How to Plant and Grow Potatoes
Learn how to grow different types of potatoes in your garden, from planting to harvesting.
Who doesn't love the versatile potato? They taste great scalloped, mashed, baked, twice-baked, or fried — and they taste even better when you grow your own. Growing potatoes isn't difficult. Follow our tips below for making it even easier, plus learn about the many varieties available to grow in your own garden.
Types of Potatoes
While all true “Irish” potatoes are grown basically the same way, there are variations in plant productivity and disease resistance, and the shape, size, color and cooking quality of the tubers. Note: This article does not address sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) or yams, which are tropical tubers with a much higher sugar content that grow in warm climates or seasons.
The basic types of potatoes, each with many varieties, are: Russet, yellow, red, white, blue, and fingerling. Each has certain characteristics that make them suitable for different cooking methods. Keep in mind that there are countless dozens of heirloom varieties available in limited quantities which are largely not available for sale in supermarkets – but they are easy to grow and enjoy yourself.
When choosing different types of potatoes, keep in mind that they are categorized loosely based on starch content. The three basic groups are starchy, waxy and medium or all-purpose; those with more starch are more mealy or floury; those with less starch are more waxy and firm.
In general, if you want to bake or fry the tubers, choose potato varieties that are high in starch and have very soft texture when cooked. They are also good for mashing as long as you don’t overdo it and make them mushy. Those with lower starch content, which gives them a more waxy texture, work well in soups, stews, potato salad, and scalloped or roasted.
Important: Potatoes that have been exposed to a lot of light or stored too cool or too warm can develop a green color and taste bitter, which usually indicates a high content of “solanine” – a poisonous alkaloid. Avoid eating them, or at least peel away all the skin and green color, and especially any sprouted “eyes.”
Russet (starchy): Russets are the classic “Idaho” potatoes with thick brown skin, often used for baking, frying, and mashing. Russets are low in moisture and tend to dry a bit when cooked, so most cooks add milk or butter when mashing. Good varieties: Russet Burbank, German Butterball.
Yellow (all purpose): Yellow potatoes are all-purpose potatoes perfect for mashing, steaming, boiling, baking, roasting, and frying. Good varieties: Inca Gold, Mountain Rose, Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn.
Red (waxy): Red potatoes are firm and excellent for potato salads and soups, and for steaming, boiling, roasting, making au gratin, scalloped, and salads. Good varieties: Norland, Klondike Rose, Red Pontiac, Cranberry Red, Mountain Rose.
White (waxy): White potatoes are low in starch and are excellent for boiling, potato salad, mashing, steaming, making au gratin and roasting. Good varieties: White Rose, Cal White.
Blue (all purpose): Blue potatoes, also known as purple potatoes because of their high antioxidant which turns purplish when cooked, have medium starch and are great for steaming, baking and boiling. Good varieties: Russian Blue, All Blue, Purple Cream of the Crop, Peruvian, Purple Majesty.
Fingerling (waxy): “Finger potatoes” are typically the size and shape of a finger. Because of their small size and sometimes different colored skin and flesh colors, they are ideal as side dishes. Most have a mild, somewhat nutty flavor best enjoyed when baked or roasted, and even boiled — but they tend to fall apart in soups. Good varieties: French Fingerling, Austrian Crescent, Russian Banana.
New Potatoes (All purpose): “New” potatoes are any kind harvested while small, before their sugars have fully converted to starch and their skins are still thin. They are typically sweet, firm, creamy and very waxy. Use them for boiling, steaming, roasting or in soups, but not for baking.
When to Plant Potatoes
Irish potatoes require cool weather – neither freezing nor broiling hot – to survive and produce edible underground tubers. Depending on variety and weather, the potato growing season is about three or four months from planting to digging, with some early varieties and immature or “new” potatoes harvested a little earlier.
Potatoes are planted from small pieces of mature tubers, called “seed” potatoes, each with one or two buds. In addition to cool weather, they require at least 7 or 8 hours of direct sunshine, very well-drained soil and moderate fertilizer.
Most gardeners cut seed pieces two or three days ahead of time to allow cut surfaces to heal, which reduces rotting when they are planted in cold, wet soils. The pieces may also be allowed to sprout before planting, which is especially important in areas where the growing season is cold and short.
Plant as soon as soil can be dug in early spring; if the weather then is typically rainy, plan ahead by working up rows or hills in the fall. In freeze-free areas of the country, including the Southwest and along the Gulf Coast, potatoes can be planted in the fall or winter; however, it is usually difficult to find seed potatoes then, so they must be ordered and stored ahead of time.
