How to plant potatoes
Potatoes are nuggets of goodness. The nutrient-rich skin provides 45% of your daily vitamin C and 18% of potassium, plus many more nutrients.
Stories and tips to make you a better gardener, cook and seed saver.
How to Grow Potatoes
Here are a few tips from SSE’s gardening crew on how to grow potatoes for a healthy and bountiful harvest.
Potatoes always do best in full sun. They are aggressively rooting plants, and we find that they will produce the best crop when planted in a light, loose, well-drained soil. Potatoes prefer a slightly acid soil with a PH of 5.0 to 7.0. Fortunately potatoes are very adaptable and will almost always produce a respectable crop, even when the soil conditions and growing seasons are less than perfect.
Always keep your potato patch weed-free for best results. Potatoes should be rotated in the garden, never being grown in the same spot until there has been a 3-4 year absence of potatoes.
When to Plant Potatoes
Potatoes may be planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the early spring, but keep soil temperatures in mind. Potato plants will not begin to grow until the soil temperature has reached 45 degrees F. The soil should be moist, but not water-logged.
Potatoes can tolerate a light frost, but you should provide some frost protection for the plants if you know that a hard, late season freeze is coming. If you want to extend storage times, and have a long growing season, you can plant a second crop as late as June 15 and harvest the potatoes as late as possible.
Cutting Potatoes Before Planting
A week or two before your planting date, set your seed potatoes in an area where they will be exposed to light and temperatures between 60-70 degrees F. This will begin the sprouting process. A day or two before planting, use a sharp, clean knife to slice the larger seed potatoes into smaller pieces. Each piece should be approximately 2 inches square, and must contain at least 1 or 2 eyes or buds. Plant smaller potatoes whole. A good rule of thumb is to plant potatoes whole if they are smaller in size than a golf ball. In a day or so your seed will form a thick callous over the cuts, which will help prevent rotting.
Planting Potatoes in the Garden
We find that potatoes are best grown in rows. To begin with, dig a trench that is 6-8 inches deep. Plant each piece of potato (cut side down, with the eyes pointing up) every 12-15 inches, with the rows spaced 3 feet apart. If your space is limited or if you would like to grow only baby potatoes, you can decrease the spacing between plants.
To begin with only fill the trench in with 4 inches of soil. Let the plants start to grow and then continue to fill in the trench and even mound the soil around the plants as they continue to grow. Prior to planting, always make sure to cultivate the soil one last time. This will remove any weeds and will loosen the soil and allow the plants to become established more quickly.
How to Water Potatoes
Keep your potato vines well watered throughout the summer, especially during the period when the plants are flowering and immediately following the flowering stage. During this flowering period the plants are creating their tubers and a steady water supply is crucial to good crop outcome. Potatoes do well with 1-2 inches of water or rain per week. When the foliage turns yellow and begins to die back, discontinue watering. This will help start curing the potatoes for harvest time.
When to Harvesting Potatoes
Baby potatoes typically can be harvested 2-3 weeks after the plants have finished flowering. Gently dig around the plants to remove potatoes for fresh eating, being careful not to be too intrusive. Try to remove the biggest new potatoes and leave the smaller ones in place so they can continue to grow. Only take what you need for immediate eating. Homegrown new potatoes are a luxury and should be used the same day that they are dug.
Potatoes that are going to be kept for storage should not be dug until 2-3 weeks after the foliage dies back. Carefully dig potatoes with a sturdy fork and if the weather is dry, allow the potatoes to lay in the field, unwashed, for 2-3 days. This curing step allows the skins to mature and is essential for good storage. If the weather during harvest is wet and rainy, allow the potatoes to cure in a dry protected area like a garage or covered porch.
At Seed Savers Exchange. we are able to store potatoes well into the spring in our underground root cellar. Try to find a storage area that is well ventilated, dark, and cool. The ideal temperature is between 35 and 40 degrees F. Keep in mind that some varieties are better keepers than others. Varieties like Red Gold and Rose Gold are best used in the fall, and others like Carola and Russets are exceptional keepers.
Saving Seed Stock
Home gardeners can save seed for several generations. Save the very best potatoes for planting. You may find that after several years the size begins to decrease; this is typical. Potatoes are very susceptible to viruses. If you are looking for maximum yields it is best to start with fresh, USDA Certified Seed Stock every year.
