The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Potatoes

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Updated August 2020

Are you thinking about growing potatoes?

Maybe I say this about many plants, but potatoes are one of my most enjoyable crops to grow! They require little maintenance, and they harvest before the hot weather in my area begins to set in.

I started planting potatoes my very first year for the same reasons that I started a garden; I wanted to save money on groceries after becoming a stay at home mom. It didn’t take me long to discover, though, that according to the Environmental Working Group, the average potato has more pesticides by weight than any other produce. This just confirmed that I needed to do this for my family.

Potato Pesticide Levels
Pesticide residues on non-organic potatoes: “The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.” Source: The Environmental Working group. More info here.

The best part of growing potatoes, though? Harvesting! Though labor-intensive, it is so much fun to harvest potatoes — and my kids enjoy it, too! It’s like a treasure hunt each time you dig in and pull one out.

potato harvest

While I still never claim professional status, I have learned enough over the last few years to harvest enough potatoes each season to last me through the fall and winter. Ultimately, that’s why we grow them. It’s so easy, even a first time gardener can do it!

In this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, I share how to plant and grow potatoes. Click below to listen or continue reading the full article:

Part of the Potato to Plant

Potatoes are different than any other plant in the garden because instead of planting a seed or a transplant, you plant the potato itself. Do you know the white buds that begin to form on potatoes that have been left in the pantry too long? Those buds are called the “stem.” When you plant these potatoes in the ground, the stems grow upward towards the sun. Once these break the soil, the plant then begins to grow leaves.

potato plant emerging

Recommended Varieties To Grow

The variety of potato that you plant is completely up to you. You typically get a choice of red, yellow, or white potatoes, but there are blue and purple available as well.

My personal favorite variety is the Yukon Gold potato. It’s so versatile and perfect for mashed potatoes or potato salad. I also grow Kennebec white potatoes, great for baked potatoes and grilling. Perhaps my most reliable producer is the red potato. The red variety tends to harvest earlier than the others, ensuring we have fresh potatoes for a longer season. We steam or roast them, but they are also great in the potato salads.

Can You Plant Potatoes From The Grocery Store?

A lot of people ask if we can plant the bagged potatoes we get from the store. It’s possible, but not always the best choice. Non-organic potatoes are sprayed with a sprout inhibiting chemical, so even if you do find some buds on your potato, it’s not worth the risk. Organic potatoes have not been sprayed, so if you cannot find seed potatoes (more on that below), they would be your best option.

potatoes sprouting

Where To Buy Seed Potatoes

Typically your best bet at a hearty harvest is to head to your local nursery or farmer’s co-op and get your seed potatoes there. You can’t miss them in the giant bins, and they are the least expensive option I’ve found.

You can also order them online, which will give you more options for different varieties (like blue or purple potatoes), but you will pay more.

No matter which route you take — ordering seed potatoes online, your local nursery, or farmer’s co-op, you can rest assured that your seed potatoes are certified disease-free and grown specifically for planting.

When To Plant

Because it’s so important not to plant potatoes in a saturated area, your planting time will vary from season to season. One year, I was able to plant in mid-February due to an unseasonably dry winter. The next year, however, I couldn’t plant until March due to the excessive rainfall. (For a context on timing, my average last frost date is April 1st, so I try to plant between 6-10 weeks before that date.)

Potatoes will tolerate frost, but a hard freeze will kill the leaves. Two months before my last expected frost is about the earliest date I want to plant potatoes. We did have a late hard freeze one year, nearly killing my plants. Luckily, I cut off all of the wilted leaves and hoped the plants would make it. Thankfully, they did. If you see your potato leaves already emerging and a freeze is imminent, take measures to cover. I’ve found that covering with straw or floating row covers (or even an upside down bucket) works fine.

A good rule to remember is that it takes potatoes about two weeks to sprout from the ground (longer if planted earlier). That’s why it’s best to get them in the ground a little earlier than you think you should.

How To Plant

You need to plant potatoes in loose ground that has good drainage. To start, prepare your potatoes for planting. If the seed potato has more than three “eyes,” you can cut the potato to make more pieces to plant. You’ll want two to three eyes on each piece. If the potato is very small, you don’t need to cut them; however, some potatoes can be cut in half or even thirds, if they are really large. If you do decide to cut them, remember that each eye will produce one stem.

eyes on potatoes

Also, it’s best to cut your potatoes the day before you plant so that the exposed flesh has time to harden a bit before planting. This helps keep them from rotting once you get them in the ground.

When it’s time to plant, just dig a trench 4 to 6 inches deep. A regular garden hoe works perfectly for this. At the bottom of your trench, it’s beneficial to add compost and/or organic fertilizer to your soil.

planting potatoes in rows

Then, you can plant your potatoes at the bottom of the trench about 12 inches apart with as many eyes facing up as possible.

If you plant in rows, they need to be about 36 inches apart. It’s very helpful to then mark your garden so you know what you’ve planted and where. Then, mark in your garden journal the date you planted and label your layout grid with the variety. I do all of my garden planning with The Complete Garden Planner.

