Growing Potatoes: Why & How To Grow Your Own Potatoes

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Colorful Heirloom PotatoesIf there is any vegetable you can count on finding at the grocery, it is the humble potato. Have you ever heard of the potato season coming to an end like you do with garden tomatoes or corn? Potatoes are available year-round so why would you use precious garden space to grow potatoes? There are actually a few good reasons:

Growing Potatoes For Nutrition

An average potato has as much potassium as a banana as well as 2 grams of digestible protein. Additionally you get iron, vitamin c and b vitamins. Most of the nutrients and fiber are in or close to the potato skin. Most of us peel the skin away because we don’t know where that skin has been or what has been sprayed on it. When you grow your own potatoes, this is no problem. Just scrub away the dirt and keep the skin intact, vitamins and all.

Potatoes have gotten a bad rap for making people fat. To set the record straight, the potato described above has about 80 calories. Anyone who gets fat on that potato needs to take a close look at what they poured over the top of the potato.

Growing Potatoes For Variety

Potatoes come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Actually, there are thousands of varieties. You would never know that shopping at the grocery. Some farmers markets offer a variety of potatoes in the late summer season. But if you want to really enjoy the broad scope of the potato world, you will have to grow your own.

Growing Potatoes For Flavor

Once you have tasted a newly harvested potato, you will never be satisfied with cold-storage potatoes available at the grocery store. Remember the tomato reference at the beginning of this article? The taste of a just-picked tomato is unbeatable. Same with potatoes!

Then factor in the flavor differences between those thousands of varieties of potatoes. Some potato flavors are more unique than others. The only way to capture the flavor world of potatoes is to grown them yourself.

Potato Vocabulary

As you begin your adventure in growing potatoes, you may be intimidated by all of the terminology. There are two distinct types of potato in cultivation — waxy and starchy, but there are also “new potatoes” and “heirloom potatoes.” Here’s a quick primer on these concepts.

Waxy Potatoes

Waxy potatoes are high in moisture and low in starch. These are the good boiling potatoes that hold their shape after they are cooked. A type of pectin helps these cooked potatoes hold together. Given a choice, you will use the waxy potato in potato salads and in soups and stews where you want the potato to hold its shape. A word of caution: Even waxy potatoes will break down if cooked long enough. The smaller round red potatoes you can purchase at the market fall into the waxy category. The small waxy potatoes tend to be a shorter season crop.

Starchy Potatoes

Starchy potatoes are the Russet type that is low in moisture and high in starch. These are the great bakers that turn light and fluffy when baked, calling out for butter or such. The starchy potatoes tend to be the longer-season ones.

Middle Ground: There are a few potatoes that have characteristics of both the waxy and the starchy potato. Yukon Gold is a good example of this. Yukon Gold is waxy enough for potato salad and starchy enough for mashed potatoes. This is probably one reason for its popularity.

New Potatoes

New potatoes is a term used to refer to potatoes picked in an immature state (small). New potatoes is a marketing term often referring to small red potatoes so we often think of new potatoes as being waxy. Actually, they are, regardless of whether these potatoes were pulled prematurely from a waxy potato cultivar or a starchy one. Picked early enough, even a starchy potato variety is waxy.

Heirloom Potatoes

Heirloom potatoes are those cultivars that have not been bred for large size nor with a toughness that is helpful for cross-country transportation. Though they cannot make long distance trips, they will thrill your heart in the kitchen. Discover flavors you have never experienced before with heirlooms. Work with colors like blue, purple, pink and yellow. Usually the more pronounced the color, the more pronounce the flavor. In addition, data is showing that over-hybridization of produce is diminishing its nutritive value. With heirlooms you can avoid this problem.

Fingerling potatoes are usually members of the heirloom club. These potatoes are small and often finger shaped. Some look a bit arthritic for fingers, but the flavor is usually superb in the fingerlings. All that I have tried are waxy. They have held their shape no matter what I’ve done with them. Besides the excellent flavor, fingerling potatoes add an artistry to any dish. These are a conversation starter.

Seed Potatoes

Potato SeedsPotatoes grow from other potatoes. The parent potato is known as a seed potato. More than likely you have had potatoes sprout in the bag before you could use them all. The sprouts came from little “eyes” on the surface of the potato. All potatoes have them.