In collaboration with University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, SSE is working to eradicate viruses from heritage potatoes in order to safely preserve potato genetic diversity and to offer high quality seed potatoes.
Planting, Growing, Harvesting, and Storing Potatoes
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Thinking about growing potatoes next season? To us, potatoes epitomize the joy of gardening—satisfying to plant, quick to grow, and fun to dig up. Our Potato Growing Guide covers planting, growing, harvesting, and storing potatoes.
Potatoes aren’t fussy vegetables, which makes them a fabulous choice for first-time growers. They do well in most soils and almost always produce plenty to hunt for at harvest time. That said, you can do a few things to elevate your crop.
The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a cool-weather vegetable that typically yields bigger crops in the northern portion of the U.S.; however, they can be grown as a winter crop in warmer climates. Potatoes are related to peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants but are adapted to higher elevations and harsher growing conditions; the Incas in Peru first documented them. According to the Maine Potato Board, this vegetable arrived in the American Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda sent potatoes to the Governor of Virginia at Jamestown.
The edible part of the potato is the underground “tuber, ” an enlarged underground storage portion of the potato plant. The tuber develops from underground stems called stolons once the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, or around 5 to 7 weeks after planting.
Potatoes are nuggets of goodness. The nutrient-rich skin provides 45% of your daily vitamin C and 18% of potassium, plus many more nutrients.
Despite the limited options in the grocery store, gardeners know there’s much more to potatoes than the traditional Idaho white potato. There are over 100 types of potatoes, varying in skin color, flesh color, and size from large to fingerling! Floury types are perfect for roasting or mashing, while a firm, waxy potato is superb boiled or as salad potatoes. You can learn all about potato varieties in the section below.
Potatoes for planting are called ‘seed potatoes’ and are usually sold in bags or netting. The planting season for seed potatoes starts in the spring, two to four weeks before the last frost.
You’ll need a location with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight and fertile, loose, well-drained soil; hard or compacted soil leads to misshapen tubers. Ideally, the soil is slightly acidic (pH 5.8 to 6.5), and the soil temperature is at least 45º to 55ºF (7° to 13°C). In the fall, mix compost or organic matter into the soil. Learn more about compost, soil amendments, and preparing the soil for planting.)
When to Plant Potatoes
Garden potatoes can be planted 2 to 4 weeks before the average last frost date. The soil temperature should be at least 55°F during the day and 45°F at night. But pay more attention to the soil than the calendar to determine planting time. The soil should not be so wet that it sticks together and is hard to work. Let it dry out a bit first. If you have a late and wet spring, you can plant later—through April (depending on location) or even June, especially in containers.
In cooler regions, the early-maturing potatoes are usually planted early to mid-April. In warmer regions, planting times range from September to February; in central Florida, gardeners plant potatoes in January; in Georgia, they plant in February.
How to Plant Potatoes
Potatoes for planting are called ‘seed potatoes’ and are usually sold in bags or netting. Use certified (disease-resistant) seed potatoes from which eyes (buds) protrude. (Do not confuse seed potatoes with potato seeds or grocery produce.
The moment you get them, break them free, lay them out in a tray (such as an old egg carton), and pop them somewhere bright and frost-free to sprout – such as an indoor windowsill. This is a process called ‘chitting’. It’s not essential, but chitting helps speed things along a bit so that by the time they’re planted, they’ll be primed and itching to send out roots.
As the video below shows, after a month of chitting, the potatoes produced stout, stocky, green sprouts, which is exactly what we’re after; we don’t want the long, pale sprouts you get when potatoes are left in the dark. If you haven’t had a chance to chit your potatoes and it’s already time to plant, don’t worry – get them in the ground.
A great way to get more seed potatoes for free, is to cut them in half. But only do this if they’ve got plenty of “eyes,” which appear as small dimples and are where the sprouts emerge from. You want to put the end of the potatoes with the most eyes facing upwards for this reason.
At least 2 days before planting, use a clean, sharp paring knife to cut large potatoes into golf ball-size pieces, with 1 to 2 eyes each. This time allows the pieces to heal or form a protective layer over the cut surface, improving both moisture retention and rot resistance. Do not cut up seed potatoes that are smaller than a hen’s egg; plant them whole.
