Homegrown potatoes are excellent. I know we say this about all homegrown produce, but it’s true! Grocery store potatoes just don’t hold a candle to the dirt-covered spuds you pull up yourself after months of waiting and wondering what’s happening underground.
Before we get into our potato growing guide, let’s do a quick anatomy lesson. Potatoes are not roots; they’re actually offshoots of stems called tubers. The part that we eat is basically the storage unit of the plant, which means each little potato is chock full of vitamins and minerals when prepared right.
Quick PSA, folks: Eat the potato’s skin to maximize the nutritional benefits.
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POTATO GROWING SEASON
You might think of potatoes as quintessential summer crops, but potatoes and their cousins, tomatoes, are actually best grown in the spring and fall if you have a really hot summer like we do.
Potatoes are a cool-to-warm-season crop, and that means mid-February to March (around the time of our last frost date) is the best time to plant seed potatoes in warmer climates like ours. Don’t worry if we get a late frost once your potatoes are already in the ground. The warmer soil temperature will protect them.
You can also plant potatoes for a fall crop. You’ll want to get them in the ground by mid- to late August so that you can harvest tubers before the arrival of cold temps.
Central Texas Monthly Planting Guide
Take all the guesswork out of your seasonal planting.
WHERE TO GROW POTATOES IN THE HOME GARDEN
You have three potential locations for growing potatoes: a raised garden bed, a container, or in the ground.
Potato plants take up a lot of space both above and below the soil, so if you’re interested in growing potatoes in a raised bed, you’ll most likely need to just make that entire space your potato bed for the season.
If you happen to receive a lot of rain during the growing season, potatoes will appreciate the good drainage that raised beds provide.
Potatoes have a fairly shallow root system for large plants, which means they can grow well in containers such as barrels, buckets, or large grow sacks—just make sure your container has at least one good drainage hole so that excess water can leave the container. Something that’s 18 inches deep or so will allow you to fill the container with about 15 inches of soil and leave a couple inches to mound up the soil around potato stems as they grow later.
Potatoes appreciate well-drained soil. Fill your container with equal parts topsoil, compost, and construction sand (which is coarser than play sand).
Container growing is my favorite method for potatoes.
In the Ground
If you have space, growing potatoes in the ground is another option. Potato plants don’t love the heavy clay soil we tend to have here in Central Texas, so you might need to amend your native soil before planting.
Even if you haven’t done a soil test to determine your exact soil type, just assume you’ll need to add more organic matter first. Compost and some coarse sand mixed into the top 12 inches or so of your native soil will cover your organic matter needs and improve the drainage.
While you’re amending your soil, break up any large soil clumps and remove any rocks from the planting area to make it easy on your potato plants to spread underground.
DO POTATO PLANTS NEED FULL SUN?
Potatoes need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Make sure you are planting in a sunny location. Some shade is okay, but too much shade means your plants won’t have enough energy to form nice potato tubers for you.
POTATO VARIETIES THAT GROW WELL IN CENTRAL TEXAS
I like the seed potatoes from Renee’s Garden. They allow you to mix and match varieties, and their selections are all resistant to common potato diseases and fungal infections.
Yukon Gem is a crowd favorite to be sure! The buttery-yellow flesh is delicious baked, boiled, mashed, or fried.
Huckleberry Gold, a low glycemic potato, is an excellent choice for those who need to watch their carb intake. It has a beautiful purple skin and golden flesh, both rich with antioxidants.
Colorado Rose is a good option for roasting and steaming. This type of potato gives higher yields and stores really well.
Dark Red Norland potatoes are ready to harvest in just 60 to 75 days, or even sooner if you want delicious baby potatoes.
Kennebec is a super easy-to-grow variety that’s known for being extra yummy. Because its skin bruises easily, it’s not shipped long distances commercially, so you’ll just have to grow your own to experience this one.
Russet Burbank is the spud you want if your comfort food is a good ol’ baked potato.
HOW TO PREPARE POTATOES FOR GROWING
These four steps might seem like a lot of extra work when you’re used to just opening up a package of seeds, but trust us, it’s fun to sprout and prepare potatoes. And the results are more than worth it!
Step One: Buy Seed Potatoes
Potatoes grow from small potatoes, or pieces of larger ones. I don’t recommend using potatoes from the grocery store, which have been treated with sprout inhibitors. It’s best to buy certified seed potatoes from local nurseries or garden centers. You could try an organic potato from the store, but for the best yields, I would just grab some seed potatoes intended for growing.
Step Two: Chit Potatoes
Once you have your seed potatoes, you can encourage them to sprout via chitting. Just spread the seed 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. Sprouting your potatoes this way gives them a quicker start, but skipping this step will still get you potatoes.
Step Three: Cut Potatoes into Planting Pieces
Once you see little sprouts, it’s time to cut ‘em up. Smaller potatoes can be left whole, but larger ones should be carefully cut into about 1-inch wide or larger pieces. Make sure each piece you cut has 2 or 3 eyes (sprouts). These are the parts that will grow new potatoes for you.
Step Four: Cure
Leave potatoes to air dry for 2 to 3 days. This process, called curing, allows the cuts to dry and callous over. Now they’re ready for planting!
Fall planting tip: Only use small whole potatoes without cutting to prevent them from rotting in the heat.
HOW TO PLANT POTATOES
Planting potatoes is a little different than sowing some seeds. This is a great time to get your kids involved—hand them a shovel and get them to work!
