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Growing Potatoes

growing potatoes organically-minToday most people across the world are quite familiar with the potato. It is the world’s fourth-largest food crop, after rice, wheat, and maize. Originally cultivated by the Inca Indians in Peru around 8000 BC, the potato did not travel to Europe until 1536, when Spanish conquistadors took the potato’s homeland and brought back the tuber to their families. Still, it would be another forty years before the potato travels to all the way across Europe.

Eventually, agriculturalists in Europe found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats. Even more significantly, people discovered the major nutritional benefits of potatoes. Some of these include the fact that they are high in Potassium, Vitamins C and B6, moderately high in fiber and iron, and low in fat and calories. Moreover, ten people could be fed off of one cultivated acre of potatoes!

Unfortunately, there are downsides to devoting large portions of land to just one crop year after year though. This specifically includes the crop’s increased susceptibility to plant-specific disease. In the 1840s much of Europe experienced this when an epidemic of potato blight swept through the farms, wiping out many potato crops. In Ireland, the working class survived off of the potato supply, and they suffered the most significantly, with almost a million people dying and a million more moving to Canada and America in an attempt to escape famine.

It would still be another couple of decades before potatoes would arrive in the Colonies. Once they did, in roughly 1621, they were not immediately the industry that we are familiar with today. As a matter of fact, the state of Idaho, currently North America’s largest producer of the potato, actually did not begin growing potatoes until missionaries moved West in 1836.

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Start Growing Potatoes

Growing potatoes, like all crops, begins with establishing a healthy soil. Potatoes require a light, loose, moist but well-drained soil. Additionally, potatoes are cool-hardy plants. This means they can tolerate a mild frost and like to be planted when the soil is a cool 45 degrees. In the southern regions, this is especially true where the ground will heat up very quickly as the season progresses. Additionally, you can plant a second round of potatoes as late as mid-June if you want to enjoy a long growing season. You’ll harvest these potatoes as late as possible in the fall.

Continue reading to learn more about growing potatoes in your own backyard!

When and Where You Should Grow Potatoes?

Potatoes can be grown just about anywhere in your garden, especially because they are not picky about their soil. Plus, you can either grow them in open space or in a container. We often recommend container gardens for a number of reasons. One of those being to help with adequate drainage.

While they typically prefer light, loamy soil, they will grow in less than ideal conditions. However, the most important factor is to ensure that your garden area is moist but drains well. If your yard does not provide for proper drainage naturally, building a container garden will allow you to create the ideal environment for them.

Regardless of the method chosen, open soil or container, the technique and guidelines used for planting will be similar.

Understanding Seed Germination of Potatoes

Potatoes are propagated asexually, meaning that potatoes of the same variety will be genetically identical to their parents. This means that the “seed” we will use to grow our potatoes looks like, you guessed it, a potato!

Keep in mind, however, that seed potatoes are not the same as the potatoes you can buy at the grocery store.

Note: The majority of potatoes sold in grocery stores have been sprayed or treated with a type of sprout-inhibitor which will prevent them from developing eyes while in transit or sitting on the shelf. This is the exact opposite of what we want in our seed potatoes, which should never be treated with sprout-inhibitors.

Additionally, proper seed potatoes are certified disease-free. These potatoes are intended to be sold for seed and as such are tested for a panel of diseases before receiving a government-issued certificate. Any seeds that test positive for a disease are discarded and not sold. Without the “disease-free” certification, it could be quite possible to inadvertently introduce diseases not just into your entire crop, but into your soil and throughout your garden.

This is actually a controversial topic and we will leave it up to you to decide if you prefer to purchase seed potatoes each year (it gets expensive) or if you want to store your own for the following year. Personally, we’ve had success both ways, but again “to each their own.”

Preparing the Soil

Remember that we always need to prepare our soil well before we intend to plant our crops. If we want to plant our potatoes in the Spring, that means we can begin in the previous fall by planting a cover crop of canola, rapeseed, oats or barley. Any of these crops will provide excellent ground cover and protection of the soil, not to mention weed prevention. Additionally, they are easy to kill when necessary and are easily reincorporated back into the soil.

Reminder Before Planting: We must remember that potatoes can not be planted anywhere close to actively decomposing green matter. They will absorb the toxins and become dangerous to consume. Always err on the side of caution. You can do this by allowing at least two to six weeks after the final tillage to give plant matter plenty of time to decompose and reincorporate.

