Whether your preference may be new potatoes topped with butter, or chips, roasties, and slow-baked jackets of perfection, chances are that the potato features relatively heavily in your diet. While saving money is one reason to grow your own, gardeners tend to get most excited about the prospect of harvesting multiple varieties that cannot be bought in shops. Plus, having enough of your own supply of this kitchen staple to feed you throughout the year will give you a sense of food security that cannot be beaten!
Growing Potatoes: A Quick Snapshot
When to Sow – N/A
When to Plant – Mar-May
When to Harvest – May-Oct
Average Yield per Plant – 2-3kg
Spacing – 30-45cm
Depth – 10cm
How to Grow Potatoes at Home
Not only are potatoes easy to grow, but they take up a surprisingly small amount of space, especially considering their yield. Grow them in the ground, in raised beds, in bags, or in buckets – whichever you choose, meet the following growing conditions and you’ll be picking your own potatoes in just a few months!
Growing Requirements for Potatoes
Potatoes do best when they have full sun, meaning around 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Although their roots like to remain cool, potatoes should be grown in a frost-free location.
When it comes to the best type of soil for growing potatoes, aim for light, loose, and deep. If possible, enrich your potato growing area the season before planting with plenty of well-rotted animal manure. However, this isn’t strictly necessary – even if your soil is heavy and poor quality, you can still plant your potatoes on the surface and then mound them up with quality compost. More on this later!
How to Grow Potatoes from Seed
Potato seeds are referred to as seed potatoes. This is because, unlike most other plants, potatoes don’t actually grow from seeds. Instead, they grow from sections of the tubers themselves.
Potatoes that you’ve bought from the supermarket can be used as seed potatoes. However, for the biggest and tastiest harvests, look for potatoes that are being sold specifically to be used as seed. This will give you access to a mind-boggling array of varieties, which is what you need for the longest harvesting period.
Chitting basically means pre-sprouting your seed potatoes. It’s not a must – in fact, the yield difference between chitted and non-chitted potatoes (those that have been planted without proper sprouts) is minimal. However, many gardeners find that chitting gives them a head-start on the growing season, allowing them to harvest a little earlier.
Chitting can be done up to six weeks before planting.
How to Chit Potatoes:
Place your seed potatoes into egg cartons or trays – anything that will hold them steady. Arrange them so that the end with the most eyes (those little indents where the shoots will grow from) are facing upwards. Keep the potatoes in a cool but bright place – you want those sprouts to be strong and sturdy, rather than weak and spindly.
If you find yourself wishing that you had purchased more seed potatoes, there’s a way to get around this…
Take a few of the seed potatoes that you already have and cut them into sections. Each section needs to have at least one eye, so that it can grow shoots. Then, leave them for about three days, so that the cut sides can dry out, before either chitting as above or planting straight out.
How to Plant Potatoes Outside
As mentioned, you’ve got a few different options when it comes to planting potatoes outside. Here’s how each one works:
How to Plant Potatoes in a Trench in the Ground
The most common way of planting potatoes is to dig a trench that’s about 10cm deep, and then place your seed potatoes into this. Position them so that the eyes/sprouts are facing upwards, spacing each potato about 30cm (for early varieties) or 45cm (for main varieties) apart.
Then, cover your potatoes back over with soil and water well.
How to Plant Potatoes on the Surface of Your Soil
Raised beds are a good option for those who don’t have good soil, but you can also try the no-dig method. To do this, weed your growing area and then, if you want, add a thin layer of compost. Place your potatoes onto the surface of your soil, spacing early varieties 30cm apart and main crop varieties 45cm apart.
Then, cover your potatoes over. You can either use compost to do this, or straw. The advantage to using straw is that it’s relatively inexpensive and harvesting is much easier and cleaner. However, if you’re planting your potatoes early in the season, then the straw may not provide enough frost protection. In this case, you may be better off covering your potatoes over with compost, but then switching to straw when earthing up (more on this later!).
Aim for a covering that’s about 10-15cm thick (go thicker if you’re using straw instead of compost), and then water well.