Once the seed pieces are planted, usually two or three inches deep and a foot or so apart in rows or in hills or even containers, they sprout quickly into lush, leafy, multiple-stem plants. As the plants grow, new tubers begin to form on short stolons that grow downward into the ground. Because potatoes exposed to sunlight turn green, which causes them to taste bitter, it is important to pile soil or heavy layers of straw or other mulch around lower stems so the tubers are grown in complete darkness. This is often done every week or two until the plants have at least six inches of lower stem buried.
While healthy potato plants can tolerate light frosts, and may even recover from mild freeze damage, they cannot survive hard freezes. This is why potatoes must be planted in cool weather – after the danger of freezing is past, but well before hot weather sets in for the summer.
Heaviest tuber formation occurs when soil temperatures are in the 60-70 F range, and stops when soil temperatures reach 80 degrees or so. Mulching soil with straw or other organic matter can help reduce soil temperature by as much as 10 degrees.
So you must time your planting between hard freezes and hot temperatures. Depending on local weather, most gardeners plant in March, April or May, and expect a harvest about four months later, starting to dig new potatoes about two to three weeks after plants flower. But again, some can be planted in the fall in mild-winter areas.
How to Grow Potatoes
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Potatoes have big appetites and thrive in compost-enriched soil. For clay soils, add compost to improve drainage and prevent waterlogged soils, which rot potatoes.
Sow seed potatoes three inches deep and 12 inches apart. For traditional row plantings, keep rows three to four feet apart. In beds using intensive planting methods, sow potatoes 12 inches apart in staggered rows.
As potato stems grow, you’ll gather soil around stems, covering roughly one-half to two-thirds of the exposed stem and leaves. This process is called "hilling" because you end up creating hills of soil around stems. The tasty spuds form from the root system that grows out and up from the planted potato—not in the soil below the planted potato.
Knowing this, you might want to dig your planting furrow up to six inches deep, keeping extra soil from the furrow stacked alongside the planted row. As stems grow, use a hoe to heap that soil around stems. Typically the first hilling occurs when stems reach 6" to 8" tall. Most gardeners make one to two hillings, but you can continue to hill plants throughout the entire growing season.
The hardest part of hilling potatoes repeatedly is having enough soil on hand, especially if you garden in raised beds using intensive growing methods. One option is removing the top 12 inches of soil prior to planting and stashing it in plastic bags nearby (not too far—it’s heavy). You can also hill using a blend of homegrown compost and bagged potting soil or topsoil. Save soil from container gardens at the end of the growing season to blend with compost for this purpose.
Simplify the hilling process by substituting straw for soil. Add straw frequently to maintain consistent levels. With this method, harvesting is a cinch—no digging is required. Simply pull straw away to reveal tubers. Whether you use soil or straw, it’s vital to keep potato roots moist from the time plants flower until roughly two weeks before harvest. Potatoes have shallow roots and are sensitive to fluctuating soil moisture. When you’re hilling with soil, it’s a good idea to add a mulch layer.
When to Harvest Potatoes
Harvest new potatoes a couple months after planting by pulling a plant or two, or by feeling around in soil or straw and pulling a few young spuds. Gather the main harvest when plant tops die back, or count the number of days your variety needs to mature after planting, and harvest then. Let soil dry a bit before harvesting so it isn’t caked on tubers.
Don’t wash newly dug potatoes. Instead, give them a simple brush with gloved hands. Freshly harvested potatoes need time to cure and form dried skins before storing. Cure by arranging spuds in a single layer for about two weeks at room temperature. After curing, expect potatoes to store for six months or more in a cool, dark place.
Is a Potato a Vegetable?
Potatoes, because they usually grow in the ground, are often thought of as roots. But as we noted earlier, they technically are starchy, enlarged modified stems called tubers, which grow on short branches called stolons from the lower parts of potato plants. By the way, though potato vegetable plants also flower and produce small, many-seeded berries like cherry tomatoes, all parts of the plant are poisonous if eaten. Except for the tubers.
But the question of whether potatoes are a vegetable often comes up in both gardening and nutritional conversations. The long and short of it: yes.
Odd Extra Tidbit: Potatoes are often called spuds, but where did that come from? The Medieval words “spyde” and “spad” referred to simple digging tools. Because spades were used to plant and dig potatoes, the tubers themselves eventually acquired the name spud.
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