How to grow…..’pot’-atoes

Who doesn’t like potatoes? Kids even eat them. As a staple food, the humble potato is very versatile and a great accompanyment to any meal whether they’re mashed, fried, boiled or baked. In Australia we have a huge variety of potatoes to choose from and in Tasmania, which is Australia’s specialist potato growing area, they grow 40 different types of potatoes.

In the Permaculture garden, potatoes are grown under thick straw layers placed straight onto the ground. But if you don’t have the space or perhaps you don’t even have a garden at all, the good news is that you can also grow potatoes in a pot.

A suitable pot for growing potatoes

Trust me, growing potatoes in a pot or container is very easy and can be a great way to get kids involved in gardening, especially if they’re the type that love to get their hands dirty. When Luke and Maddie were little, they were always getting into the dirt. Whether they were eating it, making mud pies, helping me in the vegie patch or driving Luke’s collection of Matchbox cars around a dirt track, they loved to play in the dirt. And it came as no surprise either when they both elected to study agriculture at high school where they learnt to raise chooks and tend to cattle and grow things in a vegie garden. As a consequence of their simple games and homey upbringing, they’ve grown up to be a lot like me, with a bent towards the earthy side of life.

When I first learned about growing potatoes, I kept hearing this thing about using ‘certified’ seed potatoes. Seed potatoes? Never heard of it. I thought…can’t you just stick an old Golden Delight spud in the ground and grow that, you know those old wrinkly spongy ones that have grown tentacles in your cupboard. Come on, fess up, we’ve all had one or two of them in our time. Well, the answer is yes you can grow them and it is a seed potato and it will probably grow okay and you might just be lucky enough to get a good crop with no disease.

Sebago 'certified' seed potatoes

However, as potato plants are prone to disease, it is probably better to use a ‘certified’ seed potato which means that it is guaranteed to be disease free. You should always buy them from a reliable source and you can check on the certification if you’re that way inclined.  Essentially, a ‘seed’ potato is one that you are going to plant in the ground to grow other potatoes from.

You can think of the seed as a sacrificial potato because soon after you plant it , it starts to break down and grow roots down into the soil. It will also send thick, stiff, succulent shoots up to the surface which break through the soil layer and develop deep green foliage. From here there is a cycle of covering the leaves, letting them grow again, covering, growing until you can’t fit any more soil in the pot. Beneath the soil, small ‘tubers’ start to grow off the  succulent shoots and as time goes on, these tubers develop into fully fledged potatoes.

The first shoots and leaves of a Kipfler potato crop

Some pointers about growing potatoes in pots:

  • You’re likely to get a better harvest if you grow a crop from ‘certified’ disease free seed potatoes available from nurseries and suppliers.
  • Potatoes are prone to desease and like humans, they can readily spread their diseases to new potatoes and others growing nearby. Disease spores can also remain undetected in the soil and cause all sorts of issues for planting out the area later on. So confining them to a pot has a lot of advantages.
  • ‘Seed potatoes ‘are also known as ‘seed tubers’.
  • If your seed potatoes don’t have any shoots or tentacles let them sit in a cool dark place for a few weeks until the tentacles are at least 1cm long before planting. You can let them tentacalise in the soil but the growing process is quicker if they have tentacles before you plant them.
  • Use a large pot up to 40-50cm deep or deeper with drainage holes, or build one out of bricks or make one out of chicken wire or use an old potato sack, bucket or shopping bag. The good old black plastic 60cm diameter pot is perfect for a balcony, deck, courtyard or small space. Some people use a stack of tyres – I wouldn’t because it’s possible they leach stuff into the soil. Eww.
  • Potatoes like rich, well drained soil and definitely not too much water or they will rot. Wet and dry will cause potato scab.
  •  The longer you leave your potatoes to grow the bigger they will get.
  •  If you’re desperate for a spud or two before the whole lot are ready to harvest, you can ‘bandicoot’ out some of the earlier developed tubers by carefully digging them gently with your hands.
  • Don’t let the potatoes get exposed to the light or they will go green and make you go green if you eat them.
  • Save some of the harvested potatoes as seeds for the next crop but only do this once to prevent disease.
  • You could get between 6 and 15 potatoes from each seed potato but this will depend on many factors including the type of potato you use.
  • It will take around 20 weeks from seed to harvest.

               Here’s a quick step-by-step Serendipity2000 how to:

  • If you’ve got a 60cm pot, you’ll need about 3 or 4 certified seed potatoes, potting mix, compost and mulch. Straw or sugarcane mulch is good and stops the soil drying out too much. If you have a need to use animal manure, make sure it’s well rotted as fesh animal manure is too strong.
  • Put a mixture of potting mix and compost into the pot about 10cm deep.

    Lay potatoes on 10cm soil base

  • Lay your seed potatoes on top of this with the tentacles facing up and cover with about 10-20cms of potting mix and compost. Cover in mulch.
  • Move the pot into a warm sunny position and out of the wind and water in well.

Water potatoes to help them grow

  • Wait a few weeks until you see the shoots and green foliage appear. Completely cover the leaves with more potting mix, compost and mulch. I always put a cover of mulch as a top layer on my garden beds or pots because we live on a windy ridgetop and things dry out very quickly. A layer of mulch helps retain the moisture in the soil which in turn makes watering more economical.

    Mulching your plants has many benefits

  • As the next leaves appear, cover them with soil as before and continue this cycle until you’ve reached the top of the container.
  • Next, let the leaves grow and thicken and the plants will flower.
  • When the flowers die off and the leaves have mostly died back and wilted, your potatoes are ready to be harvested.
  • Dig up your potatoes from the pot with your hands and see how many you’ve got. Perhaps you can weigh them and see if you can grow more next time.

We might even run a potato challenge down the track.

Until then, happy ‘pot-ato’ gardening.


2 responses to “How to grow…..’pot’-atoes

  1. Great post! Even when you have lots of space it is nice to grow in pots. Gives you easier control over each plant. However can you explain why you keeping covering over leaves?

    • Hi Jason. Thanks for your nice comments. Adding more soil does a couple of things: it keeps the soil around the developing tubers loose and keeps the surface tubers from being exposed to sunlight. Being exposed to the sunlights turns the tubers green and green potatoes aren’t too good for you. When potatoes are planted in the ground, soil is mounded up around the stems to cover the new tubers which does the same thing. I probably should have clarified that you don’t actually have to cover all the leaves as I’ve found my potato plants grow very quickly, quicker than I can sometimes get to them to add the next layer of soil so often I just throw the soil in and sometimes it covers the leaves and sometimes not. Soon enough the leaves shoot through again. Its probably more important to make sure the soil is added to protect the tubers growing under the soil. Whether the leaves are covered or not in the process, it won’t matter. Hope this helps.

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