Harvesting Potatoes

Harvesting potatoes is the fun part of growing your own; here are a few tricks to get the most out of your efforts.
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How to Grow Potatoes 05:02

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

Growing your own Irish potatoes is easy and interesting, but the rewards are in the harvest. Do it right, and you will get the most out of your efforts.  

How Potatoes Grow

Potato tubers do not grow on potato plant roots – they are produced at the ends of short branch-like stolons that emerge from the lower stems of plants and grow downward into the soil.

Potato plants are planted as mature potato tubers, cut into pieces each with one or two “eyes” or stem buds. They should be planted in moist, well-drained, fertile soil in either garden rows or in containers, and where the plants will get at least six or eight hours of direct sunshine a day.

Store-bought potatoes are often treated to reduce sprouting, or are not the best varieties for all parts of the country. For these reasons, it is very important to start with “certified seed potatoes” which are disease-free. Interesting varieties can be found online, but the best varieties for your area are usually sold at the right season to plant at area garden centers.

Because the plants won’t tolerate hard freezes, and stop producing in hot weather, the potatoes are planted and grown during cool weather, usually from March in warm areas through May in cooler northern climates, In frost-free areas it is possible to grow potatoes in the fall and winter, but finding the seed potatoes to plant then is usually difficult.

Important: Hill the Potatoes

As potato plants sprout and grow, it is crucial to cover the lower stems to protect the small growing potatoes from direct sunshine. Otherwise they may turn green and become bitter, or even poisonous to eat. When the small plants get a few inches tall, pile soil or mulch up on the stems, leaving only the tops of the plants showing. Repeat this as needed until six or eight inches of stems are covered.

Keep Plants Growing

Potato plants that stay wet can rot, but those that stay too dry, especially during flowering, may produce tubers with hollow spots, or very small tubers not worth harvesting. Also, weeds, insects and diseases weaken plants; contact your county Extension Service office for information on pest control for your area.

Harvest and Store the Potatoes

New potatoes begin to form about three months after planting, and fill out quickly when the plants begin to flower. Soon afterwards most plants start to turn yellow and die, but some gardeners cut the plants down after about four months and allow the tubers in the ground to toughen up a bit before digging.

Small or “new” potatoes can be gently teased from beneath plants without damaging the plants or their deeper roots. They are considered delicacies and can be enjoyed as is, which is good because they generally don’t store very long.

For larger, mature spuds, wait for the plants to flower awhile, and even allow the plants to begin to turn yellow before digging the tubers. In some areas the tops may not turn yellow on time, so after about four months the plants should be cut down and the tubers allowed to dry for a few days before digging.

Dig the potatoes carefully to avoid cuts and punctures. Do not wash them, just gently dust off excess dirt. Put them in a cool place out of the sun, and let their skins toughen a bit before storage. What you don’t use quickly can be stored for months in a cool, dry, dark place, with regular checking for shriveling or decay.

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