An article by Travis Key from Lazy Dog Farm
Potatoes are one of the easiest vegetables to grow in the backyard garden. They’re also tons of fun to grow and a great way to involve the whole family in the process of growing your own food. Potato plants don’t require much maintenance as they grow, and they don’t require a significant amount of fertilizer to produce a decent harvest. Usually, a few applications of AgroThrive General Purpose are enough to keep them happy throughout their growth cycle.
For us, potato planting is synonymous with spring being right around the corner. We always get excited to plant potatoes because it means warmer weather will be here soon. We’ll use these next two blogs to discuss potato planting tips and tricks, starting with prepping your potatoes for planting.
When to Plant Potatoes
I recommend planting potatoes two weeks before your average last frost date in the spring. You can find the average last frost date for your planting zone here. Count back two weeks from that date and that’s the ideal potato planting time for your area. But don’t worry if you don’t get them planted by that exact date. Just use that date as the benchmark for the start of your “potato planting window.”
Here in south Georgia we try to get our potatoes planted sometime between the middle and the end of February. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and we don’t get them planted until early March. We still get a decent harvest if our planting is delayed a few weeks.
Timely potato planting is more important the farther south you go. Potato plants don’t like temperatures above 90°F. That’s why it’s important to get them planted and growing before spring or early summer temperatures stun the plants. In areas where summers are mild, timely planting isn’t as crucial as it is for us.
If you plant them too early, you risk a late frost damaging potato plants that have emerged from the soil. Potatoes will usually survive a very light frost, but a hard freeze can do some serious damage to the plants. Potatoes usually take about two weeks to emerge from the soil after planting. This is why aiming for two weeks before your last frost is ideal.
Early Maturing vs Late Maturing Potato Varieties
We recommend purchasing certified seed potatoes from a local store or a reputable online vendor. Certified seed potatoes have been tested for diseases and are more likely to perform well in your garden. Some gardeners will purchase potatoes from the grocery store and allow them to sprout, but there’s no guarantee that those potatoes are disease-free.
When purchasing potatoes locally or online, you may see product descriptions that state “early-maturing,” “mid-maturing,” or “late-maturing.” This is because some potato varieties take longer to mature than others. Some varieties will produce a quality harvest in just 90 days after planting, while other varieties can take closer to 120 days.
We always like to plant several different varieties with a mix of early, mid, and late-maturing varieties. We do this so that we don’t have to worry about digging all our potatoes at one time. We can dig the “early” varieties first and dig the late-maturing varieties a few weeks later. That way we get to spread out the potato harvesting fun!
Early-maturity potato varieties are more forgiving, especially if you live in a southern climate or are late getting them planted. As mentioned above, potato plants don’t like temps in the 90s. If you plant late or experience a warmer than normal spring, late-maturing varieties might succumb to the heat before they reach full maturity. They’ll still make potatoes, but they might not reach their full potential.
Green Sprouting or Chitting Potatoes
Pre-sprouting potatoes is a great way to ensure they emerge fast and don’t sit in the soil a month before forming leaves. This process is commonly called “chitting” or “green sprouting.” Potatoes without sprouts are in a dormant state. To encourage sprout formation, you must force the potatoes to break dormancy.
This is easily done by placing your seed potatoes in a dark area that’s around 70-75°F for 7-10 days. Some varieties take longer to break dormancy, but most potatoes should start sprouting within 10 days in these conditions. We like to use a dark closet in our house for this step in the process.
Once the potatoes have started forming sprouts, move them to a lighted area and keep them at 50-60°F until you’re ready to plant. This step is a little tricky because not many folks have a lighted, cool storage that can maintain those temperatures consistently. We simply place our potatoes under our pole barn where the outside temps are cooler in late winter and light enters from the sides of the barn.
Cutting Potatoes for Planting
Once you’ve subjected your seed potatoes to the “chitting” or “green sprouting” process, you’re ready to plant. There is one more thing to consider though. Should you plant your seed potatoes whole, or should you cut them into smaller pieces?
We almost always cut our seed potatoes into smaller pieces. Last year we performed a side-by-side experiment comparing planting whole potatoes versus planting cut potato pieces. We found that the whole potatoes did indeed produce a greater harvest, but it was not twice as much as the harvest we got from the cut potato row. As a result, you get more “bang for your buck” from your seed potatoes if you cut them.
When cutting seed potatoes, you’ll want to ensure each piece has at least one sprout or “eye” on it. Some gardeners get very frugal when cutting seed potatoes and will cut an average-sized potato into several small pieces to stretch their seed potato stock. But based on conversations we’ve had with professional potato farmers, the ideal potato seed piece is half the size of an egg.
You don’t have to get super exact with this. But if you have a whole seed potato that’s approximately the size of a large egg, just cut it in half so that there is at least one sprout on each half. If you have some seed potatoes that are smaller than an egg, just plant those whole.
Once your seed potatoes are cut, it’s a good idea to wait a few days before planting. This will allow time for the “wound” on the potato flesh to heal, making the potato less susceptible to rotting once in your garden soil. Some gardeners will coat their cut seed potatoes in sulfur or lime, but we prefer to just wait a few days between cutting and planting.
It Really Is Easy!
Now I know what you’re thinking … “You said potatoes were one of the easiest things to grow and now you’ve just given me all these steps I have to take before planting them!” And you would be correct. All the steps I’ve outlined above are for optimal potato growth and harvests. You can certainly just stick a whole sprouted potato in a 5-gallon bucket, and you will grow potatoes. But if you’re interested in maximizing the potential of the seed potatoes you’ve purchased, these tips will help you do that. Be sure to stay tuned for part two where we’ll talk about seed potato spacing, hilling, and fertilizing your potato plants.
Thousands of gardeners have been tuning in to The Lazy Dog Farm YouTube channel where Travis covers a variety topics ranging from how to successfully start seedlings to how to make a flavorful hotsauce that packs a punch. Accompanied by his wife Brooklyn and their two boys, the gardens on their 2 acre homestead in southwest Georgia are always filled with a wide variety of vegetables that are enjoyed fresh or preserved for later.