for your time and happy gardening!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ashley. Sunflowers are allelopathic (that is, they contain chemicals that thwart the growth of other plants) and that many adjacent crops may be affected, not just potatoes. I’m not sure that there is any easily located study that tell us which ones and how badly and so on, but they do tend (like black walnuts, to name a famous example) to stake out their own territory and make the area less suitable to competing plants. I have read that this is less effective in highly organic soil…and I have also read that the hulls are the worst part and do the most damage…and on and on.

      And then of course I have seen them happily growing beside all manner of other plants. Sorry not to have the ultimate article to cite for you. Seems like there has been more study on field crops (grains and such) and sunflower and their relationships than on other thing, that I can locate.

  12. Maggie Oster says:

    For year’s I did the trenching thing. Lots of work. Tried the straw mulch, to not much success. Then a friend of mine, whose family grew hundreds of pounds of potatoes for their family of 11, taught me this method. Prepare the soil well, so that it is very loose and friable. Plant each potato (I don’t cut into pieces.) by sticking it with your hand into the soil as far as it will go. In my garden, that’s about 6 inches. Then I mulch lightly with straw, to keep down weeds and maintain even soil moisture. And wait for lots of wonderful potatoes.

    Granted this method requires a good quality soil, but developing that, say, in raised beds, is a worthy goal, when the end result means easier gardening.

  13. Ron says:

    You say easy on the nitrogen, but my first experience growing potatoes (an accident) was when I cleaned out my chicken coup and buried some old soft, neglected white potatoes from the kitchen. When I say buried, I mean dig a ditch buried. Next summer I could not imagine what the plant was, growing where I had buried all that wonderful manure. Much to my surprise, big beautiful, brand new white potatoes that I had completely forgotten about. I still remember the breakfast I made of them over 30 yrs ago. I believe loose soil is even more important. The biggest potato I ever grew was in E. Washington (state) where the Cascade volcanos have been erupting ash that drifts east for millions of years. This red spud weighed 2 and 3/4 lbs. and was solid and sweet all the way through; better than buried treasure.
    Thanks for your site and all you do. RB

  14. Lee in Iowa says:

    One year I used straw to “hill up” my potatoes. Oops! The straw was full of baby snakes, come fall, and boy, were they mad to have their cozy nests disturbed. I’ve never seen so many tiny, hissing, striking snakes before or since!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lee. What a story! If you have read my recent book you will know that I have some “issues” with snakes…a.k.a., fear. So that sounds pretty freaky to me…not my idea of a good time at potato harvest! See you soon again.

  15. Nikki says:

    Hi Margaret!

    My potatoes have been giant monsters that I’ve given up on hilling since the hills are now higher than my kness. The plants have gotten tall and are kinda flopping over, so I have to put out extra slug bait for them. I think they’re doing OK, I’ve harvested a few new potatoes already. My question is, they haven’t flowered yet. Is that OK? Did I forget something? They’re from Territorial Seed’s German Butterballs http://www.territorialseed.com/product/11918

    Thanks for any advice!

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