Home grown potatoes are the best!! Why? There are several reasons you should be growing potatoes in your garden: First, like most veggies, the home grown version of potatoes just taste better!! Second, having grown up in Southern Idaho and working for a potato farmer I know what they do to commercially grown potatoes. The fields are drenched in fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. Then after harvest they are treated again with chemicals to keep them from sprouting and for longer storage. Commercially grown potatoes are almost literally dripping with chemicals! Third, did you know there are over 100 varieties of potatoes that you can grow, but all the potatoes you can get in the grocery store are limited to about 5 varieties. If you only buy your potatoes at the grocery store you are missing out on tons of other tasty options.
Hopefully I have you sold on the idea of growing potatoes, now lets talk about how I grow mine. There are several different methods for growing potatoes. Containers, towers, straw mulch, etc., I have tried them all over the years. But the method I have landed on as being the most successful for our garden is the hilling method. It takes a little bit more work and planning but over all has been a very successful method for growing potatoes for us. So let’s break it down for you.
Types of potatoes
The first thing you need to do is choose the type of potato to grow. There are several different types of potatoes, do some homework before you choose the types you plant. We love red potatoes and usually about 80% of what we grow are the variety Red Pontiac. Red potatoes are creamy and delicious and are perfect for mashed potatoes and casseroles, but in my opinion are not nearly as good baked. So we always grow some type of russet potato as well as these are better suited for baking. There are purple, blue, white, red, pink, cream and brown skinned potatoes. Fingerling potatoes are small longer potatoes that are great roasted, but they are small so they would be a nightmare to peel for other uses. Spend some time on the Internet learning about all the different types of potatoes before you decide on what you want to try. Then look locally at your garden stores before you order on-line. Often ordering potatoes on-line or from a catalog can be very pricey so its always better to find them locally to avoid shipping costs if you can.
Most potatoes need between 90 to 120 days to mature. So be sure you know what you are planting before you get started. I plant my potatoes twice during the year. Once early in the spring (around March 15th) under the protection of a cold frame or hoop house. These potatoes are meant mainly to be “early” potatoes for us to eat with our peas as Cream Peas and Potatoes. To learn more about this method check out my post on Growing Early Potatoes.
My second planting of potatoes comes between May 15th and June 1st. This planting is meant to be our main crop of potatoes and the planting is timed so that the growing potatoes are fully mature and ready to harvest in Mid September.
Chitting your potatoes
Potatoes will come up a lot faster after planting if you plant seed that has been chitted first. Chitting (or sprouting) is simply allowing your potatoes to grow small sprouts from the eyes before you plant them. Simply place them in a warm spot for a week or two before planting and let those sprouts grow. BUT, you want to be sure you get them in the ground before the sprouts are much longer than one or two inches. It you allow the sprouts to grow longer than that you risk them breaking off when planted and the plants will produce an inferior crop.
Cutting Potato Seed
Seed potatoes come in all different sizes. The smaller ones (those around golf ball sized or slightly bigger) will just get planted whole. But I like to cut up the larger potatoes. Just use a sharp knife and cut the potato into two or even 3 pieces. The key is to be sure that there are at least 3 eyes in each piece.
There is some debate about weather cutting seed potatoes encourages disease problems. In my experience I have found no problems with disease on cut seed vs. uncut. If you live in an area with many prevalent potato diseases then you might want to consider not cutting your seed, but for us it is not an issue.
Planting for the Hill Method
To get the potato seed planted I simply dig a 4 to 6 inch deep trench. In the bottom of this trench I add a an inch of compost and mix it in with the soil at the bottom. I then plant the seed potato with the cut end down, the eyes facing upward. If you are planting a seed potato that hasn’t been cut then you should put the portion of the potato with the most eye’s facing up. For main crop potatoes I like to space the seed about every 12 inches. If I’m only looking to get small early potatoes then I may plant as close as 6 inches.
Then I cover the potatoes with about 1 to 2 inches of soil but I do not completely fill in the trench at this time!
Hilling the potatoes
So first off why do I hill my potatoes? Potatoes are actually a swollen portion of the stem of the potato plant, not part of the root. So the more under ground stem a potato plant has the more potatoes it will grow.