If you’ve used straw and you live in a windy location, you may need to lay some fleece over the top of your straw to begin with, to prevent it from blowing away. However, this is only necessary in exceptionally windy areas – so long as you keep your straw damp, it should stay in place.
How to Plant Potatoes in Bags
If you’re short on growing space or good quality soil, then potatoes do well in grow bags too. The main downside to this method is the cost – quality grow bags can end up being quite expensive, especially if you need several of them.
If you don’t want to splurge on grow bags, consider canvas shopping bags instead. Don’t use plastic – this will heat up too much, preventing the tubers from growing properly.
Fill the bags with about 20cm of soil, and then place your potatoes over the top of this. Don’t be tempted to plant too many in each bag – this will only result in very small potatoes. The size of the bags you’re using will determine how many potatoes you should plant – aim for about two seed potatoes in an average-sized canvas shopping bag.
Then, cover your potatoes over with about 10cm of compost and water well.
How to Plant Potatoes in Buckets
Large bucket-type containers work well for growing potatoes. In essence, these work just like grow bags or a raised bed, with the main difference being that buckets are usually smaller. While this may mean smaller harvests, buckets are still a great option for people that are short on space.
Follow the same planting method as when planting in bags – just make sure that you don’t plant too many seed potatoes in each bucket.
How to Plant Potatoes in a Greenhouse
If you’ve got space in your greenhouse beds to grow a few potato plants, then this is definitely worth doing. The extra warmth and protection provided by a greenhouse will mean that you can plant your potatoes out earlier in the year, giving you an earlier harvest. Many also plant greenhouse potatoes at the end of summer/early in the autumn – keep them frost-free over the winter and you’ll be harvesting potatoes at the start of the year!
Raised beds tend to offer the best yields, making it worth creating a deep one dedicated to potatoes. Alternatively, if you’re short on space in your greenhouse, grow them as described above in bags or buckets.
How to Care for Potatoes
Potatoes do require a bit of work, but this is easy and doesn’t take much time. Plus, your efforts will be more than worth it when you come to harvest your plants.
Potatoes need about 5-8cm of water a week. The soil that they’re growing in should never be allowed to dry out. If it does, this will affect your harvest.
Rainfall may provide a good amount of water to outdoor-grown potatoes, but chances are that you’ll still need to top this up. When you do, water deeply, especially if the weather has been particularly hot and dry.
Keep in mind that potatoes grown in bags or buckets, as well as those in a greenhouse, will dry out much faster, meaning more frequent watering sessions will be needed.
Your seed potatoes will produce shoots, which will grow longer over the next few weeks. As they grow, you’ll need to keep covering them up. These shoots are where the tubers grow from – if you leave them exposed, then not only are they more likely to end up with frost damage, but the potatoes themselves will turn green from the light, which makes them dangerous to eat.
You’ll need to earth up your potatoes a few times as they grow. The more you do so, the better your harvest will be, but always make sure that the shoots are about 20cm above the surface of the soil before earthing up.
How you earth your potatoes up will depend on how you’re growing them:
In a trench in the ground – pull the soil from around your plants over and onto your potato shoots
On the surface of the ground – cover shoots with a thick layer of straw, or with compost
In bags or buckets – cover shoots with compost
Although not necessary if your soil was already enriched with organic matter, giving your potatoes some feed can help to improve their growth. Since root growth is what you want to concentrate on, look for a fertiliser that contains higher levels of potassium and phosphate. Use this every 2-4 weeks.
How to Harvest Potatoes
Wait for a dry day before harvesting your potatoes.
If you’re growing them in the ground, you may need to use a garden fork to loosen the soil around them and then lift them out of the ground. However, be careful when doing this – it’s frustratingly easy to accidentally pierce the tubers with the fork while you’re digging around in there.
If you planted your seed potatoes on the surface of the soil and earthed them up with compost or straw, then you may be able to just lift them out with your hands.
Bags and buckets containing potatoes should be gently tipped upside down and emptied onto a soft and dry surface. You can then sort through the soil with your hands and pick out your potatoes.
When to Harvest Potatoes
Harvesting potatoes is easy, but before you actually do so, make sure that you’re harvesting them at the right time.