- Outside, prepare the planting area by simply spreading out compost across the surface to a depth of around an inch or 3 cm. Potatoes are fairly hungry plants, so this extra nourishment will help to support good soil fertility and a strong harvest.
4 Methods of Plant Potatoes
There are different approaches to planting potatoes. (See a demonstration in the above video, if needed.)
- Dig Holes: For each seed potato, dig a hole about 6 inches deep (or 16 cm). Add in a little slow-release organic fertilizer (e.g., chicken manure pellets) and then pop in the potato with sprouts pointing up and cover with soil. Space potatoes about 16 inches (or 40 cm) apart in both directions for early types. Maincrop potatoes need a bit more space to stretch their legs, so space them at 18 inches (or 45 cm) apart.
- Dig V-Shaped Trenches: Dig 2- to 2.5-foot trenches (60 to 75 inches). Lay a nourishing cushion of garden compost along the bottom and a few of those chicken manure pellets, then set your tubers into position about one foot or 30 cm apart. Then just fill back in. I don’t think it makes a huge difference which way you plant, so do whatever’s easiest in the space you have.
- Plant in Straw: Nestle seed potatoes down into the soil surface, then cover them with straw. See our article on planting potatoes in straw.
- Plant Potatoes in Pots: If you don’t have the garden space, plant in large containers, old compost sacks, or purpose-sold potato sacks. Fill the bottom of your pot or sack with about 4 inches (10 cm) of potting mix, then lay one or two potatoes on top and cover. Once the foliage is growing, add in more potting mix, a bit at a time, to hill or earth them up until the soil level reaches the top at which point the foliage almost seems to explode in size.
- Watering Potatoes: Firstly, water! This is really important because potatoes are lush and leafy plants, and those tubers take a lot of effort to swell. So if it’s dry, water thoroughly. Maintain even moisture, especially from the time after the flowers bloom. Potatoes need 1 to 2 inches of water a week. Too much water right after planting and not enough as the potatoes begin to form can cause them to become misshapen. Stop watering when the foliage begins to turn yellow and die off.
If you’re growing your potatoes in a smaller raised bed, it may be easier to simply top up with organic matter around the whole area.
- Protect From Frost: Late frosts can damage the young foliage – something to watch out for with early starts. Frost-bitten plants usually have enough energy to shake off any damage, but it can set plants back nonetheless. So if a frost is forecast and potatoes stand to get clobbered, do whatever you can to protect them. Cover the area in a few layers of warming fleece or row cover fabric, cover clusters of shoots with pots, or draw up the soil to bury the young shoots.
Note: In cool growing seasons, potato vines may sport berries. The berries are the fruit. Cut one open and see how it resembles its cousin, the tomato. Potato berries are poisonous and inedible. Plus, their seeds will not produce potato plants that resemble the parent. Discard them.
Practice yearly crop rotation with potatoes in order to avoid pests and diseases.
There are three classifications for potatoes based on when you harvest (vs. when you plant). If you harvest for storage, be sure to choose the right type:
- Early-season potatoes: First to be planted in early spring. Grow quickly (60 to 80 days), ready to harvest by early summer, tender flesh, thinner skin, store up to a few weeks.
- Mid-season potatoes (also called Second Earlies): mature in 80 to 100 days, typically lifted up from second half of summer, store up to a month.
- Late crops: mature in 100 to 130 days, best for storing, lasting 2 to 3 months in the right conditions; planted in August and harvested in fall.
Also, decide on the texture and flavor of your potatoes, and how you’d like to eat them:
- Dry-fleshed, mealy potatoes like russets and long white potatoes are used for baking, frying, and mashing. As mashed potatoes, they will not be gluey, and they will absorb gravy, butter or sour cream.
- Moist, waxy, round potatoes are great in soups, curries, frittatas, and salads because they don’t fall apart when cooked. You can pan-fry leftover boiled potatoes. When you mash waxy potatoes, they can become sticky.
- Red-skinned potatoes are often used for boiling or for potato salads.
Some popular potato varieties, such as ‘Yukon Gold,’ fall somewhere in between truly waxy and mealy.
