Growing Potatoes Part 4: Harvesting and Storing Potatoes

 

 

In this post I will go over some details on when and how to harvest potatoes, as well as what I have learned about storage. Also see my other posts in this same series: Part 1, Getting Started; Part 2, Choosing Seed Potatoes, Preparation; and Part 3, Planting and Growing Potatoes.

After a couple of months of preparing, planting, watering, and tending to my plants, all along wondering what’s happening under ground, I find myself getting giddy in the anticipation for a well deserved, tasty reward. The work load has definitely been tolerable, so much so that each year I have found myself wishing to expand my designated garden areas to allow for more potato rows. It really is quite simple; when all is said and done, it seemed I did little more than stick the seed potatoes in the ground, cover with dirt, cover some more, water, and wait. Then comes time to dig and eat! I just love sticking my pitch fork in the dirt and discover what might be hiding underneath! What will happen when I turn the soil over? There could be nothing but balls of packed soil and little rocks. But most of the time, out roll firm spuds of different sizes; sometimes yellow, sometimes red, or just plain gray or brown; it all depends on the variety I planted, of course. My kids yell, “There’s one! Wait, there’s more!” What fun, what a miracle! Food, yummy and healthy, right down there in the dirt! I get a kick out of that every time!

Time frame from planting to harvest; when are they ready?

Depending on the variety planted, you are generally looking at anywhere from 2-4 months from planting to harvest. If you wish, you can harvest some potatoes as soon as 2-3 weeks after flowering has finished, to get “baby potatoes”, perfect as a delectable side dish for a delicious dinner. These tiny new-potatoes are sweet and tender as the sugar has not yet been converted into starch. Gently sneak your hands into the dirt to search for the larger ones, leaving the small ones to grow for a while longer. Or leave the whole crop to finish growing before you harvest.

When to harvest, and what does “dying back” mean?

The potatoes are done growing when you see the plants starting to “die back.” If you are planning to use them right away, they can be dug at any time when this process starts. If you wish to store them, they should stay in the ground a while longer, as described below under “Hardening off.”

But first, what exactly does “dying back” mean? Well, when the tubers are done growing, the potato plants will start to yellow, then become more and more brown and withered, until they completely die back. It is a much anticipated sign I look for to know that the potatoes have finished growing. This process can easily be confused with disease; the first year I grew potatoes I tried in vain to heal my plants to no avail, and have since learned not to fret about this normal and wonderful stage. To help you know what to expect during this natural process, I have included a few pictures of what my plants looked like when they started dying back. There are a lot of weeds around in these pictures, but the potato plants in the first picture are the two light green stems in the middle with some brown leaves, sprawling on the ground:


On occasion, potato plants will produce fruits that looks like green cherry tomatoes, eventually turning white. This is the true potato fruit, which contains seeds. The fruit is toxic and not edible, but the seeds can be used to grow new potato plants. However, potatoes from these plants will not be true to the original tubers. I have never tried it myself. In the following pictures as the plants continue to die back, you can see these fruits still hanging on the plants, now white in color.


The plants are now dead as can be, a good sign!

When the potatoes are done growing, I like to leave mine in-ground and harvest as needed rather than dig the entire crop right away. This should not be done if it rains a lot or if the dirt drains poorly, because of the risk of rot or sprouting. My potatoes have kept very well in-ground, but I do harvest them within a few weeks of maturing and certainly well before winter sets in since I can expect the ground in my zone to freeze. In milder climates, where the soil is workable all year, some people keep them in-ground all winter.

Hardening off:

If you prefer to store your taters, you should wait 2-4 weeks after the plants have died back to harvest, to toughen them up a bit. When you see that the plants have mostly died back, stop watering altogether to prevent rot or re-sprouting of your crop. Since the potatoes are now finished growing, there is no longer any need for water and leaving them in-ground for a couple of weeks extra allows the tubers to develop a thicker, stronger skin, which is needed for safe storage to protect them from rot or disease. If you have a very late crop, you can start the process and harden them off before the plants die back by cutting down the stems and foliage and stop watering.

