This is Part 3 in my series “Growing Potatoes”. In this post I will provide pictures and information to show you how to plant and grow potatoes. Also see the links to Part 1: Getting Started, Part 2: Choosing Seed Potatoes, and Part 4: Harvesting and Storing Potatoes.
How-To Reference Guide
For your convenience, I have added a little how-to guide for easy reference in the very beginning of this post, and more detailed information beneath. For metric measurements, see Conversions to Metric in the top menu bar.
1. Choose certified seed potatoes.
2. Plant whole, small seed potatoes, or cut into 2-inch pieces with at least 1-2 eyes in each.
3. Let cut pieces sit for 1 day after cutting until a thin callous forms on the cut sides.
4. Plant in spring as soon as soil can be worked, or any time after that; but allow enough time for maturing before winter.
5. Dig a 6 inch deep trench for planting, or a 6 inch deep hole for each seed potato.
6. Plant potatoes or pieces 1 1/2 foot apart, sprouts up, and around 2-3 feet between rows.
7. Cover with 4 inches of dirt.
8. When sprouts emerge, cover with 4 more inches of soil.
9. When green stems emerge again and are 8 inches tall, cover / hill with dirt half way up the stems, up against the plants.
10. After 2-3 more weeks, repeat, and hill dirt half way up the stems again.
11. Add 1-2 inches of soil every week or two until blooms appear, then hill as needed just to keep potatoes covered.
12. Harvest anytime 2-3 weeks after blooming is done as soon as potatoes have formed, until as late as when the plants have died back in the fall, but before the ground freezes. Tubers will continue to grow in size until plants die back.
13. Rotate to grow in the same area only every 3-4 years to prevent disease.
OK, so here are the details to help you along! This is the fun part!! (Oh, and harvesting too, of course!)
To plant, dig a 6 inch trench, or dig a hole for each potato.
Rows should be around to 2 – 3 feet apart; I tried 2 ft. between my rows last year, and though the potatoes yielded fine for the most part, the rows were too close for me to work comfortably around them and to hill properly. I will space them a full 3 ft. apart next time, just for convenience. During my first year of planting potatoes (which is the source of most of the pictures in this post; the fence isn’t even fully in yet!), I dug a long, 8 in deep trench, which was a pretty tedious job. I tied string to stakes on either side to use as a guide for where to dig in order to get a nice, straight row. The following year I just dug a hole for each potato; laid them down sprouts up and covered with a few inches of dirt. That’s what I did this year as well.
I like to plant them approximately 1½ feet apart in the rows, though they can be as close as 15 inches if you wish. Any closer than that, and you may end up with small potatoes; more than 2 feet apart is really not necessary.
Plant the potatoes eyes / sprouts up, and cover with 3-4 inches of soil.
You can often see the soil cracking a bit on the surface just before sprouts emerge. They are quite thick and strong right from the get-go. When sprouts emerge, fill around 3-4 more inches of soil, though the exact amount is not important. See row on the right in the next picture. The left row is a row of carrots. In my potato row I stuck down some sticks (skewers) to note where the original potatoes were planted in order to keep track of each plant and see how the different varieties were coming along.
Let the plants grow around 8 inches tall or so. Then hill half way up stem.
Hilling means to pull up dirt from around the potato plants and covering them, or just cover parts of the stem. This is done in order to protect the potatoes, which grow out from the stems of the potato plants, from light so they don’t turn green. The result is also mounds of dirt around each plant, which makes it look like you dug a row of piled-up dirt, then stuck the plants into the row. Some people will not dig dirt up against them but will use straw instead, which would be less work, no doubt!
Just how to go about hilling after the first sprouts show their green little faces is not necessarily too important; some say to completely cover the plants right away, and others say to allow some growth first before hilling up against them. I think that the whole point is to dig up soil around them so that potatoes can start to form alongside the stems, and to keep the potatoes from getting exposed to light. It seems to me that there are many ways to do it. Just keep hilling in one way or another. I hilled a lot during my first year, after initially having planted 8 in. deep in a trench, and it took a lot of hard digging to get them out of there. The following year I didn’t plant quite as deeply, and I didn’t hill quite as much. I still got a nice harvest and no potatoes were exposed to light. It was also much easier to harvest.
