Potatoes are a versatile root crop so they can seem intimidating to gardeners to try to grow. How do you plant potatoes? How do you know when a potato is ready to harvest if you can't see them? Never fear, not only are potatoes easier to grow than most people realize, but they can often be ready to harvest in 12 weeks or less!
Planting Organic Potatoes
The first step to harvesting organic potatoes is to purchase organic seed potato, if possible. I don't recommend planting potatoes from your grocery store because they've usually been treated with chemicals to prevent sprouting. Also, potatoes develop a disease called potato virus so seed potatoes are always grown and produced in areas where the virus cannot exist and are certified virus free which grocery store potatoes are not. Potatoes in areas where the virus can exist will eventually develop the virus, leading to smaller crops with fewer potatoes per plant.
Personally, we usually save potatoes for seed from one year to the next for one or two years and then we reinvest in fresh, virus-free seed potatoes. (See more about plant viruses here.) It works for us. You may prefer to eat your entire harvest every year and plant fresh seed potatoes each year. It will depend on how much room you have for a crop in your garden.
We love planting varieties of potatoes that aren't readily available in the grocery store. Did you know there are blue and purple potatoes? Bright yellow? Red colored with white and red streaked flesh? Each has a unique flavor and there is a huge difference in flavor between homegrown and store-bought potatoes.
When you get your sack of seed potatoes you might be surprised, as I was my first year, to see actual potatoes. This is the "seed" for the potato plant! I had no idea the first year I planted potatoes. (True confession. Don't judge me.) Good seed potatoes will have at least 2-3 eyes per potato. If you have larger potatoes with many eyes on them you could cut them and grow two plants from one potato - just make sure that each chunk has not only 2-3 good eyes at minimum but also plenty of flesh to help the potato grow. If you just cut the eyes out without enough flesh your potato will rot and not grow.
We always cut our potatoes the day before and then plant them the next morning so any exposed flesh has a chance to dry a little before planting. This minimizes the risk of pests, disease, and rotting. If you haven't cut any large potatoes you won't need to do this. Some people pre-sprout their potato seeds which is a great option if you have time but I'm too lazy for that. Potatoes are planted about 5-6 inches deep and should be spread 9-12 inches apart depending on the size of the chunk you are planting. Cover over the potatoes after you plant them and wait!
Tending Potato Plants in the Garden
You'll start to see beautiful potato vines appear in a few days. The stems are pretty thick and the leaves are usually bright green. I've noticed that our purple or blue potatoes have darker leaves. Let the vines grow until they are about 6-9 inches tall and then you'll need to perform some quick work on the plants. Something called "hilling the potatoes".
It sounds scary and feels super counter-intuitive but all you do is rake up dirt from the outside of the rows (the middle part where you walk where there are no plants) and pull it up onto the potato plants. WHAT!? You want me to bury my potato plants? Yep. That's exactly what you do. Bury half of the plant leaving just the top few inches of leaves exposed.
The buried part of the vine will produce more roots, and most importantly, more potatoes. Meanwhile, the still-exposed leaves will continue to produce energy for the plant and will continue to grow even bigger. In another couple weeks, you will hill the plant up again, using either straw or soil to bury more of the potato plant.
Potatoes are Excellent in the Garden
Potatoes are perfect garden occupants for the most part. They grow easily in a wide-variety of soil, as long as it's well-drained. They are easy to grow, have beautiful vines and flowers, and produce loads of delicious edible harvest for you. We can transform one sack of seed potato into a hundred pounds of potatoes, or more. Enough to feed our huge family for quite awhile!
The next articles will explain how to harvest the potatoes and alternative methods for growing potatoes in small spaces.