How to harvest:

I prefer to use a pitch fork to harvest my potatoes. After trying a shovel and a cultivating tool first, seemingly slicing and piercing more potatoes than not, I ended up settling on my good ol’ pitch fork. I found that as long as I started a ways away from the plants and worked myself closer, I was able to dig them easily and safely, and piercing some only on occasion. Damaged spuds can still be used, but they won’t store well. I dig a foot or so away from the plant, and being that the pitch fork is a curved tool, I try to dig straight down and not on an angle. Then I push the handle down to lift and turn the soil, moving closer and closer until I have dug up the entire plant, taking care to harvest every last little one to prevent re-sprouting the next spring.

See how the potatoes are connected to the plant in the root area? They are very easy to tear off, and often come lose by themselves when you dig around them.

Sometimes you might be able to pull the plant out of the ground with the potatoes still attached.

After digging, if you are going to use them within a couple of days, just brush off the worst of the soil and let them dry a bit. If you live in a hot climate, do not leave them in the sun as excessive heat could cause them to cook. I typically dig only what’s needed for dinner, just brush off the excess soil, and bring them right inside to prepare. It is so much fun!

Pick the ones you find, then continue to dig around in the soil and search for more. Pick every last one, even the tiny ones; otherwise they will grow into new plants (and that might not fit with your plans for next season). This plant actually did come from a stray potato that had accidentally been left after harvesting last year, and produced quite nicely. Nice accident!

Preparations for Storage:

So far I have always dug and used my potatoes as needed, and long-term storage is not something I have personally tried yet. However, in studying and researching this process, this is what I have found out about it:

If you want to store your potatoes, harden them off in-ground first, as described above. After digging, let them cure for several days to two weeks by letting them dry on newspaper or dry ground in a dark space, such as the garage, basement, etc. This hardens the skin further for better storage. Make sure to keep the spuds away from sunlight, and do not allow rain or any water to reach them. Do NOT wash them if they are to be stored. Excess soil can be gently brushed or rubbed off, but make sure not to damage or rub off any of the skin. Damaged potatoes should not be stored, but used within a few days, although minor cuts and bruises will heal during the curing period.

Here are some of the beautiful red skin potatoes that I harvested.


Some were a bit damaged in the process, but I always use those within a few days, so that’s not a problem.

In this picture, the last of my potatoes have been harvested, and my garden is now ready for tilling before winter.

How to store potatoes:

Potatoes should be stored in a cool, but not cold, dry, dark environment, ideally around 45-50 degrees F  (7-10 degrees C). Do not refrigerate them as they will turn sweet and change consistency, though this can be reverted by bringing them into warmer temperatures for a day or two. Potatoes do not tolerate frost.

Potatoes can be stored in bins, baskets, cardboard boxes, etc., or even in paper sacks or mesh bags. They do need good ventilation, so the container should be well perforated. Never store in air-tight containers. It is best not to pack them too tight, but keep some air flow around them to prevent rotting. Make sure they are kept in a very dark area, or cover the bins with newspaper or cardboard to keep all light out, to prevent them from turning green. Don’t store potatoes together with onions as each vegetable produces gasses that will cause both of them to spoil. Potatoes in optimum conditions will store for several months, even up to half a year or more.

I remember the potato cellar in my grandmother’s old house; I was never actually inside the cellar itself, but I remember the black, scary hole in the kitchen floor when the hatch was opened, and the tiny ladder the grown-ups would climb to get potatoes when needed. I remember my grandmother warily climbing down into the cellar with a shiver, hurrying back up again and sometimes telling of the giant spiders living there, apparently waiting for their next victim. I’m glad I only had to experience it second-hand! Hopefully all of you have pretty, happy places to store your taters!

If you have any tips or comments, please leave a comment below.

About Terese

51 Responses to “Growing Potatoes Part 4: Harvesting and Storing Potatoes”

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  1. Eleanor Bell says:

    Thank you for this information, 1st year growing spuds and I thought they had all died! I am very relieved and look forward to the digging up process. A very informative site.

    • Terese says:

      I’m glad to hear you found my page helpful! I hope you’ll have fun digging and will find lots of potatoes under your plants!

