Potatoes are the main staple of our homestead. Growing them makes me feel like a proper farmer.
Spuds contain all the essential amino acids you need to build proteins, repair cells, and fight diseases — eating just five potatoes a day would technically keep you alive (although eventually you’d suffer vitamin and mineral deficiencies). This explains why for time-immemorial this crop has been grown as a “safety net” in the event that other, harder-to-grow harvests fail.
You don’t need as much space as you may think to grow a decent hoard, either.
We have just two potato patches, each measuring approximately 3 x 3 meters (10 x 10 feet), and we ‘succession plant’ for a total of three harvests a year.
Our first crop goes mid-January time, our second crop is planted in May, and our third in October.
This method keeps us in potatoes all year round with no need for long-term storage. We have never run into issues caused by a lack of rotation either, which is a ‘danger’ than often does the ‘copy-&-paste’ rounds across the web.
There are so many vegetable growing myths and old wives’ tales out there, and the majority are nonsense. It’s frustrating. Attaining a good harvest is difficult enough without adding needless complexity and concern.
From my experience, feel free to throw most of it out and simply try things out: climate, pests and soil can all vary greatly even from town to town, let alone nation to nation.
Below is how we successfully grow potatoes.
Before we plant our spuds we allow them to “chit”–a word my young sons enjoy repeating, regularly.
Basically, the process involves laying seed potatoes in the light to encourage sprouting.
The step isn’t essential by any means, but we have found it gives the spuds a head-start, promoting faster initial growth.
We begin chitting our potatoes around 4-6 weeks in advance of planting out (so around early-Dec for our first crop). And soon after, small purply shoots begin peppering the spuds.
Again, there are wildly varying opinions on how to best grow potatoes.
But as always, we shoot for the simplest method which we have found to be “no-dig” — an old Japanese method popularized in the West by Charles Dowding.
At the beginning of each new season we will ‘top up’ our potato beds with around 10 cm (4 inches) of fresh homemade compost. This will be enough to see the bed through the year’s three harvests.
There is no digging required (digging disturbs the soil and in turn the important microbes that live within it), we simply dump the compost atop the bed and carefully even it out with a rake.
We plant our spuds 15 cm (6 inches) deep at a spacing of around 30 cm (12 inches) into the prepared bed (sprouts pointing up).
We’ve tried many different spacing permutations over the years, but this works best for us. It seems to minimize disease by allowing good airflow between the plants, while at the same time the close-enough proximity acts as a mulch with the leaves shading the entire patch, helping with moisture retention and temperature regulation.
Tip: As your potatoes grow you’ll want to check that those near the surface stay covered. Exposure to sunlight will turn your spuds green, which is toxic (solanine).
An alternative to the no-dig method is to ‘hill’ your potatoes. If compost is at a premium, this may be a better option. We have only performed one season with the hilling method, but with solid results.
We dug trenches 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) deep at around 45-60 cm (18-24 inches) apart, placed our ‘chit’ potatoes in the trenches between 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) apart, and then covered the trenches over.
When the plants reached around 15cm (6 inches) in height, we covered them over again with more soil so that just the very top leaves were exposed. This tactic encourages more potatoes to grow in the newly placed soil.
We covered the foliage over again when the plant’s reached 30 cm (12 inches) and again at 45 cm (18 inches) which kept encouraging more and more potatoes to grow.
We ended up with a decent haul.
The reason we don’t continue solely with this method? Time. Although a relatively quick and easy task, it isn;t a fast as no dig, and any job that adds work on the homestead without bringing in additional value (in this case spuds) is nonsensical.
I experimented with the more traditional methods of plowing and planting, in the early days.
This method, as touched on above, is not good for soil health, and I usually refrain from playing with the tractor (which is frustrating because it’s a lot of fun) but for big jobs, such as preparing a field, an initial plow may be necessary before then building-up soil health.
Potatoes are a low maintenance crop, but there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a good harvest.
The only real ‘rule’ that I’ll give is to keep your plants well watered, particularly through spells of hot weather.
Potato plants will often flower and, if left long enough, produce green tomato-like fruit. We’ve found flowering and fruiting can vary wildly, they are not determining factors when it comes to harvest time. We’ve had crops that have been ready both before flowering and also after fruits have long set in.
The leaves turning yellow and beginning to die back is the best indicator of harvest time, not flowering.
We cease watering at this stage, which starts the potato curing process, readying them for storage.
Potatoes are usually ready for harvest a week or two after the foliage dies back.
To see if they’re done, dig up a spud and rub it with you thumb. If the skin comes off, try again in a few more days; or alternatively, harvest early if you’re after new potatoes.
If you grew with the no dig method, your potatoes will be near the surface and so easily harvested with just your hands. If your spuds are deeper you may need to use a fork, just do this with care as potates will easily pierce easily rendering them unstorable.
Cured potatoes will need to be kept in the dark to avoid them sprouting, turning green and spoiling.
They will also store longer in cool temperatures.
Also, do not wash the potatoes, be sure to leave a little dirt on them — this also sees them keep longer.
The storing process needn’t be complicated.
We simply bag our harvest up in burlap sacks and keep them in our under-trailer storage compartment. The temperature fluctuates widely in there, which isn’t great, but it is kept dark, and the potatoes keep just fine.
Also, us growing three harvests a year means the potatoes we dig up never need to store for very long. We never need a spud to last longer than 3 or 4 months, which our storing setup manages with ease.
And finally, be sure to save some back for your next planting.