How to Grow Potatoes

Home grown potatoes from a greenhouse.
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If you've ever seen a short plant with broad leaves and a violet, shooting-star flower, that was mostly likely a potato plant. This may puzzle new gardeners, but as tubers, potatoes won't be hanging from branches like other vegetables in your garden. Learn how to grow one of the most common and well-loved starches right on your plot of land; all it takes is careful "seeding," the right amount of water, and sufficient soil.

How to Plant Potatoes

There are three main ways to plant potatoes: in a container, in soil, or in mulch. Whichever method you use, crop rotation will help avoid pests and diseases.

What Is Crop Rotation?

Crop rotation is a technique that involves planting different crops in the same general area and rotating their locations per season. Farmers do this to avoid the fungi, pathogens, and pests that can fester and multiply in the soil after harvest, just waiting for another opportunity to eat your plants.

If Plot 1 hosted potatoes this year, move them to Plot 2 next time and plant veggies from a different family, for instance, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale) in Plot 1. The following year, plant legumes (beans) in Plot 1, brassicas in Plot 2, and potatoes in Plot 3, and so on until you cycle back to potatoes in Plot 1.

Growing From "Seed"

Potatoes are rarely grown from true seeds. More often, they are grown from “seed” potatoes or cut pieces of potatoes. If you look at the surface of the potato, it has “eyes,” little dimples (technically they are nodes) from which stems will grow, essentially cloning the parent plant. 

While the “seed” potatoes are certified and disease-free, you can try growing from market-bought, organic potatoes, though it is not recommended. With a clean knife, cut the potato into roughly one and a half inch cubes, making sure that each chunk has at least one “eye”. Place the cubes in a paper bag and let the cut surfaces dry until they are gray, about a week later. This makes them less susceptible to pests and diseases as well as warms them up, encouraging germination.

To estimate how much to plant, you can go off of the National Gardening Association's recommendation, which is eight to ten pounds of seed potatoes per one 100-foot row.

Once the soil is regularly 40 degrees F, dig a trench the length of your row, about 4-6 inches deep. You can add some low-nitrogen plant food in the trench, then place the seed potato cubes “eyes” up, about 15 inches apart, and cover with 4 inches of soil. 

Alternatively, you can cover the potatoes with weed-free mulch (straw will do), piling it on thickly to block all light. This way, the potatoes are easily pulled up and harvested.

Another option is to plant in a pre-made or homemade container. There are many types of grow-bags and buckets that work well for a small family’s quota of potatoes. These often have a trap door that lets you harvest from below without killing the plant. Do-it-yourselfers may want to create a “potato tower” using wire fencing material stuffed with soil and straw, but these don’t seem to deliver the yield promised by YouTube videos. Hilling soil may help the produce more tubers on the stem and keep potatoes from turning green, but pushing the plant to more than its natural height can backfire.

The Art of Hilling

Even though they grow underground, potatoes are actually attached to the stem, so adding soil lengthens the amount of stem beneath the soil and ensures there is enough soil to fully cover the tubers. Growers hill the soil around the plant using a hoe to create a mound that covers all but the top bunch of leaves. Gardeners can start hilling potatoes when the plant is about 6 inches tall, and then repeat after another 6 inches of growth.

Potato Plant Care

Potatoes are relatively low maintenance as long as they are overwatered or inhibited by heavy soil. 

Light, Soil, and Nutrients

Potatoes grow best with at least 6 hours of full sunlight. Potatoes, like other root crops, thrive in slightly loose soil with good drainage. This allows them to expand underground. Soil that holds too much water can lead to diseases and rot. Till in compost or cover crops to make sure there is enough organic matter for a proper soil structure. A broad fork can be helpful for loosening soil. Acidic soil helps protect the potato from fungal diseases. You can add coffee grounds, pine needles, or acid-lovers’ plant food to increase acidity. 

Water, Temperature, and Humidity

Potatoes react negatively to irrigation stress. Consider the area where roots can access the water; it should neither dry out nor pool nor become waterlogged. Too much or too little water can impact yield and quality and, potentially, cause disease or malformation. Potato varietals are suited for diverse climates, but they have a wide tolerance for temperature and humidity differences.

Potato Varieties

Hands of person pulling back leaves and digging out potatoes, Halifax, Nova¬ÝScotia, Canada
Joseph De Sciose / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

Perhaps you'd like to grow multiple grocery-store varieties, or even branch out further and explore the least common types of potatoes available. While the classic Russet, Kennebec, or Yukon Gold potatoes are great, heirloom and specialty potatoes can add new shapes, textures, colors, and diverse nutrients to your dishes.

  • Red-skinned potatoes include Strawberry Paw, Dark Red Norland, and Huckleberry (which is red on the inside)
  • Fingerlings are elongated potatoes with a fine texture. Sub-varieties include Russian Banana or French Fingerling (pink).
  • Purple potatoes have an antioxidant called anthocyanin attached to the pigment. Try Adirondack Blue or Magic Molly.
  • Peruvian varietals are often knobby and irregular, deeply colored, but these come from the birthplace of potato-growing. Peru offers the Papa Púrpura, Papa Huayro, and many more.

How to Harvest Potatoes

According to Michigan State University Extension, you should reduce irrigation once potato plants have bloomed in order to toughen the skin for storage. The potato plant will die back or wilt from the top. Dig carefully around the plants to loosen them from the soil without damaging them. Nichols says to store potatoes out of sunlight immediately at a temperature of 45 to 60 degrees F for about two weeks, so they can cure. Do not wash them; instead, brush them off after they have cured. Store in a cool, dark place to preserve.