When you order seed potatoes you will probably receive whole potatoes. They will not be large. You may also receive some potato pieces. The potatoes and the pieces will each have eyes, probably several eyes on each. These eyes are the key to your potato harvest.

You could use potatoes from your pantry as seed potatoes but this is not wise. Those potatoes could be harboring a potato disease that could get started in your soil and give you trouble for years to come. Buying certified seed from a professional potato seed producer will cost you more in the short run and save you big headaches in the long run. Many good seed potato producers sell online. Or you could check out this potato seed catalog list from Washington State University.

We also like this catalog for potato varieties and for education on growing potatoes.

Planting Potatoes – Which Varieties?

You need to decide on your priorities. Do you want fresh potatoes that you use as you harvest? Do you want potatoes that will store for several months, keeping you in potatoes for the Winter? Do you want both waxy and starchy potatoes? How about a variety of both? Spend some time thinking and creating your plan.

If you have a long enough growing season you could plant enough different varieties to supply you with early crop, mid-season crop and late-season crop. Plant enough of the first two categories to eat them fresh and then store the late season crop. Good storage potatoes usually are late season, by the way.

When To Plant Potatoes

Potatoes do best in cool weather, so the trick is to get them in the ground by your last spring frost. Actually, the seed potatoes can go in a couple of weeks earlier than that as long as the soil has reached 45 degrees or more. The little green shoots will just be pushing through the soil when frost season is over. If an untimely frost threatens your plants, protect them with a leaf mulch or a floating row cover.

Check with the local gardeners to see if you can get two potato crops: once planting in early spring and one planted in early fall. Potatoes require 2 1/2 to 3 months for maturity. Some potatoes are quicker to the finish line than others, so check with the local gardeners on potato selection advice.

How To Plant Potatoes

La Ratte Potatos - growing in burlapThere are more ways to plant potatoes than I can count, but the basic idea is this:

  1. Keep the seed potatoes in a warm place for about a week to start the eyes to sprouting,

  2. If you are going to cut the seed potatoes to make more seed potatoes, do this a couple of days before planting so the cut places can scab over. The cut portions should be 1 inch square or more.
  3. Place the seed potatoes, eyes facing up, in soil and cover with about four inches of soil.
  4. As the potato plant grows, keep pulling more soil up around the main stem. When the plant start to flower, stop this soil pulling. Potatoes will grow along the length of this stem. That’s why you want a long one.
  5. Provide the potato plants with plenty of moisture, especially during the flowering stage. Some gardeners pinch off the flowers so they don’t take energy from the tuber production.

Where To Plant Potatoes

The harder question to answer is exactly where to plant your potatoes. Home gardeners have become very creative in this enterprise. One of my gardening heroes, Ruth Stout, started quite a revolution when she stopping covering her potatoes with soil and simply covered them with straw. She grew huge amounts of potatoes and saved herself the work of digging them. The key to her success was powerfully rich soil she had been building for years.

No matter where you plant your potatoes, make sure the soil is rich. If you are planting in a container, like a barrel, box, or bag, use compost. Most people who have attempted growing potatoes in containers and failed have used potting mix. Most potting mix will support plant growth but not fruit production. What you need is compost — finished, sweet-smelling compost!

Here is a video to get your imagination going on just where you will be planting your potatoes. This one shows how to plant potatoes in a bag. You can actually buy bags for the job.

This article at Organic Gardening describes seven ways to grow potatoes to spur your imagination.

This video gives instructions on how to build a potato box. This method is labor-intensive on the front end but if you plan to be a long-term potato gardener, take a good look at this method of growing potatoes.

When To Harvest Potatoes

PotatoesAfter the flowering stage has begun, you can pull new (small) potatoes from your plants. Do this only if you have a few dozen plants and can spare the young crop. Pull one potato from each plant no more than a couple times a week. The rest of the potatoes will continue to grow for the later harvest.

Ideally, you will harvest your potatoes when they are mature and of good size. The prime indicator of a mature potato crop is the fading and drooping of the potato plants. Their job is done. Withhold water for about a week after the plants start to go down hill. During this time the skins toughen up a bit which is necessary if you want to store them. The tougher the potato skin, the better those potatoes hold up on storage.