So here’s the idea, as soon as you see the first green leaves come up from the emerging potato plant you cover it up again.
Then as the plant grows out of the soil again you cover it again.
Once the trench is filled back up I then take soil from the surrounding area and mound or “hill” around the potato plants.
I do this every week for 2 or 3 more times. By the time I’m finished the hills will be around 12 to 15 inches high. Then I let them grow!
These pretty pink or white flowers on the potato plants indicated that tuber formation is starting. Once I see the flowers I know there are potatoes in the ground and I make sure to keep soil mounded up and all the growing potatoes covered. An uncovered potato exposed to the sunlight will turn green. A green potato is actually mildly poisonous so be sure not to feed green potatoes or skins to your chickens or other small animals. But it is easy to prevent green potatoes by simply checking your plants once a week to be sure there are no potatoes that have risen to the surface.
If you would like some small early potatoes wait a week or two after you see the first flowers on your spuds and then carefully dig around the plant with your hand and steal a few small potatoes leaving the rest to fully mature.
You know time to harvest your mature potatoes has come when the green “tops” of the plants die back. The foliage will turn mostly brown or yellow. I try to keep my potatoes in the ground for as long as I can in the fall. I figure the longer they are in the ground the less time I have to store them inside. But you do need to be careful get them out of the ground before the new potatoes start sprouting and trying grow new plants. Also be careful not to leave mature potatoes in wet soil as they can often rot! A good practice is once the tops have mostly died back start digging a plant up every few days to see what condition the potatoes are in.
One author I read suggested cutting all the foliage off once it has turned yellow, watering and then waiting 10 days to harvest the potatoes. This gives the growing potatoes a chance to harden a bit before you dig them up. That is basically what I do, other than I usually don’t bother actually cutting the tops away.
To harvest simply use a digging fork to gently lift the growing potatoes from the soil. Be careful to start digging quite a ways back from the plant so that you don’t skewer a potato with your digging fork or shovel.
After harvesting my potatoes I like to bring them into our garage and carefully spread them out on a table for a few days to allow the dirt on them to dry. I then very gently brush off any remaining dirt by simply rolling the potatoes in my hand. I then let them sit in the dark garage for a few more days to allow the skins to “harden” for long term storage. Be sure that you do not leave the potatoes outside in the sun to harden. Sunlight (or any light for that matter) will cause your potatoes to go green. The only way to prevent this is to keep them out of the light (even the artificial light of your garage)
After hardening (some times up to 10 days) I usually sort my potatoes by size, small medium and large. While I’m doing that I look carefully at each potato looking for any damage or “bad” spots on the potatoes. Any potatoes that are sub par go right into the fridge to be used up right way. All the good potatoes get stored by size in an airy crate or basket. The small potatoes are used for roasts, stews and other recipes where the potatoes don’t need to be peeled (we try to use these up fairly quickly as the longer they store the tougher the skins get and peeling a little potato is a pain in the neck!!) The medium sized potatoes are used for mashed potatoes and in casseroles. We save the big potatoes for baking and for homemade French fries!!
Air flow is important to prevent mold or rotting. Keep your potatoes in a cool dark spot. Of course a fridge is ideal but if you are like us you just don’t have room for 250 pounds of potatoes in your fridge. So try a cool spot in your basement or garage, but be sure to keep them out of the light by covering them with a heavy fabric like burlap that keeps the light out but still allows for air flow.
Optimum conditions for potato storage would be a nice dark root cellar where the temperature stays between 40 and 45 degrees (but always above freezing). Most of us don’t have that option but try to come as close as you can. Think about cool spots in the garage or maybe you could even create a mini root cellar in an out of the way window well. (This is our plan for this fall, more to come on that as we try it!)
Under those perfect conditions potatoes could last all winter, but more likely they will store around 3 or 4 months. So for us that means once most of the fresh produce is gone from the garden in the late fall we get busy eating potatoes. We are sure to check every time we get potatoes and take any that may be going bad or sprouting first. With a little bit of management we are usually finishing up the last of our potatoes around the end of January each year.