Next are a couple of pictures from when I just dug a 6 inch hole for each potato and not as deep as when I dug the trench, then I just covered the entire hole instead of only half way. I can’t say there was much of a difference, so this was just easier for me. These pictures show how I hill mine, using a hoe or cultivating fork. In the beginning it’s flat all around, but there will soon be mounds around each plant. These plants emerged and grew a bit before I got around to hilling.
Just be careful not to disturb the plant itself!
Here they are nearly covered, and they will soon grow right up again, so then you’ll dig some more.
The tubers (potatoes) will grow out from the stem and need to be covered to be protected from light. Keep on adding more layers of soil every week or two, 1-2 in. at a time as needed. Sometimes I will dig my hands carefully into the soil to check if I find any potatoes growing close to the surface, but after this much hilling, it has not been the case for me so far. Do add more soil if you see the tops of any potatoes though, as light will make them turn green. This green layer is toxic, so you’ll want to avoid that. You can see some green on this potato that I was peeling for supper the other night (supermarket potato):
In the following picture, with a potato row on the left (carrots on the right), you can see that the hills of dirt that originally was on either side of the trench have been completely leveled out as it gradually was used for hilling. Instead this dirt will form a single row of raised dirt in the middle where the trench used to be. The dirt has been packed up along the stems of each plant.
The plants are growing and developing flowers now, and a couple of the plants are also starting to show some distress. You can see some leaves here and there curling somewhat. If your plants do not flower, don’t be alarmed. For some reason, not all plants will produce flowers, especially in warm climates such as zone 8. Since you won’t be needing the flowers anyway, there really isn’t a problem and they still produce potatoes.
Though potatoes enjoy compost, don’t worry about it if you don’t have any. There is no need for very fertile soil as they are not picky plants at all, and will usually perform fairly well in poor soil as well as soil containing compost. Do not use a lot of fertilizer, on the other hand, especially nitrogen, as it will result in lots of plant growth but very few tubers. All plants need some nutrition, however, especially if the soil has become depleted after years of growing vegetables. Compost is best, although a balanced granular fertilizer (such as 12-12-12 or so) can also be used. Loose, well-drained soil helps to increase yield. Slightly acidic soil is preferred, so I like to add coffee grounds to help bring down the PH level a little bit. Some coffee shops, like Starbucks, will often fill up bags of used coffee grounds and give it to gardeners for free, for composting purposes. So this is an advantageous way to recycle coffee grounds that would otherwise bee thrown in the dumpster. Why put it in the dump if it can feed your plants?
Watering regularly will produce a better crop; however, potatoes do tolerate dryer conditions better than many other vegetable plants. It is especially important, however, to water them during blooming and shortly after, as this is when the potatoes are formed, increasing the need for water. After this stage, you can safely cut down on watering. It is important to know that the soil should never be water logged at any stage, or the potatoes will easily rot. Also, try to water early in the day so that the plants have plenty of time to dry off before evening, to prevent fungal diseases. It is hard to keep potato plants 100% disease free, and so far I have not found it to be necessary either. Most of my plants, diseased looking or not, produced pretty well for me. I’m sure they could have done better too, but while balancing efforts to get a decent yield and keeping the work load to a minimum, I was very happy with the results.
Soon after the flowers are done blooming, the plants will start to yellow and whither, and eventually turn brown and die completely. This natural and normal process is to be expected, and is called “dying off”. The potatoes are simply done growing and no longer need the green plant material to sustain them. The potatoes can be harvested any time now, unless they will be in storage. More on these things in my next post, Part 4: Harvesting and Storing Potatoes.
When the plants start to yellow and die back, you should stop watering altogether, as the potatoes really are done growing and are working on developing a thick, tough, protective skin, which will be helpful for storage. During this stage, they do tolerate some rain, but they do not actually need it, and it’s best to keep it to a minimum to prevent rotting or sprouting of the tubers you were planning to eat. If you are planning on using them right away, you don’t have to worry about developing a thicker skin.
I hope you’ll enjoy growing potatoes as much as I do! There is nothing like bringing in fresh produce from your own garden, after working and tending to your plants, and watching them grow until it’s time for harvest! Since potatoes grow under ground, you get to go on a treasure hunt when harvest time comes around! Check out my next post on how to harvest and store potatoes!