  2. Alice says:

    Last year I grew fingerlings and yukon golds on one end of my large garden plot. My roommate swore up and down he got all of the little ones out at the end of the season, but this last spring I found myself wading through potato plants in every corner of the garden before I had a chance to plant a single one myself! Since they were growing willy-nilly underneath all of my other plants I haven’t done the big harvest yet and all traces of their foliage are long gone. Any chance you have tips on how to locate potatoes without the plant? I’ll sieve every inch of dirt to get them if I have to, but I’d sure rather do it a simpler way if I can. Also, great article, and I love the pictures.

    • Terese says:

      A few surprises for you this past spring, sounds like! Haha! It seems to happen to me every year. Well, as far as locating them at this point, I’m not sure there is much you can do other than dig here and there where you think they may have been. I would use a pitch fork and dig down every foot or so throughout the areas you think they were located. Once the plants are gone, there isn’t much else to do, I don’t think (other than using harvesting machinery, which most of us don’t own.) And you’ll probably get a few more surprises next year; if so, you could mark the areas with garden sticks of various kinds, just to make it easier to find them after-the-fact. That’s what I did w/ my strays, just stuck down markers and looked for those when I wanted to dig for them. Hope you find some! Let me know!

  3. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for all the useful info. The pictures were great! Have looked at several websites for harvesting info and yours was the “BEST”. Waiting is the hardest part. I’m like a 5 yr old, I wanna see what’s inside the package! I’ve had a couple spuds reveal themselves to me so I hope there are lots and lots hidden in the dirt. Thanks again for sharing your progress.

    • Terese says:

      Thanks so much! Yes, waiting is hard, but so worth it in the end. I hope you’ll have a great harvest, and lots of fun digging!

  4. Zororai says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Your writing is very informative and you make it all sound very simple and straight forward. Great illustration too with the pictures. Thank you.

  5. Devildoc68 says:

    This is a great site and you have all the information for sure. My wife and I have planted Yukon Golds for the first time at doing spuds. We live at 7000 ft. so have them in large containers due to a multitude of gophers. Very much appreciate your page…am looking forward to harvest time….Thanks !!!

  6. Cathy says:

    Thanks for your feedback and photos. It’s really helpful. I live in Australia in a fairly temperate climate and I have tried to store my potatoes under the house under hessian so it is dark but they are still going soft and sprouting. i will follow your advice next year!

  7. carolyn says:

    This spring was my first time planting potatoes, as well as the first time in a new garden and new growing zone for me-8b. I planted them on March 3, and around May 10 the vines started dying back without ever having flowered. I assumed they had a disease or pest problem, but left them in the ground until today (May 28) I went to dig up the plants and discovered potatoes. Any ideas why they never bloomed?

    • Terese says:

      I believe potato plants in warmer climates, such as zone 8, do not necessarily bloom at all. I’m not sure why, but I believe this is a fairly common phenomenon for warmer zones and it does not pose a problem since the blooms are not necessary for potato buds to form. I’m glad to hear you got taters out of it, that’s the important part. It’s always fun to know the why’s around these things, though. :)

  8. emily says:

    Hi thanks for the info…very informative! This is the first time I planted potatoes. I did not wait long enough I guess because there were tons of tiny tiny potatoes that would have grown. I did not wait for the plants to die. I read that after the blooms die you harvest 2 weeks after. I did get alot of potatoes!! Very exciting! I did read that you pick off the big ones and then replant the plant to let the others continue to grow. Don’t know about all that but I did and well see!! Thanks again for the tips. I book marked this page for next year!!
    Emily

    • Terese says:

      Sounds like you had great success overall, then!! :D If you don’t mind, do come back to let me know how it worked out to replant the plants; did you replant the entire plant with the little ones still attached? I’ve never tried it that way before; in fact, I’ve always just dug up the whole plant and used whatever was there and that’s the end of the plant. I have read that you can gently slip your hands down underneath the plant while it’s still growing and harvest the larger ones, and leave the rest to grow, but I have not heard of actually digging up the whole thing. I wonder if the plant can handle that? I am now very curious to know what will happen! Fill me in if you can! Thanks!

  9. Ginger says:

    This is our first year to grow red potatoes. We have just harvested a first batch, but plants still look great and are continuing to grow. I remember my grandmother letting us dig the new (red) potatoes and she’d cook them that night. Can red potatoes be eaten right after digging? Do they need to be stored any differently from other potatoes. I appreciate your website and the great information you are sharing!

