By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
If you’re new to the wonderful world of gardening, things that are obvious to seasoned gardeners may seem strange and complicated. For example, which way is up when planting potatoes? And should you be planting potatoes eyes up or down? Read on to find out which end is up!
Which end of the potato is up? Basically, the only thing to remember when planting potatoes is to plant with the eyes facing up. Here’s a little more detail:
Don’t spent a lot of time worrying about how to find seed end of potatoes. Although planting with the eyes facing the sky will likely smooth the way for development of the little spuds, your potatoes will do just fine without a lot of fuss.
Once you’ve planted potatoes once or twice, you’ll realize that planting potatoes is basically a worry-free process, and that digging the new potatoes is like finding buried treasure. Now that you know the answer to which seed end to plant, all you have to do now is sit back and enjoy your crop once it comes in!
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If you have decided to grow potatoes or potatoes in your field, orchard or garden, surely you will be informing yourself as much as possible to do your best and achieve a successful crop. If so, or you are just curious about the world of crops, you have come to the best place.
In this practical guide you will find the answer to when to plant potatoes , as well as some tips to keep in mind to find the best time for the area and also some indications on when to harvest them.
This is bizarrely an important step - why? That's because normal store bought potatoes will usually be OK, but may possibly contain disease you don't want to put into your soil. Use 'seed' potatoes from the local nursery or seed store and you can guarantee they will be virus free. That's not to say that the soil you're putting them in is disease free, but at least they'll have a fighting chance.
You can pick them up fairly cheaply from a good shop - mine here cost Â£2 from the local nursery
More importantly is that you can often pick up varieties of potato not usually available or even endangered or rare plants - though often these are sold as actual plants rather than the rare and valuable tubers.
A FRIEND I BUY seed potatoes with and I were scratching our heads as we filled out the order form, blanking on the line where it said “preferred ship date.” How early do we want them to arrive, we asked ourselves as we do every year. Time for a review of that and other questions about when and how to plant, hill and harvest potatoes. (That’s a row in my raised beds here, seen in late spring one recent year.)
Many companies ship extra-early, based on rough frost-date estimates for each area that may not be exactly what’s going on at your place, but is that really when I want the starts to arrive? I asked for advice from Alley Swiss of Filaree Garlic Farm, a longtime certified-organic farmer in Okanogun, Washington, whose main crops—garlic, shallots and potatoes—are favorites in my garden, too.
(Disclosure: I’m proud to have Filaree as a seasonal advertiser from time to time. You might recall the popular garlic-growing Q&A we did together last year I’ve learned a lot from our ongoing conversations–including that it’s OK to wait a little while for the seed potatoes to arrive.)
Q. When is the right time to plant—is there a cue in nature to remind us, or a soil temperature or calendar date we’re looking for?
A. At the earliest, I recommend planting two to three weeks before your average last frost date. Seed potatoes can rot if planted too early in cold water-logged soil. If your potatoes do get a heavy frost after they emerge, they will put up new shoots, but every time they die back they will produce a smaller and later harvest.
I like to wait for the soil to warm up a little at which point they emerge quickly and grow steadily without stress. Late March to early May is a good time to plant potatoes in the northern states. In the warmer areas of the South they can be planted in late fall or early winter.
Where I farm the local point of reference is to plant your potatoes when the snow is almost melted off the mountain. Whether it’s the first dandelions blooming or a particular bug emerging if you talk to gardeners where you live they will probably have a local reference, too.
Q. Sometimes when seed potatoes arrive, some are nearly a tennis ball and some are mere eggs. Should I cut the larger ones up, and do I have to let them callus before planting if so?
A. Many people choose to cut their larger sized-seed potatoes into pieces. The advantage of doing this is your seed will go further and likely produce a higher overall yield.
If you do choose to cut your larger potatoes, make sure and leave at least two “eyes” for every piece. Use a clean, sharp knife to cut the potato into several large pieces shortly before planting.
Leaving the cut pieces in a cool and humid space overnight will give them enough time to callus before planting. The callus will help prevent infection from soil contact.
We plant our seed potatoes whole to minimize worm damage. If you have problems with wireworms, maggots or other pests, planting whole potatoes may be a good idea. Pests are attracted to the juicy exposed flesh of a cut potato.
Q. I have read so many variations about soil prep for potatoes. Is there something they do want, and anything they don’t? (For instance, I’ve read to avoid using manures on the potato bed.)
