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Growing Great Potatoes

A small potato patch can provide a lot of nutrition for the home gardener.  With a little planning, multiple varieties can be grown to provide you with a year-round potato supply.  A well-tended potato planting can yield as much as 10 pounds of potatoes for every 1 pound planted, but even in poor soils a potato plant is well worth it's place in the family garden.

Where to grow potatoes:

Potatoes grow best in loose, deep, loamy soil that is slightly acidic, well drained, fertile, and receives full sun.  However, they are very adaptable and easy to grow and will reward even poor soils with a harvest. 


If you find your potatoes are not producing to your expectation, it is usually a lack of water or fertility.  Avoid cool and wet soil and avoid heavy nitrogen applications as too much nitrogen will result in a lot of leaf growth and not enough tuber growth.  Bone meal, well rotted manures, and sulfur are great additions to the potato patch, but always have your soil tested first.

When to plant potatoes:

It's easy to get excited in Spring and want to plant your potatoes as soon the temperatures begin to warm, but go plant some spinach and wait a bit longer.  Planting your potatoes too early or into cool, wet soil, will delay emergence and could cause your seed tubers to rot. Soil temperatures should be 55*F or higher. Or Daytime + nighttime average temps are consistently  50-60 degrees.  

A late frost will not hurt the potatoes whose sprouts have not emerged but leaves are frost tender so if a frost threatens, cover leaves with soil (no need remove soil later).

Chitting or pre-sprouting potatoes:

Are you still dreaming about an early start to your potato season?  In wet, cold years I will often "chit" my seed potatoes.  This is done by exposing them to light and warm temperatures to encourage sprouting.  The process is simple and is a great way to get your potatoes going earlier.   In areas with wet, cold springs or very short seasons, this may necessary to get a good yield.  If you're in a shorter season and want to grow long season potatoes, this can often make up the difference.

Place your potatoes in a shallow box or container that will allow for plenty of airflow.  Place in a warm, light location that is out of direct sunlight. Your potatoes will quickly sprout eyes and will be ready to plant within 2-3 weeks.  These pre-sprouted potatoes take off quickly, especially when planted into warm soil.  Avoid cutting large potatoes until several days before planting.

Time to plant:

Several days before planting you should cut large potatoes into several pieces, each piece should contain 2-3 eyes.  Small potatoes can be planted whole.  

Plant seed potatoes 4" deep, and space 12" apart; rows should be spaced at least 36" apart. 

For larger plantings we use a hoe to dig a trench, lay the potatoes in the trench roughly 12" apart (a great job to get kids involved) and then use the hoe to pull the soil back onto the potatoes. If you have pre-sprout your potatoes be very gentle with the sprouts so they do not break off.

When plants are about 8" tall we hill them by pulling up more soil from each side of the row and mounding it over the plants.  We cover almost the entire plant, leaving just the tips exposed.  This can be 2-4 times through out the season.  Typically we try to hill early season varieties 2 times, mid season 3 times, and late season (often very large plants) get a 4th if possible. Stop hilling once you see flowers.

Early season varieties (determinate) benefit from hilling by ensuring the potatoes are covered and do not turn green by being exposed to sunlight, ensure plenty of loose soil for tubers to expand in, encourages good drainage by forming a mound, and eliminates weeds who will compete for water and nutrients.

Mid & late season varieties (indeterminate) enjoy the above benefits plus the hilling will boost yields since the covered stems will produce more potatoes.  Once potato flowers appear it is time to stop hilling potatoes to avoid damaging the newly formed tubers.

If you choose not to hill your potatoes, or are growing in raised beds, consider mulch instead.  This will help protect from sunlight exposure while keeping the soil moisture more consistent and keep the weeds down.  Use weed free hay, straw, or leaves.

Potatoes need consistent moisture throughout the growing process but it becomes especially important once they begin to flower (your signal that tubers are starting to form).  Provide a consistent 1" per week until plants begin to die and then quit watering.

When to harvest potatoes:

You can begin harvesting small, new potatoes about 3-4 weeks after plants start flowering.   To do this you may either harvest the whole plant or you can gently pull the soil away from the plant near the stem and pull a couple out, then bury the stem again and allow the rest of the potatoes to continue maturing.

Potatoes are ready for harvest 2 weeks after the vines have turned yellow and died down.  This extra time in the ground allows the potato skins to cure and prevents "slip skin", which is where tender skins are easily rubbed off the potato.  Uncured potatoes will have a short shelf life.  

If the weather is not cooperating and you do not have 2 weeks of relatively dry temperatures, potatoes can be gently harvested and cured in a dark, well ventilated area.  Potatoes are fully cured when you can rub them with your fingers and the skin doesn't tear.

When your potatoes are ready to dig, use a shovel or garden fork to gently loosen the soil about 12" away from the base of the plant.  Go slow until you get a feel for where the tubers are.  Compact plants will produce tubers closer to the plant while large, sprawling plants produce a wider band of potatoes. In loose, loamy soil or raised beds they can be dug by hand.

Any damaged potatoes should be eaten right away.  Green potatoes should be removed from the garden and are poisonous to eat.  Either plant them in a new place, or throw them away.  They often don't break down in compost piles and can attract mice.


Store potatoes in a cool, humid and dark place. The ideal temperature range is 42-50°F. 

All Potatoes

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