    • Terese says:

      Great memories, I’m sure! I don’t think red potatoes require any different care than other potatoes do; at least not that I’ve ever read or heard about. And yes, you can definitely cook them up and eat them immediately after digging, no problem. It’s when you want to store them that you want to toughen them up. I hope you’ll enjoy your harvest!

  10. Patti says:

    Thanks for the informative article and pictures… that’s exactly what my little spud plants have started to look like. I was worried they died in the heat wave!

  11. Angel says:

    Thank you for the info. You talked about the tators getting damaged in the harvesting process. Luckily my husband and I wont need to worry about that. We took old tires and double stack them and took some zip ties and secured them together. And we filled them with dirt to use as planters. Last year we had tomatoes in them. But we recently moved and our landlord didn’t have a problem with us planting our garden in the ground. So this season we decided to grow some tators. The plants are slowly starting to dye back. And when they are finished we are gonna take our tarps and put them on the ground by the tires and just kick the the tires over. Can’t wait, because i have a feeling we are gonna have more tators than we know what to do with. :)

  12. Kerry Lincoln says:

    Iv just harvested my first crop of potatoes and couldnt understand why they were so small. Im glad I read your blog so I know exactly what to do from now on. =) if you have any other tips regarding other vegetables I would love to read them

  13. Wendy Hise says:

    Thank you so much for this information and pictures. I have one plant that has died back, now I am just patiently waiting for the others. This is my first year with potatoes and can’t wait to see how I did!

    Thanks again! :)

  14. Marsha says:

    Hi, I have potatoes that grew in my compost. ( old hay,grass,sticks,Food scrapes). Some are very small like some in your pictures and some are green in places, Are they good to eat? Thank you

    • Terese says:

      Hey, small or not, free potatoes from the compost sounds like a great deal to me! :) They should be just fine, although I would cut off the green parts. They turn green when exposed to light, and the green is not good for you. If you cut it off, you should be just fine. If most of the potato is very green, I would throw the whole thing away.

  15. Leila Simonsen says:

    Well, here it is October 6 & my Yukon Golds, (planted from stored potatoes which had lo-o-ong sprouts when first discovered) have never died back, even still have blossoms. We have had a couple of frosty nights, so I decided i’d better get them dug. But they sure have had no chance to harden offThere are several dozen nice sized ones, dozens of golf-ball sized ones, which my neighbor & I are using for stew, & the inevitable damaged ones, which will go for soup, & scalloped potatoes, but what do I do with the bigger ones, which I’ d like to store?

    • Terese says:

      Well, if they are already dug, there isn’t much you can do other than store them for as long as you can in a dark, cool, dry place. Very gently brush off the worst of the soil, then leave the rest so you don’t damage the skins. Follow the above suggestions otherwise, to prepare them for storage. They may not last as long as if they had hardened in the ground, but they should last a little while at least. Just go check on them now and again and find a use for them if they don’t seem to be doing well.
      Just so you know, unless October means the ground will freeze in your area, or the soil will be soaking wet all the time from heavy and frequent rains, you can safely leave them in the ground for a while even if there is frost in the air. In my area we have rain from time to time, but not ALL the time, and the ground can still be dug for a while yet even if we have frosty nights. The main goal is to dig them before the ground becomes to hard to dig, or before they rot (or sprout) due to water logged soil. :)

  16. natalie says:

    Its great to read all the comments, its always good to have new info as this is my first time growing anything. i planted my potatoes from old ones that had sprouted cause i hadn’t used them. They’ve grown really well but the flowers fell off during windy weather few weeks ago, I was hoping you would know how long after flowering they start to die back. My plants are still green and healthy.
    Thank you

    • Terese says:

      Good for you for getting started with growing your own food! Learning little by little as you go, the results can be so rewarding! I can’t remember how long it took for my plants to die back after flowering, but it was quite a while. Seems like the flowering itself took a month or more, and then the plants gradually started yellowing and turning brown. I think it can vary by your area and by plant, but flowering is a fairly lengthy process, if the plants flower at all. Some don’t, especially in warmer climates. The plants still need time to develop, of course.
      If you start feeling antsy, I’d say go ahead and dig up a plant and see what’s happening underneath; if you want to store them for a longer period of time, then you’ll need to allow the plants to die back fully and toughen up a bit before digging, but if you’re using them right away, then you can probably dig as you need them anytime you want to at this point. If they are still tiny, then wait a while longer.

