When and How to Plant Potatoes

Potatoes are one of the easiest crops you can grow, and early spring is the time to get them in the ground.
By Cheryl Long
April 1, 2007
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By growing your own potatoes, you can enjoy all kinds of tasty varieties — in numerous shapes and colors — that you aren't likely to find in any grocery store.

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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. 

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6/15/2013 6:23:20 PM

If you are not doing the stack method, should you cut the extra green growth abobe ground down to gererate growth below the ground??

Ellen Peavey
4/19/2012 12:31:02 AM
When hilling up potato's how much of the top can stick out or does the whole plant have to be covered? Thanks Ellen from Georgia

4/18/2012 10:48:12 AM
I have been growing 2000 to 3000 lb of spuds for more than 10 years. I have tried over 80 varieties and I think this year we grew 8 different types. About fish meal I think it makes the spuds scaby, but the way they make it in the reduction plant here in Prince Rupert it's just made from fish waste ie. Scales gills guts and bones.

4/15/2012 7:37:49 PM
I live in Port Perry, Ontario, Canada, and tried potatoes for the first time last year. After doing a little research I decided to try growing potatoes in bags. I purchased gigantic fancy vegetable growing bags from the garden centre for half the spuds, and the other half I put into regular sized fabric store bags (about 1/3 the size). I put about 4" of peat moss into each bag, then the potato, then more peat moss. Once the potatoes started growing I filled up the bags to the top with store bought compost and put them in full sun. No addional effort required. I watered the large containers about once a week, the smaller ones twice, since they dried out faster. The potato plants were large and strong and did not require any support. They were also bug free, despite the fact that the neighbor stopped growing potatoes because of bugs. The yield was the same in the large and small bags, with several large medium and small potatoes in each bag. I didn't know that potatoes are heavy feeders, so this year I'll feed, so should have a better yield. And the best thing about the bags: you can move them! :)

Cindy Kennedy
2/21/2012 1:23:29 AM
When using the 'stack' method, be sure to use a rich mixture of COMPOST, soil, and straw. After about 10-12 inches of new plant growth, add another 6 inches of the compost/soil/straw blend. Now, that several leaf nodes are under the soil, new potatoes will begin to grow out along the plant's buried leaf nodes. Usually the 'stack' will reach 18 inches, or more, in 3+ months. Repeat this process for at least 3 months before beginning to harvest. Potatoes should NEVER HAVE SUNLIGHT on them or they will turn green and NOT be good to eat. Keep an eye on the soil surface, and add smaller amount of compost as needed. DO NOT let the soil get dry or soggy. You'll have to experiment with what the water needs are for your potatoes based on soil content, heat, and wind. I use a slow drip from above my 'stack'. *** I was taught to use seed potatoes that have 2-3 'good' eyes that are visible when you buy them. Good means that you can see a small whitish bud that has broken the surface. Be careful not to break off that bud. Keep cool until a week or two before planting. I cut sections so that there are 2 eyes in a chunk about the size of a large chicken egg. Then, I let the cut surface area dry in open air for 3-4 days, usually outside in the shade on the patio. This will help prevent the potato from rotting in the soil. Space the chunks about 8-10 inches apart in the soil. Have fun, and remember you may have to experiment a few time to get it right !

5/31/2011 3:59:20 PM
Hi, I've never planted potatoes before, it's too late to plant now, nut I'm going to get the garden beds ready for next year :) And I was wondering how far apart I should plant them and if it's ok if they're damp or should they be dried out, after they've wakened from dormancy? Thank you

5/2/2011 7:59:03 PM
I haven't planted potatoes before, but this year I bought some organic seed potatoes (there were no planting instructions on or w/the bag, but the person who sold them to me told me to put them out in the sun to encourage sprouting, which I've done for about 1 1/2 weeks...it doesn't seem to have encouraged more sprouts, actually). I know that you need at least one eye on each piece that you plant, but will a potato w/just one very small eye produce if you stick it in the ground whole? And when cutting one up, do you need to let the cut edges dry out before you plant them? Also, how far apart do you space the pieces? Do they need to be watered until they sprout, like seeds, or do you just bury them and wait for the plant to emerge?Sorry so many questions; thanks in advance for any help!

Izzy Lou
4/22/2010 10:34:01 PM
Hi Everyone: Could someone tell me why you would plant potatoes and cover the stalks as they grow? My family was famous for their potato farm and I have never heard of the stalks sprouting roots or shoots which bear more potatoes. In my experience the new grow from the seed potato and its nutrients, hilling simply keeps the new from reaching the light, which of course causes them go turn green. This idea is very new to me. Thank you.

