A Potato Love Story - the definite guide to potato growing
There are more people looking to start a home garden in America this year than ever before. Gardening has become both a comfort, a therapy and a way to soothe scalding anxieties in a world that seems filled with doom and gloom.
One of the crop that gets more and more attention is the potato. The potato plant, Solanum tuberosum, is a plant of the member of the Nightshade family and is cultivated for its edible starchy tuber. Its well known cousins are tomatoes and eggplants. The plants are native to the Americas and are believed to have been domesticated between 7000 and 10 000 years ago.
Potatoes are an easy crop to grow and require little in terms of fertility or soil quality. Some people even grow them directly on turf without any tilling! Provided light is properly excluded from the growing spuds and they have access to sufficient water and nutrition, potatoes grow!
Potatoes are also incredibly tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions. They will tag along in cold, damp weather and rarely fail to produce a harvest, although drought at the time of tuber formation will reduce the yield.
On average, a single potato planted returns 8 to 10 new spuds per plant, depending on the variety, fertility and water available to the plants. I find that the yield is always better with fingerling potatoes, but that storage quality is the best with potatoes like Russet Burbank or German Butterballs.
Now that you want to grow a bountiful spuds crop, where do you start? Well, you start at the very beginning.
Store bought VS Seed Potatoes
Before we even get into potato growing, we need to talk about the needless controversy surrounding the merits of seed potatoes VS store bought potatoes.
The first thing to consider and a contributing factor to the controversy is that conventionally grown potatoes do not grow well if at all in the garden as they have been sprayed with an inhibitor to prevent them from sprouting. The chemicals not only leave residue on the tuber that are harmful to your health, but it means that the potatoes will only rot in the ground if you plant them, unable to sprout the eyes that ultimately result in the potato plants and more tubers.
Store bought potatoes can be used if they are organically grown, as organic practices forbid the use of the growth inhibitors. Those spuds will sprout and are safe to eat and many gardeners make good use of those unfortunate tubers that have sprouted and are now unappetizing. This is an option that many gardeners love and is a good way to produce food for very little costs as well as reduce waste.
Organic store bought potatoes can be used in the garden to save money ad reduce food waste.
Certified seed potatoes have a few advantages over the cheaper store-bought options and I will leave it to you to decide if it is worth your money. Variety selections in seed potato is far greater than store-bought, as commercial potato farming focuses on a few select varieties. The gardener wishing to grow particular varieties that are not available in the grocery stores may have to first obtain certified seed potatoes to start they crop. This may be very pleasing to those who yearn for exotic cultivars or who are faced with challenging growing conditions. Seed potatoes are also generally more uniform in size and in germination time than the store bought versions, leading in a more uniform crop. Disease prevention, a major concern in commercial growers, is also a good reason to acquire certified seed potatoes. For commercial growers, prevention of the spread of the Potato Virus Y, a disease-causing virus that reduce yield and damages crops is the main reason for buying certified seed potatoes.
I have used both store-bought and certified seed potatoes with equal success. As a gardener who enjoys variety in my crops, I always like to add new things to my garden and potatoes are no exception. I recently acquired True Blue, Caribou and Main Select from a local nursery who had bags on sale and am looking forward to harvesting them. I also planted several pounds of various Fingerlings, Yukon Gold and Russets Burbanks from my own stock, started years ago and carried year after year after a winter of storage.
You don’t have to spend much to grow your first potato crop if you don’t want to. Digging in those unappealing sprouted tubers lingering at the bottom of your storage drawers will give you plenty of satisfaction and return similar yield to the more expensive certified seed potatoes.
Cheat with Chitting
Chitting potatoes is a funny term used to describe the process of enticing potatoes to produce eyes before you plant them in the ground. This step is especially useful if your spuds are still in the dormant stage a few weeks before planting time. This speeds up the growth process and helps prevents the potatoes from rotting in the ground, especially if you plant them extra early and the soil is damp and cold.
I always chit mine for a few weeks to get them out of dormancy if they haven’t sprouted yet from their winter-long storage.
Various Fingerling potatoes chitting on a sunny windowsill on March 15 2022.
To chit your potatoes, simply place them on a flat surface with the tiny eyes pointing upward (you may have to choose which side of your potato you wish to chit) and place them by a sunny window, away from direct sunlight. In a few days to weeks, eyes will sprout and your potatoes will be chitted!
Potato plant will begin to grow fast after planting, especially if you took the time to chit them before hand. Care must be taken not to plant them too early, as a frost will undoutedly damage the sensitive sprouts and hinder the harvest. Plants are quite beautiful and I love to watch them poke out of the mulch in the spring.
Healthy growing potato plants, 4 weeks after planting on April 15th 2022.
Potato plants begin to form new tubers at flowering time. During this period, it is important to avoid drought as this will result in smaller tubers in lesser quantity.
Flowering time depends on variety, with early potatoes flowering sooner, etc.
Whatever the type and variety you chose, take the time to appreciate the simple beauty of a flower potato plant.
After the plants have finished blooming, it is advised not to overwater them. This will "toughen" the potato skins and increase their storage capacity. Where I live in Connecticut, we don't need to water our potatoes at all, but if you live in a drier climate, you should still provide some form of moisture to keep your plants from dying too early. Balance is the key here, so what you need to know is that tubers form before and during flowering time and this is the best time to keep your potato plants well watered.
Plant them all!
Potatoes come in many types, mostly classified into the following categories: first early, early, mid-season and main crop. Those categories refer to the length of time it takes the plants to produce the tubers.
Generally speaking, first early and early potatoes take between 75 and 90 to reach maturity. There are many varieties out there, but my favorite early and first early potato varieties are Norland Red and Adirondack Blue. Both produce small to medium sized tubers of exceptional taste and texture and are a great addition to summer dinners on the grill, simply roasted with garlic and tossed with herbs. Those are not the best for long term storage but produce a crop faster than the other types.
