Potatoes are a popular food—per the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, potatoes are one of the world’s staple crops, with over 375 million metric tons of potatoes being grown annually around the world. It’s easy to see why potatoes are so widely cultivated: in addition to being delicious when well-prepared, they’re also relatively easy to grow, very nutritious, and offer a high yield for the space they consume. Growing potatoes at home is within the reach of most gardeners, so let’s dig in and learn about growing potatoes in the home garden, some tips and tricks for growing the best potatoes you can, and a bit about the plant itself.
Why Grow Potatoes at Home?
Let’s start with a fundamental question—why should you grow potatoes at home? Originally domesticated in the Andes Mountains of South America, potatoes have been adapted to grow all over the world. This means that they’re generally fairly cheap in most grocery stores worldwide, which might seem like a good reason to skip them in the garden. However, growing potatoes at home will give you potatoes that are far more flavorful and nutritious than the ones you can by in the store. It will also allow you to grow different varieties of potatoes than the ones you might find commercially available. There are around 4,000 different varietals of potatoes grown around the world, with only a small handful finding their way to our supermarkets. By growing your own potatoes in your garden, you can explore a broader variety of plants and discover new colors, flavors, and textures for your kitchen.
How to Grow Potatoes
The good news—with so many varietals and such a long history of cultivation, there’s bound to be a potato variety that works in your space. The tricky part comes in finding the right variety for you, and the right way to grow them in the space you have.
Let’s start by selecting a variety of potatoes. Generally speaking, its easiest to contact your local garden club or agricultural extension and ask which varietals grow best in your region. Another good idea is checking local garden stores—they probably sell “seed potatoes”, which tiny, still growing potato tubers that when planted grow into the full sized plant. (NB: You can grow potatoes from seeds, but that’s a lot more difficult and most gardeners and farmers use seed potatoes.) You can try growing grocery store potatoes, as well—if a potato has started to put out “eyes”, you can cut that potato into chunks and just plant it like you would a seed potato. Leave plenty of potato around each eye—at least 1”/3cm square should do it.
Making things a bit more complicated, cooks and chefs class potatoes as either “mealy/dry-fleshed” or “waxy”. Mealy potatoes are best for baking, frying, or mashing; the always popular Russet potato is a mealy or dry-fleshed potato. The inner flesh of these potato tubers breaks down well while cooking, making them great for mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, and french fries. Waxy potatoes, on the other hand, have a more solid flesh that holds together while cooking. This makes them a bit better for soups, stews, stir fries, and potato salads. There are some all-purpose potatoes, like the ever-popular Yukon Gold, that can do both jobs well. Which varietal you select for you kitchen just depends on how you like to cook.
With all that out of the way, let’s talk about planting and growing potatoes at home. In general, you’ll want to plant most varieties of potatoes as soon as the soil warms, so keep an eye on local conditions and how your garden is warming up in the spring. If you’re planting in the ground, plant seed potatoes or cut potatoes about four inches/10cm deep with the eye facing up so that it has an easier time growing to the surface. Plant your potatoes roughly 10-12 inches/25-30cm apart, with rows roughly 30-36 inches/75-90cm apart. Potatoes like moist, loose, rich soil, but can grow under a wide swath of conditions depending on varietal. When the green plant starts to emerge from the soil, it’s time to “hill” your potatoes by pilling up more loose soil around the stem. This will push the stem to grow taller, increasing your potato output along the way and making harvesting a bit easier. You’ll want to hill your potatoes gradually, adding soil after the stem reaches about a foot tall and continuing until you have about 8-10 inches of hill around it.
Growing Potatoes in Containers
So far so good—but what about container gardens? Many of us don’t have an in-ground garden for potatoes, so can we still grow them? The answer is yes! Potatoes actually grow quite well in containers. The green foliage is quite a lovely plant with beautiful flowers, and it looks good on a patio or in a container garden.
You can grow potatoes in any large container—we recommend 5 gallons as a minimum. Fill the container roughly halfway with soil, plant your potatoes as we explained above, and then mound soil as the plant grows until the container is full. When harvest time comes, you’ll have to dump the soil out of the container or dig through it to find your crop. An easier way, however, is to use a specially designed potato bag, which is a container designed for growing potatoes. Made with breathable fabric, it will help prevent root binding, help keep your soil moist, and make it easy to locate your potatoes where they’ll get the best sun/shade for that varietal. The Velcro window on the side makes harvesting easy—gently open it up, and pull out your potatoes! You can harvest as the plant grows, making it easier to keep your plant thriving and productive all season long.
Caring for and Harvesting Potatoes
Potatoes are relatively hardy plants, but as history has shown some pests can wreck havoc in a potato garden. In most climates, potatoes like about 1 inch/2.5cm of water a week, although they make take more if it’s especially hot or dry. Moisture stress can cause anemic, hollow tubers or a complete lack of tuber production, while too much moisture can lead to mold and rotting potato tubers. Keep your soil loose, moist, but not soaked.
Weeds do not help your potatoes thrive, and in a home garden we recommend hand-weeding whenever possible. Using a hoe or other tool can damage the roots and tubers of the plant if we’re not careful. Likewise, keep an eye out for insect pests like cut worms or the infamous Colorado potato beetle, which can decimate a potato crop fairly quickly. Good mulch, weed management, and careful monitoring can help keep pests away, as can regular application of an organic pesticide like neem oil.
Harvesting potatoes is a fairly easy affair—when the green tops of the plants begin to die back, it’s time to harvest (although as we discussed above you can pull some small potatoes every now and then without harming the plant). How you harvest potatoes depends on how you grow them—in the ground, you’ll want to dig them out by hand carefully to avoid damaging the tubers. In containers, you can either pull the whole plant, separate the tubers, and recover the soil later or use the Velcro window depending on the kind of container in question.
Regardless of how and what kind of potatoes you choose, we really hope you’ll consider growing them at home. They’re fun and attractive plants and can be surprisingly productive in the garden, so no matter what kind of space you have, consider giving potatoes a try this year!