Step One: Prep the Planting Area
Add a balanced organic fertilizer to the soil.
Step Two: Dig a Trench
Dig a trench that’s about 12 inches deep if you’re growing in the ground to loosen up the soil and then backfill about 4 to 6 inches. If you’re growing in raised beds or a container, the soil should hopefully already be nice and loose, so you can just dig about 4 to 6 inches down.
Step Three: Place Seed Potatoes in the Trench
Place each seed potato with the cut side facing down and the eye pointing up. If you’re planting in a big container, you can space seed pieces about 10 inches apart. In the ground or in a raised garden bed, give your potatoes about 12 inches in between. Note: Potatoes planted closer together will produce smaller potatoes.
Step Four: Cover
Cover your seed pieces with a couple inches of soil, but don’t fill that trench all the way back up yet. You’ll return as the potatoes are growing to cover them up more and more.
Step Five: Water
Give your little potato pieces a deep watering in to welcome them to their new underground home. We’ll go over water requirements in the tending section.
HOW TO CARE FOR POTATO PLANTS
There are three main tending tasks required of you while your potatoes are multiplying underground: hilling, fertilizing, and watering. Also, keep in mind that the top of the plant (the potato leaves) are not frost hardy, so be prepared to cover should a freeze strike.
When sprouts have grown about 4 to 6 inches above the soil, you’ll start doing something called hilling. This just means you’ll carefully add more soil and compost around the base of the plant. Think about making little mounds around each plant stem to give them support.
Repeat this process every so often, until the top of the container or raised bed is reached. New potatoes grow along the stems above the original piece that you planted, so you want to make sure that all that goodness happening underground stays underground.
If potatoes show up at the surface, be sure to cover them 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 (on potatoes, that is).
For a more vigorous, healthy plant, give it a fertilizer side dressing when it’s 6 to 8 inches high, and water it in. (Side dressing just means to add fertilizer around the stems of the plant.)
If Mother Nature doesn’t give you enough water each week from rainfall, then your most important task will be monitoring the moisture level of the soil and making sure your plants get plenty of water.
Potato plants need consistent soil moisture to grow nice potatoes. This can be a little tricky, so let’s look at watering in more detail.
HOW MUCH WATER DO POTATOES NEED TO GROW?
Here’s why the amount of water can be tricky: Too little water, and potatoes will shrivel up. But too much water, and the potatoes can split or divide into multi-lump tubers. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, they can also begin to rot or mold underground if the soil holds too much moisture for long periods of time.
Start by using a rain gauge to keep track of your weather conditions. Your plants will need 1-2 inches of water per week, so if you’re short on rainfall, supplement by hand watering. (Drip irrigation systems also work great.)
Instead of frequent watering, give the plants a deep watering and then wait so that you feel dry soil at the top before you water potato plants again. Make sure to aim water at the soil surface just over the roots, never on the leaves of the plant.
DO ALL POTATO PLANTS FLOWER?
Flowering potatoes?! Yup, just like tomatoes and peppers, potato plants can form pretty white or purple flowers when the plants are mature and thinking about potato seed production. These flowers attract pollinators and can potentially form little fruits, called potato berries, that look slightly like green tomatoes. (Make sure your kids know not to eat these.)
Even though the pollinators like these flowers, I recommend cutting them off as a way of telling the plant to focus its energy on forming more tubers instead of going to seed.
WHEN TO HARVEST POTATOES
The typical growing period for potatoes is about 3 to 4 months, depending on whether you pre-sprouted them. Early potatoes can be ready for harvest in as little as 60 days from planting, while other varieties might take upwards of 100 days to mature.
Baby or “new” potatoes can be harvested sooner, by gently unearthing them with your fingers. Young potatoes will have delicate skin that can rub off with your thumb.
When the potato plant tops begin to turn yellow, die back, and flop over, don’t panic! That’s your sign that your potatoes are just about ready. You’re actually going to stop watering your potato plants at this point. From the moment the leaves start turning yellow, you’re about 2 to 3 weeks away from harvest time, and you want the tubers to thicken their skins.
You can check if your potatoes are ready by digging up one tuber and seeing if the skin is set and firm. Wait for a dry day to harvest for best results; harvesting in wet soil can cause your potato crop to rot later.
HOW TO HARVEST POTATOES
The best way to harvest container-grown potatoes is to spread out a tarp and gently dump the entire container over.
Potatoes in raised beds or the ground can be dug up using a pitch fork or shovel. Start at the outer edge of the plant and work your way in to avoid piercing any tubers. It’s a good idea to use your hands or a small spade when you get really close to the buried treasure. Unfortunately, any potatoes that are damaged during harvest will spoil quickly.
With any luck, you’ll get 5 to 6 healthy potatoes from each potato piece you planted.
HOW TO STORE POTATOES
Do not wash your potatoes! Dry them on the porch for a few days, brush off any loose soil, and store them in a cool, dark place; avoid high humidity. Check them once in a while to ensure they’re staying fresh—or cook them up right away because you’re bursting with pride and can’t wait to display your tuberous triumph at the table!
LETTUCE HELP YOU GROW YOUR FAVORITE VEGGIES
If you would like some help (or some extra muscle), we are here for you. From one-on-one coaching to turn-key garden installations, we’ve got you and your tuber-growing aspirations covered. We love helping home gardeners of all levels grow!
Happy gardening, folks!