Growing Heirloom Potatoes

Heirloom potatoes have been passed down, year after year, for many decades, and offer unique shapes, colors, and cooking qualities worth trying in the home garden.
Related To:

How to Grow Potatoes 05:02

Joe Lamp'l shows how to plant, grow and harvest potatoes.

An heirloom potato is one which has been grown consistently year after year for decades or longer, maintaining its original characteristic tubers with little or no change from the original.

Like other heirloom vegetables, many old potatoes have been preserved through the years by small-scale farmers and home gardeners who appreciate their sometimes-subtle differences in size, shape, and cooking qualities. They are also grown because of interesting heritage stories that come with them, and the loftier preservation of genetic diversity in a world which has turned to mass production of a few species.

Preserving heirloom potatoes isn’t always easy, because many are not super productive, or not enough people grow and share them to keep the strains alive. Plus they often lack resistance to diseases.

All Potatoes Are Grown Alike

Regardless of heritage, all potatoes are grown about the same. Potato plants are grown in full sun, well-drained soils, and in cool weather – neither freezing nor remaining above the mid-80s.  Plant whole tubers, cut into small pieces each with one or two leaf-bud “eyes” which sprout into stems on which potato tubers form; planting to harvest takes three or four months.

As plants grow, pile fresh soil or mulch over the lower stems to prevent them from getting sunlight. This helps prevent the tubers from getting sunscald or turning green which makes them taste bitter and increases the production of solanine, a toxic alkaloid that forms in green skins and eyes.

Growing heirloom potatoes requires saving tubers every year to replant. Save inedible green tubers, as well as a few of the largest and firmest. Do not wash the tubers when harvesting, which can lead to decay. Store them in cool, dry spot, in labeled paper bags.

Heirloom Potato Varieties

Keep in mind when planning an heirloom potato crop, that every region has best selections for particular soils and climates. Pardon the pun, but what flies in Vermont may fry in Florida.

Garnet Chile, a pink to red potato bred in 1853 from a disease-resistant Chilean potato, is a parent of many well-known heirloom varieties including the Russet Burbank. In 1861 the oblong Early Rose with a pink streak in the flesh became one of the most successful potatoes of the late 1800s. Peach Blow, another heirloom variety from 1850, has a peachy-pink flower and wonderful potato flavor.

flesh Vermont Champion, white skin and yellow flesh, was introduced in 1881 as a disease-resistant strain. The light tan Green Mountain has been popular since the 1880s for its high starch content and distinct flavor. Irish Cobbler is early-season potato with a pronounced potato flavor and earthy aroma to the skin.

German Butterball has yellow skin, yellow flesh and a creamy texture; Red Lasoda has red skin, white flesh and a perfect texture in soups and potato salads; Purple Majesty has purple skin and dark purple flesh; Mountain Rose has pink skin, reddish pink flesh, and a moist, creamy texture. Austrian Crescent is an heirloom fingerling variety with light yellow skin, yellow flesh and a firm texture.  

Bintje, developed in 1905, has yellow skin, yellow flesh, and a starchy texture. La Ratte fingerling potatoes were a wild potato discovered in the Swiss Alps with long, uniform tubers, yellow flesh with firm, waxy texture and high production; because of their nutty flavor, they are considered by chefs to be one of the top gourmet potatoes.

Irish Lumper, an early 1800s white potato commonly planted in Ireland when the disease called “late blight” or “potato rot” devastated several crops in a row, leading to the horrific Great Famine. It has been cleared of diseases and reintroduced as a heritage potato.

Most heirloom potatoes are grown on small farms but can be found online. But order early, as popular varieties tend to get sold out very quickly every year. 

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