Potatoes are one of the most versatile crops you can grow. The starchy vegetable is great for everything from fried snack foods to hardy meals. With all that you can do with these crops, learning how to grow potatoes was an obvious choice.
Initially, I thought that planting potatoes in my backyard was going to be like planting any other crop. But boy was I wrong!
Turns out, potatoes have a pretty unusual growing cycle. After my first failed attempt, I realized that if I would need to learn how to do this the right way if I ever wanted to reap the rewards of a bountiful harvest.
Planting potatoes isn’t too difficult once you know what you’re doing. However, they do have some unique growth requirements that you need to follow to a tee.
What Are Potatoes?
Potatoes are one of the most popular crops in the world and have a presence in pretty much every culture. In the United States alone, the value of all potatoes sold was over 3.7 billion dollars in 2017. Because of their hardiness, there are no signs of the potato industry slowing down anytime soon.
Originally, it’s believed that potatoes originated in South America. After being brought to Europe, the crop quickly spread and became the widespread vegetable we know today.
Potatoes are quite unique in the way they are grown. The vegetable that we eat is grown underground. As a result, it’s referred to as a root in some circles rather than a vegetable. But even then, that’s not exactly correct.
You see, potatoes are actually tubers. They’re large parts of plants that act as a storage space for nutrients and energy. The tuber is what we cut off and consume.
Health Benefits of Potatoes
Speaking of nutrition, potatoes have a lot to offer. The starchy vegetables are packed with a ton of nutrients. They contain everything from Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, and so much more. Despite their reputation for being used in fatty foods, a medium-sized potato only has about 0.2 grams of fat. Thus, they’re incredibly healthy to eat.
That’s not all. Potatoes have been shown to address other health concerns as well.
For example, the crops are great for helping your digestive system. Potatoes are high in resistive starches, which aren’t broken down as easily as other starches. They can make their way to the digestive tract and become a source of energy for all that beneficial gut that keeps you healthy. This has even been shown to improve blood sugar levels and prevent heart disease.
What Are the Different Varieties Available?
In total, there are well over 4,000 different potato varieties in the world. That’s not including wild potatoes that aren’t eaten. Generally, farmers and backyard gardeners have about 1,000 to choose from based on their location.
These different cultivars offer unique flavors and textures that can really spice up your cooking. However, the plants are typically separated into three categories based on growing temperatures.
Potatoes can be grown in a wide range of climates. Some varieties require cooler growing temperatures while others are more tolerant to warm weather. Thus, there’s no specific growing season that covers all potatoes. It all comes down to how many cool days potatoes need to reach harvest. Before you start your garden, you need to choose an appropriate variety for your area.
If you live in the southern part of the United States where summers are hot, you can benefit from early-season varieties, These potatoes typically require only 75 to 90 cool days before you can start harvesting.
You can start planting these varieties as early as January. Some gardeners even plant late in the year for an early crop at the start of the year!
Popular varieties you can try out include the Irish Cobbler or the Mountain Rose.
Great for areas with moderate climates, mid-season potato varieties need between 95 and 110 days to reach harvest. You’ll often find these being planted in the early spring after the risk of frost is gone.
Some popular cultivars include the French Fingerling, the Yukon Gem, and the Catalina potato.
Taking upwards of 160 days to reach the harvest stage, late-season potatoes require a ton of growing time. Typically, any cultivar that requires more than 110 cool days is considered to be a late-season potato.
They are ideal for northern planting zones where summers are relatively mild, such as the midwest. Popular varieties include the Butte, Kennebec, and Katahdin.
When Is the Best Time to Plant?
As we mentioned earlier, the best time to grow depends entirely on your climate. Potatoes don’t mind the cold at all. In fact, they prefer milder temperatures compared to more tropical crops.
Before you start planting, it’s important to monitor soil temperatures. The ideal temperature for soil is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As long as the soil temperatures are good, you can plant potatoes at any time.
In the south, this will be in the late fall and winter. However, most regions will need to wait until about mid-April. As a good rule of thumb, you should always wait until after the last frost to start planting.
Where Can You Plant Potatoes?
Aside from temperatures, there’s a lot to consider when choosing where to plant your potatoes. These plants need a lot to reach their full potential. Not only do you need plenty of sun exposure, but your soil needs to be adequately prepared to ensure that your plants thrive.
