How to Grow Better Potatoes at Home

How to Grow Better Potatoes at Home

You probably like potatoes because they meld so well with other flavors: gravy, dairy, sauced vegetables and meats, chili and more. Here are 6 tips on growing your own potatoes at home. It’s so easy, and you’ll find varieties that need next to nothing else to taste fantastic.

In a post last year, we laid out the basic steps to growing your own potatoes indoors. It’s been one of our most popular posts, so we’re adding more tips for getting the best potato harvest, in the ground or in containers.

Some of this advice comes from an interview with Joey Baird of The Wisconsin Vegetable Gardener, which he runs with his wife, Holly. We recently ran a Q&A post with Joey on organic growing techniques, especially for indoor vegetable gardeners.

1. Try Grow Bags to Give Your Potato Plants Enough Room and Proper Drainage

Roots need oxygen just like you do, and they drown in water. So if you’re growing potatoes in containers that don’t normally have drainage — like a five-gallon plastic tub or a plastic fertilizer bag — puncture the bottom with enough holes to let excess water out.

This is especially important if your containers are outdoors where a sudden rain can soak them.

Joey Baird recommends fabric “grow bags,” which are porous so excess water seeps out easily.

“Seven- to 10-pound grow bags work very well,” he says. “Anything smaller can restrict the tuber development.”

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(For an excellent summary of different methods of growing your own potatoes,
read
this article from Rodale’s Organic Life. Author Doug Hall summarizes
seven growing methods and reports the results he got for each method.)

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2. Don’t Bother With Stones or Other Stuff on the Bottom of the Container

Joey uses strictly organic compost in his potato containers. Common advice is to put three to six inches of rocks, stones, broken terra cotta pots, etc., at the bottom of a potato container to improve drainage.

That’s a myth, Joey says: “You don’t want to do that because as you add material at the base of a container, you are raising up what will be the wettest part of the soil closer to the plant. So just fill it completely full of compost and the pot will drain perfectly fine.”

3. Use Fertilizer Rich in Phosphorus

You may come across blogs and publications that say you don’t need fertilizer for potatoes. Don’t believe it.

A National Gardening Association (NGA) article recommends that when planting potatoes, put down a small handful or two of compost every 10 or 12 inches, along with a small handful of superphosphate (0-20-0) or bone meal (2-11-0). This helps the root system develop quickly.

However, be careful that the seed potato doesn’t come into direct contact with the fertilizer. The NGA article says:

…cover the fertilizer with a couple of inches of soil. Looking down the row after this step you’ll see small mounds every foot or so.

When you plant each seed piece, put it at the edge of the fertilizer but not directly over it. Research has shown that the best placement for fertilizer is two inches to the side and slightly below the seed piece.

While you don’t have to be precise about this, it’s vital to keep the seed pieces from coming into contact with any commercial fertilizer, such as superphosphate or 10-10-10, if you use it. The fertilizer will burn the tender new roots that come in contact with it.

The Wisconsin Vegetable Gardener: Planting Potatoes in Grow Bags

4. Choose Potato Varieties Based on How You Like to Eat Them

A huge advantage to growing your own potatoes is trying new or rare varieties. But how do you know which to try? Wood Prairie Farms is well-known among potato growers for its high-quality seed potatoes. Read their guide “Potatoes in the Kitchen.”

The guide breaks down potato varieties into categories based on their general texture, firmness and moistness, and which cooking methods suit them best.

A couple of examples from the guide:

  • “Soft moist” varieties, such as Adirondack Red, All-Blue, and Cranberry Red, are good for steamed, sauteed, or au gratin potatoes.
  • “Firm dry” varieties, such as Red Cloud, Yukon Gold, and Island Sunshine, are best for baked, boiled or fried potatoes.

Joey Baird says he’s had excellent experience with Wood Prairie Farms seed potatoes. He recommends seed potatoes over planting potatoes sold in stores for eating, because good seed potatoes have been treated for some of the diseases that can afflict potatoes.

Joey says he’s also had success growing potatoes meant for eating. He cautions, however, that non-organic varieties usually take longer to sprout because they’ve been treated with chemicals to stop them from sprouting, to improve shelf life.

But why not try some varieties you don’t see everyday in grocery stores?

“Any type of purple potatoes are exciting to grow,” Joey says. “They’re unique because of the color, they have a good taste, and you can really surprise people when you make purple mashed potatoes with them.”

You can grow unique potato varieties perfectly suited to how you like to cook them.

5. Mulch the Heck Out of Outdoor-Growing Potatoes

If you’re growing potatoes indoors, they won’t be so susceptible to the many diseases and pests they can attract. But outdoors, mulch is a key to keeping them healthy.

“Potatoes can acquire early blight — the same problem tomatoes can get — from bad bacteria in the soil that splashes up on the plant leaves,” Joey says. “If you see yellow leaves with black spots, you’ll know something’s wrong.”

To prevent this, the Bairds use dry mulch: chemical-free grass clippings, straw, or shredded leaves, even shredded paper. Anything that will act as a barrier so water doesn’t splash off the soil onto the leaves.

Also consider a drip irrigation watering system that delivers water directly into the soil, so it reaches the roots without splashing down on the leaves from above.

6. Plant Deep Instead of “Hilling Up”

A common practice for growing potatoes is to plant them and, as they grow, add soil to bury the plant stems. It’s called “hilling up” or “earthing up.” Not necessary, says Joey.

“The theory comes from potatoes being in the same family as tomatoes, which are both nightshade plants,” he says. “Tomatoes you plant really deep because all the hair follicles on the stalk will create roots. But that’s not the same case for potatoes.”

Here’s how the Bairds have achieved good results planting potatoes, in the ground and in containers:

  • In the ground: Work the soil loose six to eight inches deep with a garden fork, then plant your seed potato about five inches deep. You can pile another few inches of mulch on top, which makes it easier to harvest the tubers later, but no need to continue doing that as the plants grow.
  • In a container: Fill the container with organic mulch to the top and plant the seed potatoes about three-quarters of the way down, then just let it grow naturally.

Potatoes are such a simple food, and yet it’s easy to get caught up in all the must-do’s prescribed on the Web. These tips are intended to make growing potatoes a more simple process.

The truth is, potatoes can grow well without heavy-duty preparation and maintenance. And the investment of time and resources is so miniscule, we say just give it a try and see what you get.

Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?

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