      • natalie says:

        Thanks for replying so quickly. I’ll just have to stop acting like a 5 year old, try to be patient and remember that they still growing while they’re leafy and i could have lovely big potatoes. ;-)

        • Terese says:

          You’re very welcome! :) Oh, I don’t think you’re acting like a baby at all, it’s just very exciting and fun to see what might be hiding beneath the soil! :D I like to dig them little by little as we need them rather than storing them, anyway.

  17. Jeff says:

    Nice site. I love growing potatoes, harvesting, and of course cooking them up. Such a miracle food when considering how easy they are to grow and how great they are for your health with the skins on. Also such variety that you`ll never get bored growing them.

  18. GIFT KAPOTELA says:

    Yeah it is a good job u did.
    Sorry let me ask you
    If you dont have a room but you have a piece of land only can’t we dig a big HOLE so that we can store there? on the conditions you stated

    • Terese says:

      That’s an interesting idea, for sure! Same concept as a potato cellar, I guess. I don’t know if it would work the same way, but seems like it would be OK as long as the potatoes are kept away from frost and water drainage. I know many people will leave potatoes in the ground where they grow, digging as needed, until the ground starts to freeze. So my guess is that it would be OK. You’ll have to use your own judgement or research a bit.

  19. tom says:

    How long can you leave them in the ground

    • Terese says:

      Until the ground freezes, or until you’re in a time period of a lot of rain; you don’t want them to rot or sprout.

  20. Ayesha says:

    I wish I had found this site before I planted……I think I may not have planted my seed potato deep enough. I think I got most of them about 3 inches deep and they are probably to close together. Should I wait until the plant starts to grow and maybe remove some? Thanks!

    • Terese says:

      There’s no need for concern on planting to shallow; just shove more soil on top! :) If they are too close together, they may not produce as well, so removing some might be an option if you really think they’re too close together. I’m not sure when the best time to do this would be, but probably pretty early on, I would think.

  21. Michelle S says:

    Wow…so very informative. This is our first year growing potatoes, and I found this site to be invaluable, in terms of how, when and where (how far to dig) to harvest the potatoes. Our potatoes were planted in early April (we’re in zone 6b) and the plants have recently begun to flower. I think I’m as excited as our kids to have some home grown potatoes to cook and eat! We are looking forward to digging up some potatoes when they begin to die back. Many thanks for your expertise and for the wealth of information you have provided!

    • Terese says:

      I’m glad I could help! Thanks for commenting, it always inspires me to see that people find my posts helpful. :)

  22. Candice m says:

    This is my first year growing potatoes. I chose red. Funny story, I asked the man @ the city seed store where are ya’lls potatoe seeds (I expected little seeds like tomato,cukes ect) when I saw they were just potatoes with what my Mamaw called “eyes” I felt like a fool! But the man was nice and told me how to plant them, along with alittle research they were growing and flowering. I never got any fruit that I no of ans seems like something got the flowers(maybe a hornworm) I will be showing this to my dad to. He tried telling me it was time to dig them up (I think he was just being eager to see) well I dug up 2 plants and they were the size of a cotton ball! He told me they just weren’t going to grow, but I told him I was gonna keep the faith! They just needed more time the plant needed to be dead. I sent him a pic today of 3 I dug up that were just yellow stems with brown leafs they were the size of tennis balls and some smaller. Good tip on leaving the smaller ones attached. I can’t wait to see the rest when they are done!

    • Terese says:

      Haha! Too funny! And good for you for sticking it out to get potatoes larger than bite-size. ;) And if something got the flowers, that’s why you didn’t get any fruit. The fruit is a result of the flowering. But that’s not big deal anyway, since it’s the taters you want, not the fruits. But the flowers are pretty, so that part is always nice.

