How to grow potatoes – an easy beginner’s guide
- By: Ashley Saunders
- January 2020
As one of the nation’s favourite vegetable, it’s easy to grow potatoes. They are used in a variety of dishes and are even one of the main ingredients in Whiskey!
So whether you enjoy them chipped, roasted or in a salad, potatoes are a fantastic vegetable to grow in your garden.
You’re about to learn about how to grow potatoes from planting, nurturing and harvesting. We’ll also cover how to store them to keep them fresh.
Recommended potatoes varieties
In the UK, supermarket typically stocks around 15 varieties of potatoes. However, more than 100 different varieties exist.
In terms of the best potatoes to grow, there are three groups: First early, Second early and Maincrop potatoes.
Early/first early potatoes
Ready after approximately 100 days (12 weeks). Our favourite varieties include:
- Duke of York – A waxy, salad potato when first harvested, if left they are a fantastic all-round potato.
- Rocket – Disease resistance round white-skinned potatoes which are usually plentiful. Easy to grow especially in potato sacks and containers.
- Maris Bard – Fantastic early salad/new potato with a good yield and strong disease resistance.
Second early potatoes
These are typically ready after 115 days (16 weeks) and some well-known varieties include:
- Charlotte – Kidney-shaped with a good flavour and decent crop size. Ideal for boiling and steaming, and as one of the best salad potatoes.
- Maris Peer – A firm, creamy potato with white skin and pale yellow flesh. Superb salad potato ideal for boiling and steaming.
- Edzell Blue – Has purple skin, white flesh and is fantastic for roasting and chips.
Taking the longest to grow and ready after 130 days (19 weeks), maincrop are all-round good potatoes. Some of our favourite varieties include:
- King Edward – Late maincrop variety with good resistance to slug damage. Great for roasting and baking.
- Sante – Early maincrop potato which grows in most soil types and has good disease and pest resistance.
- Salad Blue – Unusual maincrop potato with dark purple/blue skin with violet flesh.
- Maris Piper – Quite likely the most well-known variety. Good for chipping and roasting.
What are ideal conditions to grow potatoes?
As an easy to grow vegetable, potatoes like cool weather (generally between 7 to 13°C) and well-drained, loose soil. This makes our British weather ideal for growing them!
When to plant potatoes
The best time to plant depends on the type of potatoes you’re planning to grow.
If you’re starting with special ‘seed’ potatoes (also called tubers), then you’re able to plant them indoors from late winter onwards. Once they start to sprout, you can transfer them to the ground.
However, if you’re cutting up potato pieces for planting, it’s best to do it a few days before planting. This way, they will the chance to “heal” and form a protective layer over the cut surface, improving both moisture retention and rot resistance.
By the middle of April, the weather conditions are usually good enough to allow you to plant your seed tubers outdoors and nurture them to fully grow.
How to plant potatoes
Ideally you should grow potatoes are in rows that are spaced about a metre apart. So you’ll need quite a bit of space.
If you’re starting from scratch, with a spade, dig a trench around 15 cm wide by 20 cm deep. Next, spread manure or organic compost into the bottom of the trench. On top place a seed potato piece, every 30 cm and cover with soil.
After about 12 days, sprouts should start to appear, then using a hoe, gently add more soil. It’s best to leave around 10 cm of the plant exposed. In another few weeks, add more soil, so that about 15 cm above ground level (known as “hilling”).
As the potato plants emerge, it’s worth adding organic mulch between the rows as this will conserve moisture and help with weed control without the need for harmful chemicals.
How to grow potatoes
With the tubers in the ground, you’ll want to ensure they are not exposed to direct sunlight as they will turn green and produce a chemical called solanine. Solanine gives off a bitter taste and is toxic.
Like any plant or vegetable, they’ll need a good watering each week. However, don’t overdo it as too much water, especially straight after planting can lead to misshapen potatoes.
As plant start to droop as the temperature rises, it’s best to increase the hilling in the morning. You’ll need to keep adding soil and building hilling until the potato plants start to bloom.
When hilling, using a hand spade or hoe, start around the base of the plant so that the tubers are covered and the plant is supported.
Pests and diseases to look out for
If you’ve grown vegetables before, you’ll know that half the battle is keeping pests and wildlife away from your crops. This is no different when you grow potatoes. However, they are susceptible to several diseases.
As a fairly common disease in wet, warm summers, blight can set in early. Tubers will start to have a reddish-brown decay below the skin. At first, this will appear firm but it quickly develops into rotting.
In plants, the tail tale signs are rapidly spreading brown watery rot around the leaves and stems.
Sadly, there’s little you can do to stop blight once it starts. While you can remove affected leaves, removing too many will hamper the plant’s ability to grow.
Causing black rotting at the stem base, potato blackleg is a common bacterial disease. The flesh on infected tubers may turn grey or brown and start to rot. The initial signs in plants are stunted growth and yellowing stems.
If your crop is showing signs, then remove and destroy any infected plants. It’s a good idea to annually rotate crops and plant resistant varieties such as ‘Charlotte’, ‘Pixie’ and ‘Saxon’.
Causing scab-like lesions on the potato surface, thankfully this disease doesn’t affect the taste and can be easily removed on peeling.
You might not spot potato scab until you start harvesting. However, it can be worse in dry weather, so ensure you keep potatoes well-watered. Also, it’s best not to store any potatoes with scab.
This is quite common in tubers and is a frequent cause of losses prior to, or after, lifting. This is caused by overly wet ground.
So it’s worth using good quality, resistant certified seed tubers when planting. When it comes to harvesting, wait until the soil is neither wet nor very hard and dry. Store your crops in cool, dry conditions.
When to harvest potatoes
The optimum harvesting time depending on what size potato you want and weather conditions.
Smaller in size, ‘New potatoes’ can be harvested around 2 to 3 weeks after the plants stop flowering. They should be eaten within a few days to harvesting as the skin is tender and don’t generally keep for much longer.
For fully mature potatoes, wait up to 3 weeks after the plant’s foliage has died back as this will allow the potatoes to develop a thick skin. Before harvesting, check if the tops of the vines have completely died. However, don’t wait too long, or the potatoes may rot.
Harvesting and storing potatoes
When it comes to harvesting, it’s best to choose a dry day. You’ll want to be careful not to puncture, cut or bruise the skin.
Gently dig the soil, to ensure it doesn’t become compacted. Should you damage any potatoes, either use them straight away or discard them, as they’ll likely rot if stored.
If when you come to harvest, the soil is wet, then let the potatoes air-dry as much as possible before putting them in bags or baskets. That said, don’t leave them exposed to sunlight for long as this may turn them green.
Green potatoes have a bitter taste and if enough is eaten can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Removing small green spots from potatoes is fine. However, you’ll want to bin any that have turned green.
Store freshly dug potatoes in a dry, cool place as this allows the skins to cure, which will help them keep for longer. Brush off any soil that is clinging to the potatoes.
Never store potatoes with apples as the apples’ ethylene gas will cause potatoes to spoil.