You can absolutely plant potatoes in the fall no matter where you live. The real question to ask is: Will you actually be able to harvest tubers from fall-planted potatoes in the fall? The answer, of course, depends on where you live.
For those of us who live in warmer climates, the fall can actually be a more ideal time to grow potatoes than the hot summer months. We can dig up our spuds before the arrival of cold weather and enjoy homegrown potatoes all winter long.
In colder climates, you might plant potatoes in the fall the same way you would garlic. You’re not going to be harvesting these roots anytime soon. Instead, you’re giving the potato plants time to settle in underground. As soon as the soil warms in early spring, those plants will really take off.
Let’s look at the two different types of fall potato planting in more detail.
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PLANTING POTATOES IN THE FALL IN WARMER CLIMATES
Potatoes are a cool-to-warm-season crop. For most home gardeners, that means planting them in the spring and harvesting them in late summer. This is why potatoes are often considered a quintessential summer crop.
If, however, you live somewhere that has a really hot summer, you’re better off growing your potatoes in the spring and fall (the same goes for the flashier vining cousin of the humble potato: tomato).
Tips to Plant Fall Potatoes in Warmer Climates
Follow these tips to ensure your fall round of potatoes is a success.
Tip #1: Count Backward from Your First Frost Date to Determine Planting Time
Look up when your average first frost of the season is in your area. Count backward 60 to 75 days. This is when you should get your sprouted potatoes in the ground so that they’re ready to harvest before the arrival of cold temps. For those of us in the greater Austin area (8b), that planting deadline is mid-September. If you live in zones 9 or 10, you can go a little later.
Tip #2: Plant Early Potato Varieties
You likely won’t have 75 to 100 days for Russet Burbank potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes to take their sweet time growing. Look for fast-growing types of potatoes that are ready to harvest in 12 weeks or less. These are typically called early potatoes.
Dark Red Norland potatoes, for example, are ready to harvest in just 60 to 75 days, or even sooner if you want delicious new potatoes.
Speaking of new potatoes, just about any potato variety can be harvested early. Make sure to handle these baby potatoes extra carefully since they’re pretty delicate (you know, like babies).
Dig them up with your fingers and then enjoy them as soon as possible. What they lack in long-term storage ability, they’ll make up for in extra tenderness and creaminess compared to their full-grown counterparts.
Tip #3: Use Whole Potatoes for Fall Planting
Normally, you’d cut potatoes into 1-inch pieces called seed pieces for planting. In the fall, it’s better to use small whole potatoes without cutting, even if each potato has several eyes. A whole potato is less likely to rot in the heat of early fall or late summer.
Tip #4: Harvest Before the Arrival of Frost
If you see that a heavy frost is in the forecast, it’s a good idea to grab your pitchfork and start digging up those potatoes before the freeze hits. You would normally wait until you see the leaves of your potato plants turn brown and dry up, but it’s okay to harvest early. Your tubers will likely have formed by then, but they might not have had time to grow to their full size and thicken up their skins. If that’s the case, then you’ll have a bunch of baby potatoes, aka new potatoes, that you can enjoy ASAP.
PLANTING POTATOES IN THE FALL IN COLDER CLIMATES
Potatoes can successfully overwinter in the garden as long as you have sufficiently cold temps. (You don’t want your soil to warm up in January and the plants to think it’s time to start growing.) In fact, getting potatoes in the ground in the fall the way you’d handle garlic has a number of advantages over waiting for the spring. These advantages include:
- A head start on the growing season – Like garlic, potatoes planted in the fall will spend the winter getting their roots established. As soon as the soil warms up in the spring (above 50°F), those potatoes are ready to grow. Not only will they pop up sooner, they’ll also grow faster thanks to their strong root system. That means you’ll likely already have mature plants before common potato pests like cutworms show up to cause problems.
- Better planting conditions – April showers might bring May flowers, but they can also create wet, waterlogged soil that will cause your seed potatoes to rot. Many gardeners have to wait until their soil dries out a bit to plant potatoes during rainy springs. Since the fall season is often drier, you’re not likely to be prevented from planting by heavy rains. You also don’t have to worry about waiting until the soil is workable to plant them.
- An earlier harvest time – If you plant sooner, you get to harvest sooner, just like with fall- versus spring-planted garlic. You might even have time to plant a second round of early potatoes before your first frost date.
In case you’re wondering, the reason you can leave potatoes in the ground over winter is because potatoes are actually perennial plants, as any gardener who’s accidentally left a couple spuds in the ground and created their own little potato patch the next season knows.
Tips to Plant Fall Potatoes in Colder Climates
Keep these tips in mind to get your potatoes set up for a cozy little winter underground, followed by a super productive spring growing season.