List of early and first-early potato varieties I tried over the years.
- Yukon Gold
- Alta Blush
- Adirondack Blue
Mid-Season varieties are the most abundant in terms of choice and take between 90 and 110 days to mature. They comprise varieties such as the ever popular French Fingerling and my personal favorite, Caribou. Mid-season varieties are good keepers and produce versatile tubers that are good for a great range of uses.
List of mid-season potato varieties I tried over the years.
- All Blue
- Huckleberry Gold
- Adirondack Red
- Adirondack Blue
- Keuka Gold
Late season or main season varieties take between 110 and 135 days to mature. The most popular main season potatoes are Russet Burbank and German Butterball, but there are many more out there for you to discover. Main season potatoes are the best for long term storage and usually keep with no problem until the following spring if stored properly.
List of main season potato varieties I tried over the years.
- Colorado Rose
- German Butterball
- Russet Burbank
- French Fingerling
- Purple Peruvian Potato
Visit this page for a list of all the known potato varieties available worldwide and their origin country.
I love to grow 2 crops of early potatoes each year, for a maximum harvest size. Earlies and first earlies are delicious eaten fresh and if you haven’t already, give them a try. Planting them in March here in my zone 6b, I get to enjoy them by the end of July for a long and tasty summer!
Here’s a nifty little chart I created where you can find the days to maturity and name of the most common types of potatoes.
Finicking on Fertility
Potatoes are easy to grow, but they still have needs and requirements that need to be met if you want to maximize your harvest and avoid problems like scab, fungal disease that attacks the skin of potato skins and reduce their quality and storage ability.
Potatoes grow best in well-drained, sandy soil. A poorly drained soil is more likely to produce diseased tubers. I find that the best way to grow them is to mulch them heavily on top of a well-draining soil, providing a stable moisture content without leaving them in soggy soil.
Another point that is often overlook – or unknown – by first time home potato growers is that potatoes prefer a slightly acidic soil, much like blueberries do. Have your soil tested. The ideal soil pH level for potatoes is somewhat acidic, between 6 and 6.5 and as low as 5. Lower pH helps prevent diseases like scab.
This is an important fact to consider when you want to apply fertilizer, as some common homemade fertilizer can send the pH too high and damage your potatoes. Never apply wood ash to you potatoes, for example, as this “sweetens” the soil and brings the pH too high. Potatoes do better with a healthy application of compost, which is a natural pH buffer.
Potatoes do not need overly fertile soil and in fact are negatively affected by recent applications of fertilizer like manure. Better to rotate and grow your potatoes after hungrier crops have passed, leaving the potatoes for the last.
If you want to fertilize your potatoes, choose an organic fertilizer with a relatively low Nitrogen (N) and is at least twice as high in Phosphorous (P) and Potash (K). I use Bone Meal and Epsom Salt on my potato crop every year, as well as a generous application of homemade compost, but never fresh manure.
Healthy potato plants on June 15th 2022, reaching about 3 feet in height
I also apply mulch as often as I can see the soil from the moment the first leaves pierce the surface of the soil. Fresh grass clipping and straw make the biggest part of my mulch, but other material such as shredded leaves are also suitable.
In the end, fertile and well-watered soil always yields best, but that’s no surprise to anyone!
Knowing when and how to harvest your potatoes is just as important as knowing how, when and what to feed them.
With the exception of baby potatoes, which are potatoes that are harvested at an immature stage, allow your potato plants to tell you when they are ready to harvest. Wait until the tops have completely died down before the harvest. The most common advice is to wait 2 weeks, leaving your tubers in the grown, past the point where the vines have died down to let them cured in the ground. Some gardeners prefer to harvest them as soon as the vines are dead and cure them indoors. After this point, the plants will begin dying back. Tubers will draw energy from the plants all the way until the tops are dead, so I always leave mine in the ground for the full 2 weeks past the point where the vines are dead.
As a general rule, you should not harvest the potatoes in the days following a heavy rain. Wait until the soil is mostly dry and carefully dig up the tubers. Some gardeners pull the plants up and pluck the tubers attached to the roots and then dig up whatever is left in the soil while others use a long fork to lift the base of the plants and expose them. The fork method is my personal choice when I have lots of potatoes to harvest, but be careful not to stab your tubers as those with a damaged skin won’t store well. Use any damaged potatoes right away and avoid storing them alongside intact tubers.
Storing potatoes for the winter is easy, provided you follow a few simple rules. The first rule is light exclusion. Place your tubers in a container or room away from all light sources, as exposure to light kickstarts a reaction in the tubers that give them a green tinge- a sign of the presence of solanine, a poisonous compound that can cause nausea, headaches and neurological problems. Peeling green potatoes can help reduce solanine levels, but once a potato has turned green, it's best to throw it away.
Store potatoes in a light-proof container but still allow some airflow at a temperature of 40-50 degrees. A basement or unheated dark pantry is ideal.
I store my tubers in large black plastic tubs with small holes pierced along the sides, layering them with sawdust or fine pine shavings. I usually place a fine mesh at the top instead of the provided lid to allow more airflow and exclude pests like mice and other rodents from taking over my precious spuds. Potatoes that have been cured and stored properly will keep for 4 months to a year, easily reaching planting time for the next crop.
Go over your storage at least once a month and eat or throw away any potato that shows signs of sprouting, bruising or rotting. Only preserve the best, unblemished and healthy spuds for the next growing season.
There is it! My best, all inclusive guide to growing potatoes!
Do you have any other tips and tricks to share? What is your most favorite cultivar? Leave a comment below and share the bounty!