Dawn Pfahl
12/5/2009 6:01:14 PM
Pat: In my experience a potato will grow just fine with only a half-day of sun. My yard gets sun from 11am to 4pm or so (slightly later in the summer) and the tater I planted last year on a whim didn't seem to suffer. I'm going to try using a big straw/mulch hill this year to see how it goes - I'm hopeful, because I love the versatility of potatoes in the kitchen!

ann _1
6/27/2009 9:19:27 PM
Hey Andria. I do the same to those colorado beetles. I just shake the plant a little and go around stomping them all. (Daily) I plant my potatoes in deep hills about 8 inches deep and then I make a mountain of soil of top. They love all that dirt. I planted pontiac reds and yukon golds this year. Im getting ready to dig them up this week. I can my potatoes, Im interested does anyone else do that?

4/25/2009 6:04:21 AM
I've got kennebec's, red pontiac's and swedish fingerlings growing in raised beds. I've been growing spuds for four years now and they have done great except for last year. Last year I figured i'd grow a tall crop with the low potatoes. I chose sunflowers, BAD choice. I didn't know until harvest time that sunflowers are toxic to potatoes. Bummer man! Ken

Pat Snyder_3
4/9/2009 8:06:18 AM
Dear Sirs: I have a question. I want to plant my potatoes on the west side of my garade - so they would only get a half days sun. Is this enough to grow potatoes?

3/27/2009 10:25:51 PM
"Sure, potatoes are easy and fun to grow but they are high in carbohydrates and have little or no nutritional value otherwise. So, at least limit your intake of this and most types of "below ground" vegetables." As Sherrie noted above, this post is 100% nonsense. Besides the silly comments regarding potatoes, does Alex actually believe that carrots, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, celeriac, turnips, and beets have "...little or no nutritional value..."? Where on Earth are you getting your 'facts'? FYI, the only veg I can think of that has "...little or no nutitional value..." is the eggplant, sad to say. So eat your damn potatoes!

2/25/2009 11:27:59 AM
It's not true that potatoes are poor sources of nutrients: they have more potassium than bananas, and are also a good source of vitamin C, B6, and several trace minerals.

WENDY Rawady
4/24/2007 12:00:00 AM
We used to plant our potatoes in rich compost (almost a compost heap) of about 45 cm high on top of the ground with no digging. Put a tyre around each heap of seed potatoes. Then as the shoots appear, add a tyre and more of your mix and some blood and bone. More tyres. More soil and so on. As you need spuds, delve in and pick a few new ones but leave he plant growing. After the plants flower and wither, then you should be able to harvest many kilos of veges per tyre stack and it makes a good use for the tyres as well. It's also a good way of protecting the veges from kangaroo and rabbit attack and conserves water, important in Australia.

Alex Ross
4/7/2007 12:00:00 AM
Hello All,Sure, potatoes are easy and fun to grow but they are high in carbohydrates and have little or no nutritional value otherwise. So, at least limit your intake of this and most types of "below ground" vegetables.

B K- still a newbie
4/6/2007 12:00:00 AM
I tried a new technique last year with my potatoes- I used three 5 gal buckets. I planted about 6 pieces per bucket. I did soil in the bottom and then used straw on top of the plants as they emerged. I cut most of the bottom out of a bucket to put on top of the other bucket once the plant was close to that height. I did not have a huge yield, but I did have enough for 2 dinners of freshly grown 'new' taters! Yummmm! I think this year I am going to try it again, but instead of a 5 gal bucket, I'm going to use a 18 cu ft. round compost bin (I picked up a couple of these for $10 each thru my county environmental service).

ANDRIA Merritt
4/5/2007 12:00:00 AM
If you're new to planting potatoes (as I was last year) this may be helpful...When those reddish-brown slimy looking insects (maybe the Colorado potato beetle?) start chewing up your poor little plants, don't despair. Just pick them off, or squish them right then and there. Even if your plants get horribly chewed up, they can survive. Just try to get most of those buggers off your plants each day and soon you'll be enjoying those delicious homegrown spuds!

4/4/2007 12:00:00 AM
in the potato article you mention fish meal as organic fertilizer.With fish stocks in the oceans becoming exhausted that is very questionable.if used at all, (that is the first question) fish meal should go to aquaculture, to feeding carnivore and fish not directly to fertilizing soil.Aquaponics give a way to combine both: use fish meal to raise fish, use the nutrients excreted by the fish to grow vegetables, possibly potatoes.greetingsfrank

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