Bright and Sunny Locations
The first thing to pay attention to is sun exposure. A spot with at least 6 hours of full sun is best. Consider choosing a spot on the southern side of your home where your plants can soak up those rays throughout the entire day.
Avoid areas near large trees or buildings. The more sun your plants get, the better. Potatoes can be a bit finicky when it comes to exposure. We’ll get into the specifics of that in a bit. But for now, focus your attention on preparing a sunny spot for your potato plants.
Another thing to consider is drainage. Potatoes are particularly intolerant of standing water. The tubers can develop water rot, which affects both taste and texture. The key to avoiding that issue is choosing a spot with soil that drains very well.
Sandy loam is the ideal kind of soil. It drains pretty well to prevent rot issues. However, it still provides plenty of time for your potatoes to get hydrated. Avoid soil with heavy clay content. Not only is it awful for draining, but clay tends to get hard when it dries, which makes it difficult for potatoes to grow.
Optimal Soil Conditions
Beyond its draining capabilities, your soil needs to have adequate pH balance and nutrient content. Potatoes like slightly acidic soil. They do best when readings show a pH balance between 5 and 6.5. Though, a measurement of around 6 is ideal.
There are many ways to lower the pH balance as needed. You can use commercially available fertilizers that contain aluminum sulfate and iron sulfate. Or you can add some peat moss or eggshells to do the job.
As for nutrient content, potatoes need rich soil. You can make the soil a more conducive growing medium by mixing in organic compost or manure before planting.
How to Plant Potatoes in the Garden
With the perfect spot and good temperatures, you can start planting your potatoes. Here’s where things get a bit interesting. Unlike traditional plants that grow from seeds or bulbs, potatoes grow from something called a seed potato.
Preparing the Seed Potatoes
Potatoes are capable of producing seeds. However, this isn’t what gardeners use to start plants. That’s because the seeds created by potato plants do not produce true potatoes. Essentially, you’d end up with a unique plant with no edible tubers.
What you’re going to be using is called a seed potato. Basically, this is a fully grown potato that’s replanted to reproduce more tubers. Have you ever left a potato sitting for too long and noticed that it started to sprout? This is the potato trying to grow into another plant!
You can get seed potatoes from most supply stores and seed companies. While it’s tempting, we don’t recommend using potatoes you get at the grocery store. They are often chemically treated. Plus, they can harbor diseases that you don’t want to put in your garden. Seed potatoes are usually certified organic for peace of mind.
Seed potatoes need a bit of preparation before you start planting. If you have smaller golf ball-sized seed potatoes, those are already good to go! However, bigger ones need some chopping first. Cut them into chunks that are about 1 and a quarter inches in diameter.
Make sure that each chunk has at least two eyes for the best success. The eyes are those small puckered spots where sprouts will grow.
After you have cut those large seed potatoes into smaller chunks, set them on a tray for a couple of days. They should sit at room temperature to avoid spoilage. This process will dry the exposed surface and let it develop a protective layer.
Digging a Trench
Now, on to the digging! Potatoes are best planted in deep rows that are about 3 feet apart. Dig trenches that are about 10 to 12 inches deep. Then, spread some compost into the bottom and mix the soil thoroughly. This will give the soil a nice boost of nutrients to kickstart the growth process.
You can then start inserting your seed potato pieces. Place each piece with the exposed fleshy side down. Leave about 12 to 14 inches of space in between each piece and cover them with a few inches of soil.
How to Take Care of the Potato Plant
Potatoes require a watchful eye to grow successfully. In addition to all of the regular gardening tasks you need to take care of, some additional factors come into play as well.
The most unique aspect of growing potatoes is the need for hilling. This is the process of building up the planting site into small hills as the plant grows. You have to continually build this hill up the taller your plant gets, so it’s important to monitor growth.
Why is hilling necessary? Well, the goal is to prevent the tuber from being exposed to sunlight. Remember how we said earlier that potatoes can be a bit finicky about sun exposure? The plant itself thrives in full sun. But the tuber that we eat can degrade in quality if it gets too much sun.
That’s because the sun turns the otherwise fleshy tuber green. When this happens, a compound called Solanine is produced. Solanine makes the potato very bitter. High concentrations of it can even be toxic. Consuming green potatoes can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. In extreme cases, it’s been known to cause paralysis and death.
Needless to say, hilling is an important part of the growth process!