Bearing this in mind, some expert gardeners choose to leave their potato fields fallow in the fall, only weeding as necessary. This allows them to get back into the garden for planting as early as possible. If easy planning is one of your primary concerns, this may be a helpful consideration as well.

Additionally, you can always utilize any of the amendments detailed on our site if you’ve chosen to skip cover cropping in the fall, or if your soil just needs some extra assistance. If you plan on using amendments, they should be worked into the top-most layers of soil and completed two to four weeks before you plan to begin planting.

Starting Potatoes from Seed

Whenever you are almost ready to plant your seed potatoes, you’ll need to “wake them up” approximately two weeks prior to the intended planting date in a process called green-sprouting or “chiting.”

To start, place the whole seed potato one-two layers deep in a box. Then, store them in a dark place where they can remain a steady 60-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Whenever it is time to take the seed potatoes out of the box, be very gentle so as to avoid breaking off any of the newly sprouted eyes.

Now, it’s finally time to prepare your seed potatoes for planting. You want pieces that are roughly the size and weight of a hard-boiled egg. And, if you really want to get precise approximately 1.5-2 ounces.

Tips for Preparing the Seed Potatoes for Planting:
  • Small whole seed potatoes that are roughly the size mentioned above do not need to be cut at all.
  • Potatoes larger than 2 ounces should be split into smaller pieces. When doing so, try to ensure that each piece of seed potato has at least 2 eyes per piece. If only one is possible, that is okay.
  • Avoid cutting into the eyes of the potato.

Some growers prefer to allow their seed potatoes to dry before they begin planting but this is entirely preferential.

You can choose to grow your potatoes outdoors in a container garden or directly in open soil. Regardless of which suits your needs best, the process for preparing the ground and placing in your seed potatoes will be the same.

After reading the following instructions on seed potato placement, continue on to the next section to find out which best matches your gardening environment.

Prepare your soil to receive the seed potato pieces by digging a trench in your garden bed. The trench should measure approximately six inches deep. A triangle (or standard) hoe works very well for this job.

Once your trench is dug completely, place in your seed potato pieces, with the eyes facing upwards. If you are planting typical potato varieties, leave slightly less than a foot between seed potato pieces. If you have chosen to plant fingerling variety potatoes, leave at least 12-16 inches between each seed potato planting.

Planting potatoes too close together will result in smaller potatoes. If you leave additional space between the plants, you will allow the potatoes to grow larger. When done, cover the seed potatoes with several inches of soil.

Container Gardening with Potatoes

In order to grow your potatoes in a container garden, the first thing you’ll need to do is add chunky, solid material to the bottom. This will assist with drainage. We like to use broken rocks, topped with several inches of growing medium.

For potatoes, you can use a good garden soil, combined with homemade compost. A couple handfuls of your favorite organic fertilizer can make an excellent addition, as well.

Growing Potatoes in Open Soil

Growing potatoes directly in the open soil of your garden is a very fruitful activity. It’s also relatively simple to learn how to accomplish with great success.

If you’re just landing here, you may want to begin with our section on starting seed potatoes. That will explain the process of preparing the seed potatoes for planting. Additionally, it will explain preparing the soil and ground to accept the seed potatoes, as well as through the planting of the actual potatoes.

Now, the next step is to begin the process of “hilling.” This means to pile the soil up and around the base of the crop. Hilling is beneficial to the potato plant for several reasons.

To begin, potatoes grow by forming two separate types of tubers: one above ground and one below. When we pull up soil from around the roots and (essentially) re-bury the newly formed leaf shoots, they become underground tubers which will eventually become potatoes!

Another benefit to hilling is that it provides darkness for the developing crop, which is very necessary for its healthy formation. If the potato roots are exposed to any sunlight, they will experience photosynthesis and greening, which produces a toxic green substance. hilling ensures that the potato roots remain safely in the darkness.

Lastly, by promoting hilling of your potato plants it helps control weeds! Remember that the potatoes’ growing season is also the ideal time of the year for weeds to thrive in the garden. You should aim to hill your potato crop approximately every 2-4 inches of new growth, or about 1-3 times over the course of the growing season.

