By: Heather Rhoades
Growing potatoes in your garden can be lots of fun. With the variety of types and colors available, planting potatoes can add interest to your garden. Learn how to grow potatoes and when to plant potatoes in your yard with these simple steps.
When growing potato plants (Solanum tuberosum), it is important to keep in mind that potatoes are cool weather vegetables. The best time when to plant potatoes is in early spring. Planting potatoes two to three weeks before your last frost date will produce the most satisfactory results.
A growing potato is an undemanding plant. They need very little other than mild temperatures and soil, which is why they have been a historic food staple.
Planting potatoes normally starts with a seed potato. Seed potatoes can be prepared for planting by either planting whole or cutting up the seed so that there are one or two buds or “eyes” on each piece.
There are many ways used for planting potatoes:
Straight in the ground – Farming operations and large plantings of potatoes are normally planted this way. This method for growing potatoes means that seed potatoes are planted 1 inch (2.5 cm.) under the soil. As the growing potato plants get larger, the soil is mounded up around the plants.
Tires – Many gardeners have been growing potatoes in tires for years. Fill a tire with soil and plant your seed potatoes. As the growing potato plants get larger, stack additional tires on top of the original and fill those with soil.
Straw– Growing potatoes in straw may seem unusual but it is very effective. Lay out a loose layer of straw and put the seed potatoes in the straw. When you see the growing potato plants, cover them with additional straw.
Much like when to plant potatoes, the best time to harvest potatoes is when the weather is cool. Wait until the foliage on the plants has died back completely in the fall. Once the foliage is dead, dig the roots up. Your growing potatoes should be full sized and scattered through the soil.
Once the potatoes have been dug up from the soil, allow them to air dry in a cool, dry place before storing them.
This article was last updated on
Potatoes will grow in just about any well-drained soil, but they dislike soggy soil. Because they do all their growing underground, they can expand more easily in loose, loamy soil than in heavy, compacted, clay soil that keeps plant roots from getting the air and water they need.
Working With Your Soil
Heavy soils can dampen your potato-growing enthusiasm, but if you add organic matter (leaves, hay, peat-moss) to the soil, especially at planting time, you'll be able to ease the hardship of tough earth. When worked into heavy soils with a shovel and rake or tiller, organic matter wedges itself between the tiny soil particles. It works to open up the soil, letting air and water circulate. If you have light, sandy soil that can't hold water, organic matter also works to help the soil hold moisture better.
Work organic matter into the soil whenever you don't have a crop growing: before the season gets underway, between crops, or after the harvest. Stockpile compost, leaves and grass clippings for these opportunities.
Another good way to build up organic matter in the soil is to grow "green manure" or "cover" crops to till right back into the soil. Sow quick-growing annual ryegrass, for example, in late summer after harvesting your crops. Then work the crop residues into the soil, sow the annual ryegrass and let it grow until cold temperatures kill it. By planting time the next spring when you're ready to till the ryegrass into the soil, it will have decomposed well enough to supply your crops with moisture-holding organic matter and the nutrients they need.
If you can't grow a cover crop, try to spread four or five bushels of compost onto each 100 square feet of potato growing area, and work it into the soil before planting.
Gardeners with clay soil can also incorporate lots of organic matter into the rows where they plant. Covering the seed pieces at planting time with leaves mixed with soil, for example, gives the plants the breathing room they need but couldn't get if planted in plain soil.
Potatoes are usually grown from other potatoes. You plant a whole, small potato, or a piece of a larger one for a new plant. The whole potato or cut piece has several slightly recessed, dormant buds or "eyes" on the surface. When conditions are right, these buds will sprout, whether the potatoes are in the ground or in a kitchen cupboard. The sprouts then develop into independent plants.
The cut potato piece or "seed" piece provides the new sprout or seedling with nourishment from its supply of stored starch.
After you've planted a seed piece, it usually takes one to two weeks for the main stem and first leaves to appear above ground. The root system develops quickly and begins to absorb nutrients as the food supply in the seed piece is used up.
The top, leafy part of the plant puts on a lot of growth in the first four to five weeks after planting. Then the main stem of the plant stops growing and produces a flower bud. When that happens, the plant will have as many leaves as it will ever have.
With proper sunshine, the leaves eventually produce more food than the plant needs, and the excess energy is channeled downward to be stored in the "tubers" -- thick, short, underground stems -- which we simply call potatoes. Irish potato tubers develop above the original seed piece, rather than below it like many other underground vegetables.
In general, the storage process starts five to seven weeks after planting, often when the plants have flowered. Some varieties will produce great potatoes with no flowering at all, but usually flowering is a sign that something is definitely happening underground.
Incidentally, potato flowers don't produce any nectar, so they're not visited much by bees or insects. The flowers are self-fertilized, and many potato plants produce small green seed balls about 1-inch in diameter, which contain up to 300 seeds. These seeds are mostly used by potato breeders.
When the tubers start forming, cooler temperatures are a plus. Years ago, research showed that fewer and fewer tubers were formed on the plants as the temperature went from 68° to 84°F. In fact, none formed at 84° F.
The best potato crops are produced when the daytime temperature is in the 60° to 65° F range, and when night temperatures are below 57° F. When the weather is hot, the top part of the plant respires heavily, reducing the amount of food material that can otherwise be put into storage in the tubers below ground. This helps to explain that while potatoes may be a summer crop up North, they're a late winter, spring or fall crop in the South.
In a big potato-producing state like Idaho, for example, cool summer days and nights keep energy losses to a minimum. Plenty of starch is stored in the tubers, helping to make the Idaho potatoes terrific, big, mealy bakers.
As potatoes enlarge underground, the outside layer of the tuber gets tougher and tougher, keeping moisture within the potato and protecting it from outside attacks by organisms that can cause rot.
This toughening of the skin continues even as the plant tops die, the signal to the gardener that the harvest is at hand. Potatoes can remain underground for a little while after the tops die, so that the last energy in the tops can be transferred to the tubers. If the outer skins can't be rubbed off after the potatoes have been dug, they'll store well
You will get the best results by growing potatoes from specially grown seed potatoes from a garden supply store that are certified disease-free. Growing potatoes from grocery store potatoes may not work because some grocery store potatoes have been treated with a sprout inhibitor to prevent them from sprouting in your pantry. However, if you have some potatoes that are beginning to sprout, those can be saved for seed potatoes, explains Better Homes & Gardens.
A process known as chitting potatoes is a way to encourage grocery store potatoes or seed potatoes to grow sprouts. It is not necessary, but it can give your potatoes a head start. Mother Earth News says chitting can make up for a late start in getting seed potatoes or can give you an earlier harvest by about 10 to 14 days. To chit potatoes, place your seed potatoes or grocery store potatoes in a sunny, warm spot. Try to avoid the potatoes rolling around, which will break off the delicate eyes. Many people place potatoes in an egg carton in a sunny window for this purpose.
Growing potatoes from potatoes from the grocery store is a mixed bag. It may work, or it may not work or it may not work well. However you choose to do it, you'll get the healthiest potato plant from the healthiest potatoes, which may come from certified seed potatoes you bought rather than grew.