The goal of hilling is to prevent shallow tubers from getting too hot. While you may not be able to see those tubers, they are only a few inches below the surface of the soil. Adding more soil on top decreases the heat and sun exposure.
Typically, the first time you will need to start hilling is going to be when the plants are about 6 to 8 inches tall. All you need to do is pack on more soil around the base of the thick stem. A few inches of soil will do.
In total, you may need to apply soil around the base about four times during the growing season. Just keep adding soil whenever the stem starts getting more exposure. At the end of the season, you should have a hill that’s about a foot tall. After the plant starts blooming, you can stop building the hill.
Potatoes need about 1 to 2 inches of water every week. This includes water from your hose and rainwater. You don’t have to water the plants every day. It’s recommended that you water young plants every four days or so. Once those tubers start forming, you can increase that to every three days.
You can apply fertilizer to the plants after about four weeks of growth. Side-dress an organic fertilizer that’s rich in nitrogen. Avoid getting any of the fertilizer on the stem of the plant, as this could burn your plant. You also need to avoid using any fertilizers with weed killers incorporated into the mix, as this could kill the tubers!
Dealing with Weeds
The easiest way to deal with weeds is good old-fashion pulling. Be careful when pulling up weeds. You don’t want to damage the tubers. Use your hands to pick up plants as they pop up. A shallow cultivation tool works, too. Just don’t stick the tool too far into the ground.
Mulch is great for preventing weeds from growing. It also maintains moisture. Usually, gardeners and farmers don’t take advantage of mulch if they use the trench method for planting. However, you can use it if you don’t want to dig trenches. You can plant your seed potato pieces on the surface of a planting bed and use a mulch to provide sun protection.
If you use this planting method, apply a thick layer of mulch over the seed potatoes. Use straw, clean hay, or dried leaves.
How to Harvest and Store Potatoes
Harvesting potatoes is very easy. You’ll know when it’s time by taking a look at the plant. Once the leaves of the plants have turned brown and flowers start to fall off, you can start planning your harvest.
The cool thing about potatoes is that you can harvest them at different times to get different textures. New potatoes are harvested only 2 or 3 weeks after the plant has stopped flowering. The potatoes are smaller in size and have thinner skin.
If you want to wait until the potatoes are fully mature, you’ll need to give them more time. Wait until the foliage of the plant has started to die. You can cut the plant down to the soil and give the potatoes 10 to 14 days before you pick them out. During this time, they’ll develop a thick skin and fully mature.
To harvest the crop, gently remove the tubers from the soil and immediately bring them inside. Don’t let them sit out in the sun for too long.
You can eat the potatoes immediately or cure them a bit for storage. Start by brushing off any dirt. Then, set them in a cool, well-ventilated area for a couple of weeks. This strengthens the skins and prepares them for long-term storage.
Examine the cured potatoes closely and toss out any that look green or damaged. Shriveled up potatoes or those with sprouts should be tossed as well. You can keep the good potatoes in a cool dry place for about a month before they start to go bad. Don’t put the vegetables in a refrigerator, as this will only speed up the decaying process.
What Pests and Diseases Affect Potatoes?
Just because the tubers are underneath the soil doesn’t mean that they’re not susceptible to pests and diseases. The potato plant can attract a slew of unwanted pests. The most annoying is Colorado Potato Beetles.
They can eat the foliage of your plant, making it difficult for the plant to grow. Adult bugs will need to be removed by hand. Luckily, birds will often pick them off plants. You can also use diatomaceous earth and Spinosad to get rid of the larvae.
Other common pests include aphids and flea beetles. Those pests can be taken care of with organic pesticides.
As for diseases, the most common issue you’ll encounter is Potato Scab. This is a disease caused by bacteria and high soil pH. It can also be brought into the garden by diseased seed potatoes. Make sure to monitor the soil regularly and choose high-quality seed potatoes to start your garden.
There’s no better home-grown crop than potatoes! They’re a filling vegetable that can be used in more ways than you realize. Having a steady supply of potatoes from your own backyard can provide tons of culinary inspiration while helping you avoid constant trips to the grocery store.
While potatoes do have some unique requirements, they’re not difficult to grow at all. Once you understand the needs of the plant, the process is a cinch. To get started, all you need to do is find an adequate spot in your garden and buy some seed potatoes. Before you know it, you’ll be digging up some delicious tubers to enjoy.