  23. Melissa says:

    Like many others who have posted this is my first year growing my own potatoes. My grandfather had a huge garden growing everything but he passed on a few years ago and his extensive knowledge went with him. i planted my seed potatoes very shallow and they have at least foot tall plants right now. I planted just before the fourth of July so I figure that I have a ways to go to maturity. does that sound right? If I want the small potatoes that my grandfather called “new” potatoes would they perhaps be ready by now to dig a few? I may try one plant just to see. I’ve counted over thirty plants so far in yukon gold and red that I bought. Also, a note I bought seed potatoes that have very, very long roots (off the clearance rack) at our store which I think are a great solution or is this wrong?

    • Terese says:

      I would wait a bit longer before digging. Not sure if your plants are flowering yet? I would leave them until the flowers start to die back. You can take them at any time, but the earlier, the smaller they will be. If you dig too early, you won’t really get anything at all, so there’s not much point in that. They say anywhere from 50-75 days for early potatoes (new potatoes,) depending on variety. Also, while they’re growing, start hilling dirt up along the stem, covering leaves and all. The tubers will grow along the stem, and will be damaged from the sun if not covered with enough dirt.

  24. Sue Marriott says:

    I found reading through everyone’s comments and your replies very interesting. I’ve been trying to grow some spuds but unfortunately the ones I grew (I can’t recall the variety) didn’t and aren’t flowering. The plants look very healthy though so I’ve left them as I note you said some varieties don’t always flower in the warm weather and here in the wilds of Shropshire, U.K. just lately we’ve had some very unusually hot weather. I look forward to visiting your site again and reading comments from everybody. Like someone else commented, it definitely is the best site I’ve found being informative and tells you exactly what you wanted to read. Many thanks again. Sue M

    • Terese says:

      They might still flower, maybe they just aren’t that far along yet. Regardless, check later on to see if spuds did in fact still grow. :)

  25. Elise Amiot says:

    What a great site! The photos help a lot.
    I have been growing potatoes for many years, in zone 4. I’ve narrowed down my varieties to Yukon gold (a great keeper) and Norland, a heavy producing red potato. I use the nicest potatoes from the previous harvest to plant, and I have a three year rotation in my garden. (there’s always a few potato plants among my onions!).
    At the beginning of the harvest, when I only need a few potatoes, and the plant is still green, I harvest the largest potatoes and replant the plant with a bunch of tiny potatoes still clinging to the plant. I then water the plant and they do keep growing, getting to be about half the size of a full grown potato.
    For the past few years none of my potato plants have flowered. It’s a mystery. And I’ve also had fewer and fewer potato beetles. ZERO potato beetles for the past two years! (touch wood!)
    Happy gardening!

    • Terese says:

      That’s interesting that you can replant the plant along with the small potatoes, I didn’t know you could do that! Why why not, as long as the roots are intact.

  26. Ronald Corfield says:

    Hi Teresa, The posts on your site make very interesting reading. In my past work ethic I had contact with the farming industry and was always told not to plant potatoes in the same ground year on year. What are your thoughts on this question? This is my second year growing in the same spot and I have harvested a couple of plants. The first few taters were softish and tended to go into the water when cooked, was this due to not “hardening off” ?
    Also this time round I did a much better job on preparing the ground by digging deeper and removing stones and also digging in compost and chicken manure. Would you agree this helps ? , what are your golden rules re feeding the ground?. Everything is dying off now above ground so I plan to leave them in ground for as long as possible.
    Regards, Ron

  27. billyboy says:

    good info ..thanx teresa…. anytime i have grown tatties ,i dig them up give them to the wife to cook but they always turned to mush,till someone told me to let them dry- off as he called it before cooking them but for how long ?

    • Terese says:

      Hmmm… turning to mush while cooking sounds like over-cooking to me. It often helps to put them in cold water in the pot, then let them warm up as the water heats up on the stove. This will prevent the outer parts to finish cooking before the insides are done. Mushy potatoes is also more common with the russet types, the more starchy potatoes.

  28. Jim Prokes says:

    What a nice, detailed tutorial on growing potatoes. Thank you.
    This year I preceded my ‘raised bed ‘tater garden’ with a cover crop of inoculated clover, planted in the very early spring (zone 9b) – turned in 3 weeks before planting – started with 10 inch trench and continuously buried the stems to up to about 8 inches as they grew above ground. The potatoes grew en-mass near the bottom of the trench, and the heaped earth made it perfect for harvesting – a stellar, healthy crop.

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