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There may be no veggie as perfect as a potato. Versatile, easy to store, and actually pretty healthy, potatoes are delicious mashed, baked, and fried, in soups, in salads, and as side dishes, and are just as at home on weeknights as they are at holiday dinners. In fact there are crowd-pleasing potato recipes for every occasion.
So if you're planning a vegetable garden, you probably want to try planting a few. Fortunately they're difficult to grow. Potatoes thrive in raised beds, in tilled ground, and even in container gardens, so they're a fun edible to grow for beginners and experienced gardeners alike.
Here's how to grow spuds in your own back yard:
Exposure: Full sun (6 or more hours per day)
When to plant: Early spring, as soon as the ground is 45°F. Typically mid-March to early summer, depending on your growing zone.
Pests and diseases to watch out for: Flea beetles, Colorado potato beetles, scab
How to Plant Potatoes
Potatoes are planted from "seed potatoes." You can buy these from a nursery or plant store, but any spud that starts growing eyes will work.
A week or two before you want to plant, simply set a few potatoes out somewhere warmish and sunny, and wait for them to sprout. Once sprouted, cut the spud into two inch or larger chunks, making sure each has at least one or two “eyes” or buds. You can also plant the whole potato.
When planting, you want loose, fertile soil that drains well. Raised beds or containers are great for this. Otherwise, make sure to till your potato beds thoroughly. Dig holes 4-6 inches deep and space plants 10-12 inches apart. Place each seedling in a hole with the eye facing up. Cover the piece with two to three inches of soil. Add the more soil, "hilling" around the plant, as the whenever the vines grow about six to eight inches.
How to Plant Potatoes in a Container
Use a large container. A five or even 10 gallon bucket is ideal, but containers should be at least two feet deep. Place four to six inches of soil in the bottom of the container, then add your sprouted potato, then add two to three more inches of soil. Continue to add soil (as above) as the plant grows. Remember: you want the potatoes to stay in the dark! Otherwise they will turn green, and can cause sickness if eaten. Container potatoes generally will be smaller and the yield slightly less.
How to Care for Potatoes
Potatoes tend to like mildly acidic soil so look for a basic balanced fertilizer or compost to add at planting time, and then give them regular water — typically this means about an inch of water per week. You want to keep plants consistently moist, especially when they're flowering, because this is when the tubers form. Avoid adding too much nitrogen, as this will cause lush foliage, but smaller tubers. If any potatoes pop out of the ground when growing, cover them up with soil to prevent them from turning green.
Can I Plant a Potato from the Supermarket?
You absolutely can grow potatoes from the store, but be aware that not every grocery store spud will sprout: Sometimes potatoes are treated with chemicals to inhibit sprouting. But we've all had a potato or two start to grow in the bin, so if you're not too worried about having a huge harvest and want to save a little money, this is is a great time to use that to your advantage.
If you want to ensure you're getting as many potatoes as possible, are looking to try an heirloom variety, or are worried about disease resistance, you should buy untreated "seed potatoes" at a nursery or online. (Burpee is a good resource.)
How Long Do Potatoes Take to Grow?
Potatoes grow quickly, maturing about three to four months after planting. Different types have different maturity times, so read the description so you'll have some idea about when your crop will be ready.
How to Harvest Potatoes
You can begin to harvest some as tender “new” potatoes about 60 days after the plants emerge, but leave the rest of the potatoes in ground for about two more weeks to cure. (The skin toughens up a bit and they’ll keep longer.) To harvest, use a small digging fork or spade to gently lift up and under the foliage at the edges of the plant, and begin to dig them out. When the vines have turned yellow and died back you can dig out the entire plant and collect any remaining potatoes. Any potatoes you bruise with your shovel should be eaten right away as they'll spoil the fastest.
Do I Need to Worry About Pests with Potatoes?
Though potato plants tend to be hearty, there are a few pests that you may need to deal with such as wire worms, aphids and Colorado potato beetles, which can decimate a crop almost overnight. (Here's what they look like.) The best pest control method is attention, so be sure to inspect your plants every few days.
Colorado potato beetles are your biggest enemy, emerging in late spring and early summer to munch on foliage. They are yellow-ish with black stripes, and the larvae, which are dark red or orange with black spots, also eat the potato foliage. Look on the underside of leaves, too, for their clusters of bright orange eggs. Flea beetles are minuscule black or brown bugs about the size of a sesame seed. They chew tiny holes in plant leaves and can kill young plants. Read the label of any pesticides you're considering to ensure they're safe on potato plants.
You should plan to rotate the types of products you use, to prevent pesticide resistance, which is common. For flea beetles, prevention is key: Use fabric row covers to protect young plants. Mature plants are less susceptible to their damage.
Otherwise, potatoes can surprise you with how quickly they take off!
“Planting in hills or long trenches and scooping soil on top in stages as they grow yields more potatoes,” says Colin McCrate, founder of Seattle Urban Farm Company, author of Food Grown Right in Your Own Backyard and High-Yield Vegetable Gardening, and producer of the Encyclopedia Botanica podcast. “Some people use straw instead of soil to top the plants as they grow. Tubers still set but they’re easier and cleaner to harvest.”
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