Quantcast
Growing Potatoes: Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Potatoes | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Potatoes

Photo Credit
Eag1e/Getty
Botanical Name
Solanum tuberosum
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
Soil pH
No content available.
Subhead

Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Potatoes

The Editors
Print Friendly and PDF

The taste and texture of homegrown potatoes are far superior to those of store-bought spuds, especially the early varieties—and garden “taters” provide a bounty of nutrients. Find advice on planting tomatoes to harvesting potatoes in our Potato Grow Guide.

About Potatoes

The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomato, pepper, and eggplant. This cool-weather vegetable typically yields bigger crops in the northern portion of the U.S., however, they can be grown as a winter crop in warmer climates.

The edible part of the potato is the underground “tuber” which is 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 an ancient vegetable that was first documented by the Incas in Peru. 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.

Now America’s #1 vegetable, potatoes are a fat-free, cholesterol-free source of carbohydrates (energy). But it’s the skin that you should not discard; the skin provides 45% of your daily vitamin C and 18% of potassium, as well as thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and zinc.

Learn more about planting potatoes below. 

Planting

Plant potatoes in a sunny place with at least 6 hours of directly sunlight each day. The tubers need to grow in fertile, loose, well-drained soil; hard or compacted soil leads to misshapen tubers. Ideally, soil is slightly acid (pH 5.8 to 6.5) and the soil temperature is at least 45º to 55ºF  (7° to 13°C). Before planting (preferably in the fall), mix compost or organic matter into the soil. Learn more about compostsoil amendments, and preparing soil for planting.)

When to Plant Potatoes

Garden potatoes can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. For many gardeners, this is about 2 weeks after the last spring frost. But aware that early crops may be ruined by soil that’s too wet as the potato seeds will rot. 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, some gardeners will plant the first crop of “early-maturing” potatoes in early to mid-April, 6 to 8 weeks before the average last frost date. These varieties can withstand frost.

In warmer regions, potatoes can be grown as a winter crop and planting times range from September to February. Where winters are relatively mild, you can plant a fall crop in September. For example, in central Florida, gardeners plant potatoes in January, and in Georgia they plant in February.

See our Planting Guide for the best dates to plant by zip code or postal code.

Spacing for Potatoes

How to Plant Potatoes

Note: Potatoes are usually planted in the ground, but they also can be grown in large containers or baskets. The same planting information applies.

Use certified (disease-resistant) seed potatoes from which eyes (buds) protrude. (Do not confuse seed potatoes with potato seeds or grocery produce.

  • One to 2 days ahead of 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. 

Man planting potatoes. Photo by tanyss/Getty Images. Preparing seed potatoes for planting. Photo by tanyss/Getty Images.

  • Potatoes grow best in rows about 3 feet apart. With a hoe or round-point shovel, dig a trench row about 6 inches wide and 8 inches deep. Taper the bottom to about 3 inches wide. Spread and mix in aged manure, compost, and/or leaves.
  • In each trench, place a seed potato piece cut side down every 12 to 14 inches and cover with 3 to 4 inches of soil.
  • In 12 to 16 days after planting, when sprouts appear, use a hoe to gently fill in the trench with another 3 to 4 inches of soil, leaving a few inches of the plants exposed. Repeat as they grow (in several weeks), until the trench is at ground level. 
  • Mulch between rows to conserve moisture, control weeds, and cool the soil.
Growing
  • 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.


Hilling keeps potatoes from getting sunburned, which can cause them to turn green and produce a bitter, toxic chemical. Credit: Avalon Studio/Getty.

Hilling Potatoes

Potato flavor is improved by depth and darkness. As the potato plants grow above the soil surface, you’ll need to periodically “hill up” or mound up soil and compost around the plant so that only the top leaves stick out of the ground. It’s vital not to allow potato spuds to be exposed to sunlight, as this also causes them to turn green and produce a chemical called solanine, which gives off a bitter taste and is toxic. 

  • Do the hilling in the morning, when plants are at their tallest. During the heat of the day, plants start drooping.
  • Hoe dirt up around the base of the plant to cover the tubers and support the plant. 
  • Check on your potatoes periodically to hill up (perhaps a few times a season).
  • Stop hilling when the plant is about 6 inches tall but before the potato plant blooms.

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

Ben Demonstrates How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Potatoes!

Harvesting

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.

  • Harvest “new” potatoes, small ones with tender skin, 2 to 3 weeks after plants stop flowering. Eat new potatoes within a few days (curing is not necessary); they will not keep for much longer.
  • Harvest larger, mature potatoes 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage has died back. Cut down the brown foliage.

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.
  • After you cut down the brown foliage, leave the potatoes for 10 to 14 more days before you harvest. This allows the potatoes to develop a thicker skin. Don’t wait too long, though, or the potatoes may rot (especially in moisture-laden soil).
  • 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.
  • Don’t leave the potatoes that you have dug in the sun for long after they have been dug up from your garden, otherwise your potatoes may turn green. Small spots can be trimmed off, but if there is significant greening, throw the potato out.

How to Cure Potatoes

  • Put freshly dug potatoes in a dry, cool, place (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, you need a cool (38° to 40°F), somewhat humid, dark place. Warm temperatures encourage sprouting and disease. Potatoes are 80% water so if it’s too dry, potatoes wither and dry out.