After you have planted your potatoes, it’s time to cover them back up with dirt. At this point, we simply wait.

Here are photos of my potato planting one year. As you can see below, I planted 5 rows, about 10′ long. I placed my potatoes a little closer than the 12″ recommended spacing, but they did fine in the smaller space. I covered the bottom of the rows with compost.

Planting Potatoes

The Mistake I Made My First Year and Why I Had To Start Over

The first year I planted potatoes, I planted my entire crop in a new area of the garden that didn’t drain well. It held standing water during our spring rains. A few weeks later, when nothing was sprouting, I dug into the soil to see what had happened. The worst possible outcome: rotten potatoes. If you’ve not had the unfortunate experience of handling rotten potatoes, count your blessings! Yuck! I ended up re-planting my potatoes in a higher garden plot and fortunately managed to salvage my potato season.

free garden printables

The One Maintenance Task You Can’t Forget

Once you see that first dark green shoot exposed from the soil, you can get excited knowing your potatoes have started to grow! The only other maintenance you need to do after this is to “hill” your plants.

When the potato plants grow to about 12 inches high, take your garden hoe and pull up the dirt or mulch around the base of your plant. You’ll want to continue to do this as your potatoes grow. The actual potato grows at the base of the soil, which is why it’s so important to keep hilling as you grow and keep the new tubers covered.

Two months after planting, the potatoes were vigorous and bright green. You can see below where I did my initial “hilling” with soil.

Growing Potatoes

In this video I demonstrate how to hill your potatoes using a variety of methods, including my recent favorite — straw.

What To Do When You Spot The Colorado Potato Beetle

One of the most common pests that affect a potato crop is the Colorado potato beetle. These are tiny little black and yellow striped beetles that are easy to spot because they sit on top of the potato leaves.

The Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Close up with shallow DOF.

The adults themselves don’t eat too much as far as your crop is concerned, but the eggs these beetles leave can destroy and decimate a potato crop!

Colorado potato beetle larvae eat leaves of potatoes quickly!

You’ll want to pick off any adult beetles you see and get rid of them, then check under your leaves for bright yellow eggs, signaling these adults have laid eggs. Dispose of these as soon as you see them.

When To Harvest Potatoes

One of the most common questions asked about potatoes is “When do I harvest?” They aren’t like tomatoes where the color gives it away. But, sometimes they offer a small sign. Look for tiny white or purple flowers on the plants.

potato flowering

Keep in mind, not all plants produce these flowers, though. The sign of these flowers means that the potatoes are switching their growth from leaf growth to the tuber growth. You can easily grab a few small potatoes from underneath the soil at this point to eat with dinner, but I like to let them continue to grow.

Potatoes Ready to Harvest

When the plants reach full maturity, they look like they are getting a little wilty, yellow, and sometimes toppling over — also known as “dying back.” This signals your potatoes are ready to harvest. Don’t be in a rush, however, because you can keep them in the ground for a few weeks to help their skin harden up for storage.

How to Harvest Potatoes

I like to use a regular garden shovel to harvest with. I remove the hilling soil (or straw), and then dig around the plant in a circle. After I’ve loosened the surrounding soil, I gently pull the plant up by the stem. Most of the potatoes will come out, but then I dig around the area to spot any that I missed. If you accidentally spear a potato, no worries. Just use it for dinner tonight!

Growing and harvesting potatoes is actually very easy! If you’ve not tried this, give it a go! It’s so great to show our kids where our food comes from and potatoes are such a fun way to include them in your garden.

Once you harvest your crop, you may wonder how to store it all! Though methods vary, in my hot and humid southern climate (with no root cellar), I found a way that works for me: How to Store Potatoes in a Hot & Humid Climate

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5 Comments

    1. Thank you! Gardening can get overwhelming at times but it doesn’t have to. I do hope I can help you clear through the overwhelm so you can enjoy it! 🙂

  1. I am sorry if this sound whiny. It’s just that I bought a very expensive tiller to put on my tractor. My husband doesn’t want to hook it up, it’s too hard for me to do alone, and even if I get the tiller hooked top, the soil is too wet to till most Springs and I can’t plant any of my desirable early Spring plants until it is tilled. Plus, I can’t put in raised beds because then I can’t till at all! I should sell the tiller, but then I would have to admit defeat and rent a walk-along tiller for my 50’X50′ space. Is there any solution?

    1. I understand your frustration, Norma, as I was in the exact same situation as well. We got fortunate our first couple of years and my husband was able to use the tiller attachment to our tractor early enough in the season, but lately our springs have been so wet, this wouldn’t be a possibility even if we wanted. But here’s why it’s not an issue any longer: several years ago I switched to a no-till method, and I’ve never looked back. My soil is so much more healthy and I can work in it a tad sooner than if I were to wait on ideal tilling weather. I am frustrated as well that we have that expensive tiller attachment and only used it for two seasons, but it is what it is, I guess. The only other solution I could suggest is what you’re probably already doing — wait until the soil dries out to till. I know, it’s not ideal (and super-frustrating), but I’m not sure of any other option.

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