Potatoes, taters, spuds, tots… well, maybe not that last one. Knowing how to grow potatoes in your backyard garden is one of the first lessons I learned as a gardener. I was a brand new homeowner, my hubs had just tilled up a garden plot, and I grew at least seven hills of potatoes. The potato beetle did its best to ruin my harvest, but I won out thanks to some advice from an old-time gardener and fellow teacher. I ended up with a pretty large harvest of red potatoes! Now, storage is a different story. There are no cool root cellars in my area of North Carolina. It’s too damp and too warm… so those potatoes were a good lesson in planting what we (and our neighbors) can eat before they go bad.
How to Grow Potatoes
Potatoes are easy to grow in a home garden and one plant will produce a multitude of potatoes. (Take it from me, I know.) All varieties of spuds are easy to grow and can be grown in containers or raised beds. Here are some tips to help you know how to grow potatoes. Follow these and you’re almost guaranteed an abundant harvest this year!
This isn’t just for realtors, y’all. While the actual potatoes grow beneath the soil, there is a green plant (a vine for sweet potatoes) that grows above the soil which needs plenty of sunlight. Select a location that is in full sun (6+ hours per day) for best results. Not sure which areas of your yard get the best sun? Try making a Sun Map of your yard, and you’ll always know the best place to grow full sun, low sun, and shade loving plants.
Potatoes can be successfully grown in traditional in-ground gardens, in buckets, stacks of tires (though I have reservations about what’s in those tires), special grow bags, barrels, raised beds, or any type of container that can hold soil and is at least 1 foot deep. Get creative when you consider how to grow potatoes. For the past several years, I have grown mine in containers instead of directly in my raised beds. This saves me space in the raised beds for plants that don’t do as well in containers. In fact, there are special bags just for growing potatoes, so they can be harvested as the plant grows. Amazing! I haven’t tried them yet, but my neighbor has enjoyed using grow bags for her tomato plants. If you’ve used them, comment below and let me know what you thought about them.
The type of potatoes you use for planting are called seed potatoes. While I have had some friends who have had success using potatoes from their grocery store bagged variety, I like to head to our downtown hardware store and see the different varieties available there. Some varieties purchased at your local grocery store have been treated with growth retardant to prevent them from sprouting. (If you want to try those from the grocery store, stick with an organic variety, since they shouldn’t have been treated.) For your other seed potatoes, start with organic, certified disease-free seed potatoes purchased from a garden supply center or seed catalog. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is one of my favorite places to purchase seeds, and they have a great variety!
Cut and Cure
Seed potatoes need to be cut and dried prior to planting. When you pick out your seed potatoes, choose the ones that have the most eyes. Eyes equal plants. Cut large tubers into 3-4 pieces, making sure each piece has at least 1 ‘eye’ (sprout). Any tubers that are smaller than a golf ball can be left whole.
Place cut pieces in a single layer in the sun so they can cure. Or if the weather isn’t cooperating, leave cut potatoes on a paper towel on your kitchen counter for a few days. The cut sides develop a hard covering called a ‘callous’ during the curing process and will prevent the seed tuber from rotting after planting. This is important. Nobody has time for rotting tubers in the ground, am I right?
Potatoes grow best in loose, well-draining soil. A mixture of 50 percent soil and 50 percent compost is ideal to provide drainage, nutrition, and prevent soil compaction for growing spuds. My DIY Potting soil is perfect for in-ground gardens, raised beds, or any type of container you may be using. The potatoes need the loose soil for growing those new spuds!
Plant potatoes 3 weeks prior to last predicted frost date for your area. Potatoes need a bit of cool weather to grow well, since they don’t produce as well in the sweltering days of summer. To plant your potatoes, dig a hole 6 inches deep and place 1 seed potato cut side down (eyes facing upward) into hole. Gently cover tuber and water well. Space planting holes 2 feet apart. If you’re working with a container, don’t fill it all the way up. Instead make sure your container has 6-8 inches of space at the top after the tuber has been planted. This will give you room to “hill” your potato plant as it grows. You can also make potato towers, like Garden Know How, for a larger harvest.
Developing spuds must be protected from sunlight and ‘hilling’ accomplishes this and promotes a larger harvest. When the plant is 8 inches tall, create a 4 inch hill around it by raking loose soil around it. You can also top that off with 2 inches of straw or leaves. It’s important to hill to protect those topmost potatoes from being exposed to sunlight. If you’ve ever seen green potatoes, then those are spuds that broke through and were exposed to sunlight too soon. Don’t eat green potatoes.
Repeat the hilling process again when plant grows another 8 inches.
Small, new potatoes can be harvested when the plant flowers. To dig up the plant and potatoes in one large harvest, wait until plants die for large, mature potatoes. Harvesting new potatoes is a great way to enjoy some of your labor while the plant is still growing. My grandmother would always do this so we could have some new potatoes in with a pot of fresh green beans. Delicious!
The Colorado potato beetle is one of the most common pests that likes to destroy your potato plants. They arrive in the summer and lay yellow eggs on the underside of leaves of your potato plants. The striped backs of adults give them a very distinctive look, so be on the look out.
How to handle potato beetles:
- For small gardens, seek and destroy is the best option. If you see a beetle, pick it up and put it in a jar of soapy water. Use a wet cloth to wipe the eggs off of the backs of leaves.
- Be sure to check the backs of all leaves. A female can lay an enormous amount of eggs in her lifetime… who has time for that?!
- Use Bacillus thuringiensis var. tenebrionis (BT), a naturally occurring bacterial disease. This will only be effective for the young larvae, not adult bugs. It’s the same spray I use to keep cabbage worms from destroying my brassicas.
And that’s it! All you need to know from start to harvest on how to grow potatoes. I can’t wait to see what kind of harvest you will yield and what type of potatoes are your favorites! Share below and tips you have and happy gardening!