Moreover, try to accomplish the hilling before the plants have become too tall and flopped over. Once they get to this point, it’ll be too late for effective hilling. Each time you form a hill aim to pull up around 2-6 inches of soil around the roots. Additionally, you will want to loosely pack it back up and around the crown of the crops, making sure all tubers are covered completely and no light is penetrating the soil.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

The watering needs of your potato crop will vary throughout their lifespan. It is critical to pay attention to this cycle and ensure you are providing for the hydration needs of your plant.

Generally speaking, potato crops will require an average of 1-2 inches of water weekly. You can either provide this through rainwater or artificial methods.

However, these needs will not remain constant, as explained below.

  1. During the first month of the crop’s life, it requires very little water.
  2. Over the second month of growth, the plant’s hydration needs become critical for its vegetative growth and early tuber formation.
  3. Then, in the third month of growth, water needs are still critical as the crop is continuing to develop tubers.
  4. Finally, during the last 90-120 days of the crop’s life cycle, the water needs are once again less important. Though it is still necessary to maintain the moisture levels of the potato plant, it is not recommended to water excessively prior to harvest. This is especially true as plant tops begin to yellow or die.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Companion planting helps eliminate our reliance on chemical pesticides and other toxic methods of reducing our plant’s exposure to unwanted environmental agents. Additionally, it’s critical to remember that not all plants are friendly. Some can actually harm one another by promoting disease or may have similar predatory insects.

For potatoes, Dead Nettle is a good companion crop, even though it is considered a weed by some growers. Nevertheless, this “weed” works to help enhance the flavor of your potatoes, promote growth, and prevent predatory insect attacks.

Another friend of the potato crop is sage. By planting this near your crop, you will be able to prevent attacks from the flea beetle.

Then, we have one of the most common pest issues for potato growers, the Colorado potato beetles, which cause a number of problems. These beetles can be prevented by planting your potatoes near nasturtium, coriander, tansy or catnip. Moreover, green beans are also known to repel the Colorado potato beetle, and as an added plus they will not compete with your potato crops for nutrients. Plus, potatoes are mutually beneficial to green beans by protecting them from the Mexican Beetle.

There are many crops that make good garden companions with potatoes. Cabbage, corn, and beans are all recommended to help improve the flavor of potato crops. Also, some growers add horseradish to the corners of their potato patch, as it helps to protect the crop against disease and enhances the flavor. Other plants that work well with potatoes include scallionslettuce, and spinach.

Flowers & Potatoes

If you’d like to add flowers near your potato crop, we recommend choosing to plant:

  • Marigolds: A top choice for a potato companion crop because of the marigold’s tendency to produce natural pesticides. For example, the soil surrounding marigold plants can kill nematodes on contact. The marigold crop also protects the potato from viral and bacterial infections.
  • Alyssum: Another flower that makes an excellent living mulch for your potato crop. The alyssum will also attract wasps that eat harmful insects.
  • Petunias: A great floral choice as they will protect your potatoes from leafhoppers.

You can also plant yarrow, parsley, and basil if you would like to attract “good” bugs. Their flowers attract the beneficial insects.

Plants to Avoid Putting Near Potatoes

Clearly, there are many plants that help potatoes thrive in the garden, but there are several that have the opposite effect. When aiming for the healthiest, most productive potato plants, be sure to plant them far away from

All of these crops increase the potatoes susceptibility to blight. Furthermore, never ever plant your potatoes in an area where other nightshade vegetables are. This includes any plot where tomatoes or eggplants have grown in the past two years.

Finally, avoid planting potatoes with carrots, asparagus, fennel, Atriplex, turnips, onions and/or sunflowers. All of these crops will make poor companion plants for your potatoes.

Harvesting and Storing Potatoes

When you should harvest depends on what type of potato you have planted.

  • Early-season: approximately 60–70 days to mature
  • Midseason: approximately 80
  • Late-season: more than 90.

For the biggest and best potatoes, harvest only after the plant’s foliage has died back. Cut browning foliage to the ground and wait for about 10–14 days before harvesting. This will allow the potatoes to develop a thick enough skin. However, you don’t want to wait too long or the potatoes may rot.

Then, you will want to dig potatoes on a dry day. Start by digging up gently, being careful not to puncture the tubers. The soil should not be compact, so digging should be easy.

After pulling them out of the ground, let the freshly dug potatoes to sit in a dry, cool place (45°–60°F) for up to two weeks. This allows their skin to “cure,” which will help them keep for longer.