A. The ideal soil for growing potatoes is a loose and deep loam that holds moisture and also drains well. Luckily, for those without “ideal” soil, potatoes are hardy and adapt well too many difficult soil types. Lots of organic matter is recommended for the best yields. It is best to incorporate organic matter or compost into the soil in the fall so the soil has time to balance the added nutrients.
Fresh manure can activate the pathogen “scab,” which makes for unsightly, yet still edible, potatoes. For this reason I use only well-composted manure when preparing soil for potatoes. If you do not have access to composted manure, a well-balanced fertilizer can be used (I use an organic 4-2-2). Too much Nitrogen will delay root production and you may end up with huge plants with little potatoes.
Q. So I’m ready to plant, following your above prep guidance. Now what? Proper depth and spacing—and is it the same whether a big baker or a smallish fingerling?
A. Dig a shallow trench about 6-8 inches deep. This can be done with a rake in loose soil, but you may need a shovel or hoe in heavier soils.
Place cut potatoes 10-12 inches apart in the trench. If larger potatoes are planted whole they will produce larger plants and should be given a little extra room, 12-16 inches.
A spacing of 36 inches between rows in adequate but if you have the extra space, further spacing will make hilling easier.
Fingerling and other small potatoes can be planted closer, but no less than 8 inches between plants. Cover the plants with about 3-4 inches of soil, leaving the trench partially filled.
Q. The hilling thing is probably the most confusing part (and the most work). When and how deep and often do I hill, and where is all that extra soil meant to come from? Can I use straw or composted leaf mold or some other “mulch”?
A. Hilling is the most crucial, tiring and fun part of growing potatoes. When your potatoes reach about 8-10 inches high, bring soil up around the vines from both sides. This can be done with a rake in loose soils. If your soil is hard, you may need to cultivate the soil before raking or use a hoe.
Make sure not to cultivate too closely to the young plants as to not disturb the new roots systems. Hilling brings loose soil around the vines where the potatoes will form as well as deepening the roots into cooler soil. With the first hilling, I like to cover the vines up so that only the top leaves are exposed. This allows for a shallower second hilling done 2-3 weeks later with an additional 2-4 in of soil brought around the vines.
A mulch that is loose and allows the soil to breath can be applied after, or instead of, a second hilling. I recommend straw [above photo, a second hilling of straw in Margaret’s garden] because it breathes well, but leaves can be used as long as they are not applied too thickly.
A good layer of mulch can help protect vines from potato beetles by creating a barrier as well as providing habitat for insects that eat the beetle’s larvae. The fun part of hilling is looking at your beautifully hilled rows when you are done!
Q. What’s the above-ground signal for when it’s OK to harvest new potatoes? Do all varieties offer this possibility?
A. Potatoes begin to produce tubers after flowering. Several weeks after flowering, dig into the loose soil at the sides of the vines and you shouldn’t have to dig deep to find thin-skinned new potatoes. These can be pulled from the plant without harming the development of the still maturing potatoes.
The waxier-textured potatoes are best for immature use. The variety ‘All Red’ makes for a colorful new potato with bright red skin and a pink streak through the flesh. ‘Yukon Gold’ is another early maturing variety with great flavor.
Q. How do I know when the crop is done, and how long can I leave them safely in the ground after that?
A. Potatoes are ready to harvest when their vines die back and they lose most of their color. This can occur with a frost or simply when they have reached full maturity.
I like to mow the vines a few weeks before harvest. This helps toughen the skins for good storage.
Potatoes can be left in the ground for several frosts, but should be harvested before the danger of a heavy frost that could damage the spuds lying closest to the surface.
Potatoes are easy to grow, but they prefer cool weather so you should try to get them into the ground at the right time. You can order seed potatoes through mail-order garden companies or buy them at local garden centers or hardware stores. (You could use supermarket potatoes, but be aware they have probably been treated with chemicals to inhibit sprouting, so they may not grow well.) Store your seed potatoes in the refrigerator.
Your next step is to determine the recommended planting time for your climate. Since it takes potatoes two to three weeks to emerge from the ground, the earliest you should plant seed potatoes is two weeks before your last anticipated freeze date of 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. (If you don't know your local last freeze date, you can find it here.) About a week before your planting-out date, bring the seed out of the fridge and place it in a bright warm window for about a week. This will help break the spuds' dormancy and assure they will grow quickly when you put them into the still-cool spring soil.