Tip #1: Sprout Your Own Potatoes for Planting
You’re not likely to find seed potatoes at your local nursery in the fall, but that’s nothing to worry about. You can plant potatoes that sprouted in your pantry over the warm summer months, or you can prepare small organic potatoes from the grocery store. (Non-organic potatoes will likely have been sprayed with growth inhibitor, so you might have trouble trying to sprout them.)
Just spread your potatoes out on a tray and place them somewhere warm with bright indirect light (like by a window or on a covered patio) for up to 2 weeks before planting them.
Tip #2: Use Whole Potatoes for Planting
Instead of cutting potatoes into smaller pieces for planting, you’ll want to keep potatoes whole if you’re planting them in the fall. Cut potatoes are more likely to rot in the ground over winter than whole potatoes.
Tip #3: Get Potatoes in the Ground Before the First Frost
The best time for fall planting is just before your first frost of the fall or winter. Obviously, you’ll need to be able to dig in the ground before it freezes over.
Tip #4: Plant Potatoes Deep in the Ground
You’ll need to plant in the ground instead of in raised beds, containers, or grow bags. That’s because your spuds will need all the insulated protection that layers and layers of earth can offer them. Aim to plant each little potato about 8 to 10 inches deep to keep them warm.
Tip #5: Cover the Potato Planting Area in Mulch or Leaves
You want to create a nice layer of protection from heavy rain and snow for your potatoes—but not a thick enough layer that potatoes stay warm and think it’s spring already. Fallen leaves are a great mulch for your potato bed.
You can add a layer over the soil surface; you can even pack leaves, pine needles, and grass clippings around the potatoes when you’re planting them. This organic material will break down in the spring and help to spur early growth. Make sure to keep the area weeded.
HOW TO PLANT POTATOES IN THE FALL
Whether you hope to harvest your potatoes before Thanksgiving or you’re tucking your potatoes in for a long winter nap, make sure to prioritize sunlight hours during the season when your plants will be actively growing aboveground.
The spot you select for your potatoes should get full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day). Your plants won’t have enough energy to form tubers underground if they get too much shade aboveground.
Follow these steps to plant potato tubers in the fall.
Step One: Prep the Planting Area
Add a balanced organic fertilizer to the soil. Potatoes like well-drained soil, so you might need to amend your native soil if you’re growing in the ground (which is recommended for potatoes that will be overwintering).
Add some compost and coarse sand to the top 12 inches or so of your native soil to improve the drainage. Break up any large soil clumps and remove any rocks from the planting area to make it nice and easy on your potato plants to spread underground.
Step Two: Dig a Trench
Dig a trench in the ground about 12 inches deep to loosen up the soil and then backfill about 2 to 4 inches.
Step Three: Place Whole Potatoes in the Trench
Place each potato with an eye pointing up. Space potatoes about 12 inches apart.
Step Four: Cover
Cover your potatoes with a couple inches of soil and organic matter like leaves and pine needles. If your potatoes are staying here for the winter, go ahead and completely cover the trench. If your potatoes will be harvested before frost, you can leave some room at the top so that you can add more compost as the potatoes grow.
Step Five: Water
Give your little potatoes a deep watering in to welcome them to their new underground home.
HOW TO CARE FOR FALL-PLANTED POTATOES
Once your potatoes begin multiplying underground, your main tending tasks include hilling, fertilizing, and watering.
Push more soil and compost around the base of the plants when sprouts are about 4 to 6 inches above the soil. If you can see parts of a potato emerging from the soil surface, be sure to cover it up with more soil. Exposure to light will turn potatoes green, which is not what you want. A little green can be peeled away, but lots of green isn’t healthy.
Give your potato plants a fertilizer side dressing when their aboveground growth is 6 to 8 inches tall, and water it in. (Side dressing just means to add fertilizer around the stems of the plant.)
Monitor the moisture level of the soil once your potatoes pop up, especially if you’re growing during the dry fall. Potato plants need consistent soil moisture to grow nice tubers; too much water, though, can cause the roots to rot underground. Aim to give your plants 1 to 2 inches of water per week; if you’re short on rainfall, supplement by hand watering.
HOW TO HARVEST FALL-PLANTED POTATOES
Use a pitch fork or shovel to dig up your mature potatoes if the top of the plant has died back at the end of the season. If you’re having to harvest early due to an upcoming hard frost, use your fingers to dig around the delicate little tubers instead since their skin won’t have had time to thicken up yet.
Start at the outer edge of the plant and work your way in, following the underground stems, to avoid piercing any tubers. Any potatoes that are damaged during harvest will spoil quickly. With any luck, you’ll get 5 to 6 healthy potatoes from each potato you planted.
If you miss your window for fall planting, you can always get your potatoes in the ground next spring. Potatoes are such a fun crop to grow in cool weather, and the potatoes you pull from your own garden are always extra yummy. You’ll enjoy them even more if you’re getting to harvest at a time when your neighbors aren’t even thinking of having homegrown taters!
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or if you’ve had success planting potatoes in the fall!