“New potatoes,” which are potatoes that are purposefully harvested early for their smaller size and tender skin, will be ready for harvest after about 10 weeks. New potatoes should not be cured and should be eaten within a few days of harvest, as they will not keep for much longer.

After curing, make sure you brush off any soil clinging to the potatoes, then store them in a cool, dry, dark place. The ideal temperature for storage is 35°–40°F. Do not store potatoes with apples; their ethylene gas will cause potatoes to spoil.

Whether you dig your own potatoes or buy them at a store, don’t wash them until right before you use them. Surprisingly, washing potatoes actually will shorten their storage life.

Keep in mind that potatoes grown in the Southeast will likely be harvested before the scorching heat of summer and will not get a chance to cure in the ground. This means skins will be very fragile and the potatoes will not keep as long as those that are allowed to fully mature and cure in the ground.

You can expect Southeastern crops to store 1-3 months, depending on variety, potato size, and storage conditions. Past 3 months, potatoes may start to dehydrate and deteriorate in quality.

Can I Save My Own Potatoes for Seed Potatoes?

It is not generally recommended to save your own potatoes for seed, but this is a topic of very heavy debate.

To begin, potatoes that are intended to be used for seed undergo screening for disease, which helps ensure that the potatoes you are planting will not spread potentially very dangerous bacteria.

Additionally, there are many retailers who specialize in offering organic potatoes for seed, such as the Seed potatoes must be grown to maturity, and then cured in the ground in order to produce next year’s crop. Most of these seed potatoes come from Colorado, Idaho or Maine, where the weather conditions are ideal for this type of outdoor curing.

Of course, if you prefer to save your potatoes to re-plant the following year, you just want to be sure you have some type of “checks and balances” system. Otherwise, you could end up with a field filled with disease.

Personally, we’ve planted a number of organic potatoes from the grocery store and saved our own seed potatoes without any issues (knock on wood). Of course, you won’t be able to use non-organic ones as they’ve been sprayed with a chemical to prevent eyes from forming.

Choosing the Best Potatoes for Your Climate

Even though potatoes are known to be hardy in cool temperatures, it is still very important to avoid planting them too soon. Consult this guide to determine the zone your garden falls under. Depending on which zone you live in, you can then reference this page to find out everything you need to know about gardening in your zone.

Potatoes are split into three main varieties, which include:

  • “First earlies”, which are the first to harvest, and are probably the best idea for those planting early in Spring, or for those in the warmest regions.
  • “Second earlies” come next, typically ready for harvest just a few weeks after the first earlies.
  • Maincrop varieties are the best choices for everyone else, as they’ll be ready for harvest anytime from mid-late summer through Fall.

Finally, most potatoes grown in the Southeast are generally considered ‘new’ potatoes, regardless of size. This means the potatoes are harvested very early and are not cured. These ‘new’ potatoes have very fragile skins, are easily damaged and are not able to cure in the ground due to the heat of summer soils.

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Additional Tips for Growing Potatoes

For potatoes, the most common insect pests are Colorado potato beetles & click beetles/wireworms:

  • Wireworms & click beetles are one and the same; the wireworm is the juvenile stage of the adult click beetle. For some species of wireworms, it can take 5 years to become an adult click beetle! Wireworms feed underground on newly sprouted seeds and stems. Click beetles feed on pollen, nectar and other insects like aphids.

Do not plant into the soil that has recently been in sod or pasture, within the last 3-12 months for these reasons:

  • Wireworms reside in sod & can ruin your crop with their feeding. Just wait until the grass is gone & you’ve worked the space with tillage to disrupt their life cycle.
  • Colorado potato beetles feed on potato foliage as larvae and can really do some damage on the upper parts of young potato plants. Sometimes they can wipe out your planting if nothing is done to control them.

Organic control options for this issue include:

  • Handpick adults & larvae; crush them, throw them into the water to prevent them from flying away &/or feed them to the chickens.
  • Crush eggs; check undersides of leaves
  • Spinosad products; if your CPB population gets out of control, Spinosad sprays are extremely effective at knocking back larval populations. Spinosad is a bacterium that affects the insect’s nervous systems resulting ultimately in death.

Potatoes will remove the following soil nutrients per 1,000 sq. ft. or per acre:

  • Nitrogen: 2 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft.; 90-100 pounds per acre
  • Phosphorus: 1 pound per 1,000 sq. ft.; 40-50 pounds per acre
  • Potassium: 3.5 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft.; 150-170 pounds per acre