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

How to Grow Potato Plants: The Complete Guide

hands holding dirty potatoes after they have been dug from the garden
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Botanical Name
Solanum tuberosum
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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.

About Potatoes

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.

Planting

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.

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

Spacing for Potatoes

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.

When 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 two 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. 

Man planting potatoes. Photo by tanyss/Getty Images.
 Preparing seed potatoes for planting. 
Photo by tanyss/Getty Images.
  • Outside, prepare the planting area by simply spreading 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.

See our article about container gardening with potatoes.

Growing
  • 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 in containers, take extra care to keep your plants really well watered, especially in warmer weather, as this really will make all the difference in achieving a good crop. 
     
  • Hilling Potatoes: The 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.) Just draw up the soil with a hoe every time the stems get to around 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall so that just the very tops are left poking out. Continue doing this in stages until you can no longer draw up any more soil, or the foliage closes over in between the rows. 

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

Harvesting

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.

Find more tips on getting potatoes ready for the root cellar

Potatoes being dug from the garden
The fruit (metaphorically speaking) of a very happy potato plant!
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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

The most common potato disease is scab, which causes rough, scabby patches on the skin. These can be peeled off along with the skin, so it’s not all bad. But scabby potatoes ain’t half ugly! So avoid scab in the first place by watering to keep the soil consistently moist at the critical time when tubers are developing – basically once the foliage has started to bush out. Adding compost or other organic matter to the soil before planting should help improve water retention too. It’s also worth seeking out scab-resistant varieties. 

Potato blight, or late blight, is a little trickier to dodge. It strikes after a period of warm, wet weather, seemingly out of the blue. Blight causes dark patches on the leaves as it takes hold – then spreads with devastating speed killing off your entire crop. There are a few blight-resistant varieties, but the choice is very limited. The good news is that early varieties are usually harvested before the blight arrives later in summer. Check regularly, and if you do spot the tell-tale signs of blight, act fast to cut back the foliage before it spreads to the potatoes below ground then harvest them as soon as possible.

Potato Pests and Diseases

Pest/DiseaseTypeSymptomsControl/Prevention
AphidsInsectMisshapen/yellow leaves; sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black moldGrow 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)VirusLeaves, beginning with lower ones, develop dark, concentric spots, often with yellow outer ring, and eventually die; tubers/stems also may be affectedDestroy 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)InsectSmall, 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 rotDestroy 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 beetlesInsectYellow-orange eggs laid in clusters on leaf undersides; larvae and adults chew holes in foliageHandpick; 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 beetlesInsectTiny black beetles that jump when spooked. Numerous tiny holes in leaves; clusters of holes, as if leaf was hit by shotgunUse row covers; mulch heavily; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
LeafhoppersInsectWhite shed skins on leaf undersides (from nymph molting); stippling (many tiny spots) on leaves; “hopperburn” (leaves yellow/brown, curled, or stunted); reduced yieldKnock nymphs off leaf undersides with strong spray of water; use row covers; monitor adults with yellow sticky traps; weed; destroy crop residue
Potato scabBacteriaBrown, rough, corky spots that can be shallow/raised/sunkenChoose 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 hornwormsInsectChewed leaves (initially toward top of plant); rapid defoliation; black/green excrementHandpick (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)
WhitefliesInsectSticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold; yellow/silver areas on leaves; wilted/stunted plants; distortion; adults fly if disturbed; some species transmit virusesRemove 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
WirewormsInsectSeedlings severed; stunting/wilting; roots eaten; tubers/bulbs boredTrap 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.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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