If you garden in areas that have hot summers be sure to plant your potatoes early, and to play it safe, choose varieties that mature in early- or mid-season. This is because potatoes do not do well when the temperatures climb into the 90s. They may actually keel over and die when the temperature gets to 95 degrees. If a late planting or a late season variety runs into that hot weather while the tubers are in the early bulking stage you may get a very low yield.
To save work, or as a way to start a new garden bed, some people like to just toss their potato seed pieces onto bare ground or even a patch of sod, and then cover the pieces with a heavy mulch of straw or leaves. I've always wondered if you get as many potatoes with this short-cut method as you would if you buried the seed in a prepared garden bed, so I asked Jim and Megan Gerritsen, who grow and sell certified organic potatoes at Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine, what they think of this technique. The Gerritsens have been advising gardeners all across the continent since 1976.
Q: Does planting potatoes in a deep mulch on uncultivated ground still give reasonably good yields?
A: This deep mulch potato planting technique is called the Stout method, named after the old-time popular organic gardener Ruth Stout. Over the years Ruth had created beautiful soil and that fertile soil was a big factor in her success. Perform the Stout method on great soil and expect great yields of delicious potatoes. But try the technique on old worn out and unimproved ground and get ready to learn some patience and gain some humility. Potatoes are heavy feeders and they will respond dramatically to good fertility and tilth. Your yield will suffer to the extent that the soil you plant in lacks proper fertility and water.
Over the years, Stout's deep mulching technique will help you build wonderful soil fertility plus conserve water. In the meantime, working some organic fertilizer (we like fish meal) into the soil while you are building the organic matter and fertility will pay big dividends with any method of growing potatoes, including Ruth's.
As to laying the seed pieces on top of the ground, shallow planting the potato seed piece into 1 to 2 inches of soil beneath the deep mulch would be a good compromise and would provide superior results because it is more in keeping with tried and true traditional potato planting methods Also, be sure the mulch is not so dense and packed that the developing potato plants can't find their way to sunlight. One final word of caution: If you have big problems with slugs or mice the deep mulch method can add to your troubles.
If you have more questions about growing potatoes, or want to try out some of Wood Prairie Farm's 16 organic varieties, you can reach them at www.woodprairie.com or 800-829-9765. (And if you have trouble with insect pests on your potatoes, be sure to try their new 'King Harry' variety, which is naturally highly resistant to flea beetles, Colorado potato beetles and leafhoppers.)
*Browse our customized search tool, the Mother Earth News Seed and Plant Finder to find mail-order companies offering the specific potato varieties you want to grow.
What if the seed potatoes were bought with good intentions to be planted right away but life cropped up and got in the way?
Then, when they are pulled out of the cupboard, the potatoes have already started to sprout!
Beware these accidental self chitted potatoes will have long white sprouts which will be easily broken off – they need to be brought out of the dark cupboard and placed into the sunlight to turn the brittle white chit into a green flexible one perfect for planting.
Chitting just means that before the potatoes planted they are set in a slightly warmish spot and encouraged to sprout from their eyes before being planted.
It is important to place them in this specific type of environment as potatoes generally won’t start to sprout if they are kept in a cold place.
The perfect environment is a slightly warm place with good ventilation (discourages mould and disease) and plenty of light.
A great place to put these potatoes is in a wooden box with slatted sides . This allows plenty of air and light in around them.
Weather conditions permitting, first early potatoes should be ready to lift in June and July second earlies in July and August.
There will be no decent sized potatoes until the plants have flowered, so wait until the flowers open or buds drop. Do a test dig to see if they are of a useable size.
Only harvest what you need for a couple of days at a time. Lift them gently using a fork, not spade.
Leave the rest to grow on for up to 2 weeks – it's not recommended to leave them much longer than this as the skins will begin to harden and get thicker.
They are best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting, or store in a cool, dark place for 5 to 7 days.
Maincrops should be ready to harvest from late August through to October.
With maincrops, wait until the foliage turns yellow, then cut it and remove it. Leave it 10 days before harvesting the tubers.
These are the varieties you will store through winter due to their thicker skins. Leave them to dry for a few hours before storing in hessian or paper sacks. Make sure there are no damaged potatoes as these will rot and affect others in the crop. Keep them in a cool, dry, dark frost-free space. They should last you for many months.