The potato is a vegetable; however, it is not the kind that your mom has to force you to eat. Because of its high starch content, experts lump it into the rice, bread and pasta family. It is considered a carbohydrate and therefore is not a vegetable that you have to be forced to eat. Instead, it becomes a comfort food that you have to be careful not to indulge in too frequently (why can’t vegetables be more like potatoes?)
The potato is a root vegetable and quite literally grows as part of the root. You will not see any portion of the potato above ground. It is burrowed deep within the soil, sprouting at the base of the plant. The plant itself is a thick, almost shrub-like plant that grows little white flowers in groupings. The way the plant looks above ground gives zero indication as to whether the potatoes below are ready to harvest.
The potato plant is one of the most adaptable plants around and can grow in almost any region. Later on, you’ll see some interesting ways you can grow your potatoes, which may help increase your final yield.
The Best Time to Plant Potatoes Is …
While potatoes can adapt, they do need some fundamentals to get them started on the right path.
Plant Potatoes After the Last Thaw
Depending on where you live, it is entirely possible that freezing temperatures could last well into spring. It isn’t unusual for snow to fall in May in some regions of the United States. The best time to plant potatoes (and anything else in your garden) is after the last frost of the winter. You can best gauge this by the number of consecutive days the temperature has remained above freezing in the spring. Don’t be fooled by a couple of days of mild spring weather; this could be Mother Nature playing tricks. Give it a couple of weeks before deciding to break ground on the garden.
After the last thaw, start loosening up the dirt in the area you are planting. If you planted potatoes in this area last year, do not replant them here. Potatoes must be rotated every year, and you should never plant them in the same spot more than once every four years. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that the soil will get worn out and stripped of the essential nutrients and vitamins necessary for potatoes to grow. Root vegetables tend to drain the land of nutrients more than other crops.
The asterisk to this last statement is if you have a good system for compost and preparing the soil. This may not apply to you if you are a master at working the compost and then, in turn, using the compost to work the soil, virtually making it new soil. However, we will assume you are reading this because you are not, in fact, a master composter and gardener.
Potatoes will not begin to grow until the soil temperature reaches 45 degrees. This number is the magic point at which your old spuds will start budding and developing new ones. If, after you get going and plant the potatoes, a strange frost hits your area, don’t panic. Cover the area where you’ve planted (even if they haven’t come up out of the ground yet) to keep the soil warm. Cover all plants and know that a freak frost once in a while should not kill your plants or prevent them from growing unless you do not take the proper measures to protect them.
Finally, the soil must be moist but not saturated. Dry and arid soil isn’t healthy, and neither is sopping wet soil or mud. Overwatering soil can wash nutrients away just as much as drying it out can. Be mindful as you move forward not to pick a portion of the yard or garden that gets flooded with rainwater or sprinkler runoff. It will not be suitable for your potato plants, and they will not grow. Make sure, too, that your potatoes receive full sun exposure, which is their preferred way to grow.
You Know the When; Here’s the How
If you’re relatively confident you’ve gotten past the last freeze, it’s time to ready the potatoes for planting. Here are some quick tips to get you on your way to a reasonable potato crop.
1. Prepare the Potatoes
Potatoes don’t contain seeds; they are the seeds. If you’ve ever let potatoes go too long before using them, you’ve already seen their sprouts. Potatoes grow white sprouts from them when they’ve gone past their expiration date. These are typically called “eyes,” and they are the foundation for growing more potatoes.
A few days before you are ready to plant, move your seed potatoes into an area where they will reach temperatures around 70 degrees. The heat will start the sprouting process, and the eyes will begin to pop.
A couple of days later cut the potato into 2-inch pieces. Be sure each section contains at least one eye, or it will not grow. Continue to let the chopped potatoes sit out. You will notice a thick skin form over the cut, which aids in preventing rot after you put them in the ground.
2. Prepare the Ground
Remember, the soil should not be in an area you’ve grown potatoes before, it must be moist, have good drainage, and it must be in full sun.
Potatoes do best when set in rows. Dig a trench out that is at least 6 inches deep, but no more than 8 inches. Set the potato pieces eye side up (cut side down) about every foot down the trench. If creating more than one row, make sure the rows are 3 feet apart.
Do not put all the displaced dirt back on top of the seeds, but only fill the trench about halfway to start. Keeping the seeds closer to the surface at first will encourage growth. As the plants begin to sprout, continue filling in the trench with soil a little at a time. By the time you are done filling it in, you will have created a mound.
3. Watering Tips
Your potatoes will start to become thick green plants, almost vine-like. Make sure to keep them watered well throughout the hot summer months to encourage growth. Do not overwater. Keep a rain gauge in your garden to monitor rainfall and adjust your watering schedule accordingly. The ground should be damp but not thoroughly saturated. Remember, the potatoes are growing in the roots, and if the water is too wet at the top of the soil, those baby potatoes might be drowning underneath. Too much water will cause the new potatoes to rot.
4. What to Look Out For
The potato plants will start to flower over the course of the summer and into the fall. When you notice there are fewer and fewer flowers, it’s time to start keeping track. The best time to harvest potatoes is two to three weeks after flowering stops.
5. Harvesting Tips
When it comes time to dig, be careful you don’t dig too much. You could damage the plant and cause potatoes to stop growing or rot.
Only take the potatoes you think you will eat on the same day or the next day. Potatoes are a food product that is best harvested and eaten on the same day. There are exceptions, like overproduction of crop, but in general, try to take what you will immediately eat.
Take the larger potatoes first and be careful to keep damage to the rest of the roots to a minimum. Leave the babies alone to give them more time to grow.
When you notice the plants starting to wither, it’s time to harvest the remaining potatoes for storage. Remember to keep potatoes in a cool, dry place so they last longer.
Alternative Planting Ideas
If you are a potato lover but don’t have a yard to cultivate, there are some creative ways to still grow your supply of potatoes.
- Grow Bags: There are specialized bags made specifically for people who want to grow plants but don’t have the yard to do it. Grow bags come in all shapes and sizes, and are easy to place around your house or apartment.
- Containers: You can grow potato plants indoors in pots. Simply be sure not to overplant a container. Let the size of the container dictate how many seeds you plant (typically one per pot). There are specialty potato containers available that allow you to pull the entire container out of a bucket to be able to harvest without digging.
- Towers: There are specially designed potato tower growers that may yield an endless amount of potatoes. Depending on where you live and where you place them, it may produce crops year-round. If you live in an area that is known for warmer temperatures, growing potatoes vertically might pay off in pounds of deliciousness in the end.
A potato plant is relatively easy to get going from a potato you probably already have in your pantry. Just follow the directions above, know the when, where and how to plant them, and you’ll be feeding your family potatoes for many months ahead. You may check also our tomato plant guide here.