Potato-Hilling Method for Northern Gardeners

Reader Contribution by Ron Melchiore
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We get lots of these
Photo by Ron Melchoire

In conjunction with our recently published book, The Self-Sufficient Backyard (in Mother Earth News Store), we’ve been making short videos of how we do things around the homestead. One of the things generating interest is how we grow potatoes.

Our Method for Growing Potatoes

I know everybody has their methods for growing potatoes from covering them in hay, planting them in barrels, buckets, grow bags and the list goes on. For over 40 years, we’ve planted potatoes only one way. Why change when we have been so successful. Success for us is measured in the consistent size and quantity of potatoes a hill produces year in and year out.

Roughly 400 pounds of root-cellared potatoes
Photo by Ron Melchoire

Although we have not weighed our potato harvests, it’s safe to say we lug bucket after bucket down to the root cellar and inventory close to 400 pounds. We always have several buckets of small potatoes set aside for seed for the following year. Seed size is roughly the size of a golf ball, perhaps a tad larger.

Potatoes ready for the root cellar
Photo by Ron Melchoire.

We will plant potatoes only one way: in a traditional row that is hilled up multiple times. We’ll start by defining our row with a couple of stakes and a string. The stakes are banged into the ends of the row and string tied between to use as a guide making it easier to hoe a straight furrow.

Planting seed potatoes
Photo by Ron Melchoire

A furrow roughly 3 inches deep is made using a hoe and the seed is set in the furrow roughly 10 to 12 inches apart. We’ll let the sun warm the seed and soil for a few hours and then we’ll cover the furrow back up.

Weeks later after the potato has sprouted above the soil, we’ll come by and hoe soil on top completely covering the new plant. We don’t worry about killing the plant. It will emerge again. Once it has, we’re more aggressive about hilling up soil from both sides of the plant row and burying the plant again. The tuber will bust through the soil once more. With our hoe, we’ll take soil from each side of the row and bury it a third and final time.

We now have a nice straight row of potatoes that have been hilled up. The base of our row should be at least 20 inches across and the hill should be roughly 9 inches tall. It’s very important we have a good mound of soil. We will be growing many, large potatoes come fall and if some potatoes outgrow our hill, they’ll be susceptible to sun burn and greening.

I think covering the emerging plants make them mad and more determined to grow. We like to have mad, determined potato plants. Not to worry though our plants don’t stay mad at us for long and they reward us with strong healthy, plants and good eating tubers.

One of many buckets of potatoes
Photo by Ron Melchoire

Now we monitor daily. We are looking for insect damage and any indications of fungal problems. Depending on the insects, it might be as simple as plucking a few beetles off or a shot of insecticidal soap or BT. Fungal might be as simple as removing and burning a few leaves or a shot of a fungicide like copper or sulfur. Sulfur would be our first choice.

Good News From Our Orchard

While we’re chatting here, I thought we might update you on our orchard we’ve talked about in previous posts. In our last post, we explained the pitfalls we’ve dealt with over the years establishing our orchards. We expressed hope that the trees planted last spring would flower this year and give us some fruit.

One of 12 flowering apple trees
Photo by Ron Melchoire

It is thrilling to see twelve trees in bloom laden with lots of flowers this spring. How much fruit sets will be the million dollar question. The trees are still young and many flower clusters are on the branch tips so we want to limit production to a degree. Once we actually see small apples forming, we will probably limit each tree to a dozen apples this year.

We’ll remove the least desirable apples and leave only a small percent of the best looking apples so the trees continue to put energy into growth and root systems. Keep in mind, many of these trees were just planted last spring so we don’t want to stress them with their first fruiting. We are expecting substantial, vigorous growth and it’s important to us we don’t rush the fruit production. It is a balance between our age, ( we aren’t spring chickens) our desire for a root cellar overflowing with apples and what’s best for long term interest of the trees. What good would it do to have every branch laden with so much fruit that ultimately it breaks off from too much weight and damages the tree? So we will be patient and smart about this.

We are currently shooting video of our homestead and hope to have a virtual tour movie for people to view since it’s nice to talk about all these things but better still, to actually see them from a camera’s perspective. In the meantime, in our next chat, we’ll give you our experiences with root cellars of all kinds.


Ron Melchioreand his wife Johanna are currently building a new homestead on the coast of Nova Scotia. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published byMoon Willow Pressand is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ron and Johanna are the authors ofThe Self-sufficient Backyard: For the Independent Homesteader. Connect with Ron at In the Wildernessand onFacebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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