Early varieties – 10 weeks after planting, when the plants are just beginning to flower. This is usually in June or July
Second early varieties – 13 weeks after planting, while the plants are still flowering. This is usually in July and August
Early maincrop varieties – 15 weeks after planting, when the flowers are beginning to die back. This is usually in August
Maincrop varieties – 20 weeks after planting, which should be about two weeks after the stems and leaves have started to wither and die back. This can take place between August and October
How to Store Potatoes
Potatoes need to be stored somewhere dry, dark, and well-ventilated. This gives you quite a few different storage options:
In a kitchen cupboard. Rub off any dirt first, and don’t store them near ripening fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, tomatoes, onions, and apples. These release ethylene gas, which will cause potatoes to soften and sprout.
In a root cellar. You’ll need to cure the potatoes first by rubbing off any dirt and then placing them onto some newspaper in a dark place for two weeks, making sure that they aren’t touching each other.
Buried in a trench in the ground (you could even put them back into their growing area), and then covered with soil and straw.
Sliced, blanched, and frozen.
How to Prepare & Cook Potatoes
Early potato varieties have a very thin skin. These only need a quick clean before they’re ready to use. Don’t scrub at the skins too hard, as they’ll only end up tearing.
Maincrop varieties have a much thicker skin. If the skin isn’t something that you enjoy, peel it off before washing your potato and then prepare as needed. If you’d prefer to keep the skin on, not only for texture but also extra nutrition, then give your potatoes a good scrub under running water to remove any dirt.
There are hundreds of different ways to cook potatoes, but a few favourites from around the world are:
There are a few potato pests and diseases that you’ll need to keep an eye out for:
Blight – the most common potato disease, blight causes leaves to turn blotchy and black, with the plant collapsing soon afterward. There is no treatment, so cut off and burn all affected plant parts immediately, and look into blight-resistant varieties in the future
Potato scab – this disease is caused by a lack of water, and you won’t know that your plants have it until you harvest your tubers and see the bumpy, brown scabs on the skin. Fortunately, they’re still edible – just peel away the scabs and the flesh beneath will look and taste absolutely normal
Slugs – these garden pests burrow tunnels into tubers, causing the surrounding flesh to turn brown and inedible. Slug-resistant varieties are available for future use, and you should also try to lift your potatoes before August – this is when slug damage becomes most prevalent
Popular Potato Varieties to Grow
There are literally thousands of potato varieties out there, and each one has its own unique characteristics when it comes to colour, shape, size, growth habit, and so much more.
As you already know, varieties are usually categorised by how long they take to grow. Early varieties are ready in just 10 weeks. They’re loved for their thin skin and delicate texture, but this also means that they don’t store well. While maincrop varieties take about 20 weeks to mature, these are what your largest harvest should consist of if you plan on storing them long-term.
However, even if long-term storage is your aim, it’s still a good idea to grow plants from each of the different categories to extend your harvesting period, while also giving you the chance to taste so many more flavours.
Some of the best varieties to grow are:
Rooster – this maincrop variety has red skin and pale yellow flesh. It’s incredibly versatile in the kitchen, making it a popular choice
Salad Blue – although its name may signal otherwise, this maincrop variety tastes amazing when boiled, baked, and roasted too, after which it manages to retain its vivid purple colour
Pink Fir Apple – an unusually knobbly potato with a deliciously nutty flavour. Can be harvested as both an early or a maincrop, since it matures quickly yet stores well
Vivaldi – a second early with a beautifully smooth texture, making it perfect for mash
Swift – one of the earliest croppers with great disease resistance
Mayan Twilight – a maincrop salad-type potato that not only tastes surprisingly sweet, but also has a very attractive red and white patterned skin
One seed potato could produce more than ten tubers of its own, with these heavy yields making potatoes such a rewarding vegetable to grow. Choose the right varieties and store your harvests correctly and you’ll never have to buy another supermarket potato again!
Alina Jumabhoy has spent several years learning about, and experimenting with, different organic growing techniques at various gardens and farms around the country. Fuelled by her quest for self-sufficiency, she’s now putting that information to good use on her own rural farm.