There is a wide range of growing times with the vast number of potato varieties. If you plant a short-season potato, a mid-season potato and a long-season potato, the seed potatoes will go in at the same time, but the crop in come in at staggered intervals. This type of harvest is a goal to strive for if you are a big potato lover.

How To Harvest Potatoes

Remembering that the potatoes form up along the buried stem, dig far enough out from the potato plant to not cut into those potatoes. Use a spade or garden fork to lift a large clump. Then using your hands, feel around for the potatoes. The thrill of finding the harvest is somewhat like the discovery at an egg hunt.

As you pull the potatoes from the vine, gently brush away the soil. Get rid of the dirt without bruising the skin. Low-sided cardboard boxes like empty beer flats are a good way to manage the potatoes at this point. You can move several pounds at one time without disturbing the potatoes too much.

(If any of the potatoes get nicked or bruised, take them to the kitchen and use them up ASAP.)

Your harvested potatoes need a week or two in the open air to cure. The skins will get even tougher (which is good). The drying area should be out of the sun and it should be dry. An shed with some air flow is a good choice. Do a walk-through every couple of days checking for spoilage. If any of crop seems to be deteriorating, get those potatoes out of there fast before the spoilage spreads.

Storing Potatoes

You will need a short-term storage option for your summer harvest of your smaller, waxy potatoes. Those wonderful little waxy potatoes with the high moisture content will not last long in the warm summer air. If you dig them all at once, consider storing them in a refrigerator. Some hard-core gardeners keep a refrigerator dedicated to holding produce.

Another way of handling your waxy potatoes is to keep them in the ground. Dig them as you need them, especially if you are using potatoes almost everyday. If you are troubled with gophers or voles, this storage plan may not work for your potatoes.

For the starchy, long-season potatoes, you have the option of long-term storing. Read through the seed catalogs to get an idea about how long your particular varieties will hold in storage. The ideal storage temperature for potatoes is 40 degrees although folks have reported good results at 50 degrees.

The storage area should be dark and dry.

The storage containers must allow for ample circulation. If you have the space, just keep your potatoes in the boxes used for curing. This way you will be able to easily check for spoilage during the storage time. Culling out the potatoes that are beginning to spoil is a major key in keeping your potato harvest.

Potato Diseases

There is quite a list of potato diseases, but the home gardener can usually avert them with a few precautions.

  1. Plant only certified seed potatoes. They are certified to be disease-free. Therefore, you can plant the seed potatoes being confident that you are not introducing disease into your soil. Although it is tempting to save some of your own crop to use as seed potatoes, again, the best course is to order new certified seed.

  2. Determine what the disease is that showed up in your potato plants this year then shop the seed catalogs. Find varieties that are resistant to that disease.
  3. Remove any plant that appears to be ailing. Remove the plant, the root, and any tubers that are forming. Burn them or put them in the trash. Do not compost them. The heat from the compost pile may not be enough to kill the disease organisms.
  4. Put your potatoes on a 3-4 year crop rotation. This means you will not plant potatoes again in that spot for at least three years to give the soil-born diseases a chance to weaken or die. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are in the same family as potatoes, so you will not plant potatoes where these three veggies have grown in the last three years. Penn State puts out a simple chart with invaluable information on crop rotation. Make a copy and hold on to it.

You can find a number of chemicals for treating potato diseases but if you are building an organic garden, this is out of the question. Go for best practices and you will most likely get a good potato crop.

If you have a need to go in depth on potato diseases, this potato publication will help.

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4 Responses to Growing Potatoes: Why & How To Grow Your Own Potatoes
  1. kristin konvolinka
    April 15, 2012 | 10:40 pm

    I love harvesting potatoes. There’s something really satisfying about digging my fingers through the dirt looking for those little treasures. Thanks for such a thorough explanation of potato farming!

  2. Catherine Clark
    April 16, 2012 | 1:29 am

    This is the first website (out of MANY) I have read that told me why my containers weren’t producing potatoes! Thank you! Thank you!

  3. Helen
    April 16, 2012 | 9:12 pm

    I print the best educational articles into my gardening binder so I can read up on what to do at planting time. It would be even nicer if it were programmed to print on less pages w/o photos to reduce paper and ink waste! I copy and paste into Word to reduce, but just a suggestion for future!

    • Jeanie Rose
      April 16, 2012 | 9:19 pm

      Thank Helen! That’s a great idea. I’ll look into that.


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