There are over 100 potato plant varieties! Go beyond the Idaho potato to explore more exotic and delicious options. See our article on choosing the best potato varieties!
- ‘Irish Cobbler’: tan skin, irregular shape (great heirloom potato for delicious mashed potatoes!)
- ‘Red Norland’: deep red skin, sweet, delicate flavor, great in potato salads or boiled
- ‘Mountain Rose’: red skin and pink flesh, resistant to some viruses
- ‘Yukon Gold’: popular, tan skin and buttery-yellow flesh, mid to large size
- ‘Red Pontiac’: red skin, deep eyes (easiest and most adaptable red potato there is to grow)
- ‘Viking’: red skin, very productive
- ‘Chieftan’: red skin, resistant to potato scab, stores well
- ‘Katahdin’: tan skin, resistant to some viruses
- ‘Kennebec’: tan skin, resistant to some viruses and late blight
- ‘Elba’: tan skin, large round tubers, resistant to blight and potato scab
- All Blue Potatoes
- ‘Fingerling Salad’ potatoes
Harvesting potatoes is fun! It’s like unearthing nature’s treasures. Harvest potatoes on dry days. Dig up gently, being careful not to puncture the tubers. Avoid cutting or bruising potato skin. The soil should not be compacted, so digging should be easy. Potatoes can tolerate light frost, but when the first hard frost is expected, it’s time to get out the shovels and start digging potatoes.
Harvesting at the right stage keeps tubers from sitting about too long and upping the chances of a slug or disease attack, particularly for maincrop spuds.
Earlies are the first to be lifted, usually while the plants are still in flower. Your tubers should be about the size of a hen’s egg or a touch bigger, but it’s up to you how big you want them. Use a fork and work your way in from the edge of the plant, taking care to avoid stabbing into the potatoes themselves. Once you’ve loosened the plants, you can lift them to expose most of the spuds, but be sure to dig around in the soil for any you’ve missed!
Dig up maincrop spuds once the foliage is dying back towards the end of the growing season. I find it easier to cut back the foliage before digging up the potatoes on a dry day. Leave the potatoes on the soil surface for a few hours so the skin can dry off a bit. Don’t leave them there any longer, or they may start to turn green.
Extra tips for knowing when and how to dig up potatoes:
- Toughen up potatoes for storage before harvest by not watering them much after mid-August.
- Dig up a test hill to see how mature the potatoes are. The skins of mature potatoes are thick and firmly attached to the flesh. If the skins are thin and rub off easily, your potatoes are still too new and should be left in the ground for a few more days.
- If the soil is very wet, let the potatoes air-dry as much as possible before putting them in bags or baskets.
- Small green spots can be trimmed off, but throw the potato out if there is significant greening.
- Only store potatoes that are free of bruises, disease, or damage, as you don’t want problems in storage, and check on stored potatoes every few weeks and remove any that are starting to spoil.
How to Cure Potatoes
- Once they’ve dried off, pack them up into breathable sacks or just sturdy cardboard boxes to store somewhere dark, cool but frost-free (45° to 60°F / 7° to 15°C) for up to 2 weeks. This allows the potato skin to cure and thus keep longer.
- Brush off any clinging soil; do not wash the potatoes until ready to eat; washing will shorten their life.
How to Store Potatoes
If you are harvesting potatoes to eat within a few days, storage is not an issue. You can store anywhere.
To store potatoes for keeping, however, you need a dark, cool (38° to 40°F) place; if it’s too warm, potatoes will sprout and be susceptible to disease. Also, it needs to be somewhat humid; potatoes are 80% water, so if it’s too dry, potatoes wither and dry out.
If you happen to have a damp cellar, you’ll all set! Otherwise, consider an extra refrigerator set a few degrees higher than normal with tubers in dark-colored plastic bags that are perforated (with many holes cut in the side) for air movement. Avoid all light to prevent greening. Or, consider an unheated entrance, spare room, closet, attic, cabinet, or insulated garage. To elevate humidity, you could place large pans of water in front of air source.
Even after harvest, potatoes still use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide, so they must have fresh air and ventilation. Never put potatoes in airtight containers. Use perforated bags, as mentioned above. Do not store potatoes with apples; the fruit’s ethylene gas causes spoilage.