  • In terms of temperature, storage options include: An extra refrigerator set a few degrees higher than normal; an unheated entrance, spare room, closet, attic, cabinet, cellar, basement, or insulated garage to protect potatoes from freezing.
  • In terms of humidity: If you happen to have a damp cellar, you’ll all set! Otherwise, to elevate humidity, you could store tubers in plastic bags that are perforated (with many holes cut in the side) OR/AND placing large pans of water in front of air source. 
  • To keep potatoes in the dark, use dark-colored, perforated plastic bags with many holes cut in the side to allow for air movement. Avoid all light to prevent greening.

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 in steps above. 

Do not store potatoes with apples; the fruit’s ethylene gas causes spoilage.

Find more tips on getting potatoes ready for the root cellar

Potatoes
The fruit (metaphorically speaking) of a very happy potato plant!
Wit and Wisdom

“What I say is that if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
A. A. Milne, English writer (1882–1956)

Folklore offers many “best days” for planting potatoes:

  • Old-timers in New England planted their potato crops when they saw dandelions blooming in the open fields.
  • The Pennsylvania Dutch considered St. Gertrude’s Day (March 17, aka St. Patrick’s Day) to be their official potato-planting day.
  • Many Christian farmers believed that Good Friday was the best day to plant potatoes because the devil holds no power over them at this time.

Did you know: Potato promoter Antoine Parmentier convinced Marie Antoinette to wear potato blossoms in her hair.

Grated potatoes are said to soothe sunburnt skin.

Pests/Diseases

Potato Pests and Diseases

Pest/Disease Type Symptoms Control/Prevention
Aphids Insect

Misshapen/yellow leaves; sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold

Grow companion plants; knock off with water spray; apply insecticidal soap; put banana or orange peels around plants; wipe leaves with a 1 to 2 percent solution of dish soap (no additives) and water every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks; add native plants to invite beneficial insects

Blight (early) Virus

Leaves, beginning with lower ones, develop dark, concentric spots, often with yellow outer ring, and eventually die; tubers/stems also may be affected

Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; maintain proper soil fertility; ensure good air circulation; avoid overhead watering; water in morning; disinfect tools; rotate crops

Blight (late) Insect

Small, greenish gray, water-soaked spots on leaves that enlarge and turn brown, sometimes with yellow halo; white, fuzzy growth on leaf undersides; stems also affected; tubers develop reddish brown dry rot

Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties and certified, disease-free seed potatoes; ensure good air circulation; avoid overhead watering; remove plant debris; rotate crops

Colorado potato beetles Insect

Yellow-orange eggs laid in clusters on leaf undersides; larvae and adults chew holes in foliage

Handpick; use straw mulch; weed; use row covers; destroy crop residue; rotate crops. In the nymph state, they can be controlled with diatomaceous earth (food grade). If they continue to be a problem, a few sprays of Spinosad, an organic pesticide, will get rid of the beetles. Always use products at dawn or dusk to avoid harming beneficial insects.

Flea beetles Insect

Tiny black beetles that jump when spooked. Numerous tiny holes in leaves; clusters of holes, as if leaf was hit by shotgun

Use row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects

Leafhoppers Insect

White shed skins on leaf undersides (from nymph molting); stippling (many tiny spots) on leaves; “hopperburn” (leaves yellow/brown, curled, or stunted); reduced yield

Knock nymphs off leaf undersides with strong spray of water; use row covers; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; weed; destroy crop residue

Potato scab Bacteria

Brown, rough, corky spots that can be shallow/raised/sunken

Choose resistant varieties and certified disease-free potato seed; maintain soil pH between 5.0 and 5.2; dust seed potatoes with sulfur before planting; use pine needle mulch; keep soil moist after tubers start to form; do not use manure; rotate crops

Tomato hornworms Insect

Chewed leaves (initially toward top of plant); rapid defoliation; black/green excrement

Handpick (leave larvae that have white, ricelike cocoons, which house braconid wasp parasites); till soil in fall and spring; weed; add native plants to invite beneficial insects; grow dill as a trap crop or basil/marigolds as repellents; spray Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)

Whiteflies Insect

Sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold; yellow/silver areas on leaves; wilted/stunted plants; distortion; adults fly if disturbed; some species transmit viruses

Remove infested leaves/plants; use handheld vacuum to remove pests; spray water on leaf undersides in morning/evening to knock off pests; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; spray with insecticidal soap; invite beneficial insects and hummingbirds with native plants; weed; use reflective mulch

Wireworms Insect

Seedlings severed; stunting/wilting; roots eaten; tubers/bulbs bored

Trap by digging 2- to 4-inch-deep holes every 3 to 10 feet, fill with mix of germinating beans/corn/peas or potato sections as bait, cover with soil or a board, in 1 week uncover and kill collected wireworms; provide good drainage; remove plant debris; rotate crops

Cooking Notes

Potatoes can be prepared in many ways: boiled, mashed, cut into pieces and roasted, french-fried, scalloped, made into dumplings or pancakes, grated into hash browns, and even brewed as alcoholic beverages.

Most potato dishes are served hot, but some are first cooked, then served cold, notably potato salad and potato chips.

Check out our recipe archives to find potato recipes that range from plain to fancy!

2022_gardening_calendar_fall_ad.png