Potatoes are without a doubt, one of the most popular vegetables in the UK. As a nation, we love them. In fact, it’s our most loved vegetable. From chips, to wedges, to mash, to crisps, we’re consuming millions of tonnes of potatoes every year. Given this fact, it’s no wonder growing potatoes is very popular among gardeners. What makes it even better is that growing potatoes is a relatively easy process which means gardeners of all skill levels and experience can have a go. There are so many varieties of potato to choose from and grow, from all your favourites even to ones you don’t see in the shops!
Did you know though that potatoes aren’t native to Britain? They were brought from the Americas by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580’. In the years since plant breeders have experimented and cross-bred to give us the plentiful choice in varieties we have today, literally hundreds. Some for yield, some for disease resistance, some for flavour, and some for ease of cooking.
If you want to grow your own potatoes, then this guide will give you a good steer on what to do from planting all the way through to harvest. This guide will focus on growing potatoes in the ground at home specifically and it’ll take you through all the steps and considerations.
Ready? Let’s get started.
Why Grow Potatoes at Home?
Potatoes are rich in nutrients particularly potassium and they a versatile, staple ingredient for meals. Not only that, but you can also get quite a significant number of potatoes to yield from less land, faster again than most other vegetables or crops.
That makes it a particularly attractive vegetable. Potatoes are also fairly easy to grow and will tolerate a broader set of growing conditions than other vegetables will. On top of that you have the choice of growing a whole host of varieties hitherto unknown in supermarkets and finally, potentially the most compelling reason of all, the smugness of being able to say you grew your own spuds.
What Variety of Potatoes Should You Grow?
Before you plant, you need to consider what type or types of potato you are after. Then, get the correct seed potatoes for variety you want. Maybe it’s salad potatoes, or maybe you want great big jacket potatoes. Whatever the variety it will be seed potatoes you need, as these are especially for growing potatoes. However, there’s a few things to note first.
Earlies vs Maincrop Potatoes
Potatoes are classified as being either earlies or maincrops. Early varieties of potato are ready to harvest much sooner than maincrops and are what we call ‘new’ potatoes. You may have noted that new potatoes are smaller, and this is why. Typically, they will have a smoother waxier texture. Maincrop varieties however are in the ground a lot longer. They produce a larger harvest and are generally bigger potatoes.
In terms of harvesting, Maincrops are typically harvested in late summer or autumn. Early varieties which are typically harvested from early to midsummer and are further divided into first earlies and second earlies. First early varieties are of course first to harvest, while second earlies follow on a few weeks later. Whatever variety you wish to grow just be sure of their specific type, when to sow, when to harvest, and any individual needs or characteristics they may have.
Common and Not So Common Varieties
Here are some ideas on variety of potato you will have heard of and those that you’re unlikely to have heard of if this is your first foray into potato growing. This list below is just a small selection of the many varieties you can choose:
Maris Piper (maincrop)
Everyone knows the Maris Piper. In every supermarket and the most widely grown maincrop potato in the UK. Firm and creamy, with yellow skin.
The red skinned Rooster is another very popular variety. It’s a true all-rounder tasting great mashed, roasted, baked and more.
Cara potatoes are one of the most reliable to grow being drought and disease resistant. However, while still enjoyable it’s not regarded as the best tasting variety you can get. It will still make for a nice jacket potato or chips though.
Pink Fir Apple (maincrop)
These potatoes have an unpredictable long, knobbly shape with a mix of light brown and pink skin. While they might now look the best, they have a great taste and texture.
Charlotte (second early)
A very popular salad potato that’s full of flavour with a waxy skin. Good to eat hot or cold.
Maris Peer (second early)
Boasting excellent flavour and creamy yellow skin, Maris Peer potatoes are great for boiling.
Anya (second early)
The Anya potato won’t win a beauty contest, but it tastes great, kind of nutty, with a waxy flesh. Great for boiling primarily but also nice for roasting.
Red Duke of York (early)
One of the few new potatoes with distinctive pink skin, not as waxy as some, a nice round shape and holds together well after cooking. It has a great flavour.
General Growing/Harvesting Timescale
As mentioned, there are Early (new) and second-early varieties of potato. Early varieties are harvested sooner when compared to maincrop potato varieties. Based on a rough start date sometime mid to late March/early April:
- First early potatoes take roughly 80 days after planting to mature and should be ready to start harvesting in mid-June.
- Second earlies take around 100 days after planting to mature and will be harvestable around mid-July.
- Maincrops take the longest time to mature, at roughly 130 days or around mid-August.
Please note, this is just a rough guide and you should research individual growing and harvesting timelines for your chosen varieties of seed potato. Weather and growing conditions will also be factors to consider. If you are in a colder region of the UK on average, it might pay to wait a bit longer to plant.
Preparing the Ground & Soil
When choosing your spot/plot in the garden, try to opt for an open position, in full sun, on well-draining soil. Prepare the soil by removing all weeds and digging thoroughly and deeply, removing any stones or boulders as you go. A good tip to remember is to reduce the chances of disease, avoid growing potatoes in the same plot for more than two years running if you are not doing it for the first time. Potatoes can tolerate a wide range of soils but to ensure the best chance of a good crop improve the soil by adding organic matter like well-rotted manure and high potash fertiliser in the late Autumn/early Winter in order to release nutrients out ready for planting in the Spring.
Preparing & Chitting Seed Potatoes
After preparing your soil, it’s on to chitting the seed potatoes. Chitting potatoes simply means letting them grow more shoots, which in turn gives you a bigger potato crop, and faster growth. You start this off indoors by letting them sprout, in trays or old egg cartons. Just let them sit in a cool, dry, bright area until you see that little shoots about one to two centimetres have grown. This can take four to six weeks. But it is well worth it. Be sure to plan this into your timeline and start chitting by roughly the end of January/early Feb.
Sowing & Planting Seed Potatoes
Around late March/early April it will be time to plant your chitted seed potatoes. Dig straight trenches in the soil 10cm to 15cm deep and about 60cm apart for early varieties, and about 80cm for maincrop varieties as they’ll need the extra space. Just before planting, apply some more fertiliser to the soil surface then in your trenches, plant seed potatoes 30cm apart and cover them with the fertilised soil to fill in the trench.
After a while, you’ll see little shoots begin to grow up. When they reach about 15cm to 20cm tall, or become visible, use a rake, or spade to mound up some soil up around the bases of the shoots, covering the stems roughly halfway up. This is called earthing up and will protect the young plants from frosts which can damage and kill them. It also discourages any weeds from growing in your trenches too.
As the plants grow, continue to earth up until the late frosts have passed. If the weather is dry or particularly hot, keep the plants well-watered. This is even more important if you are growing first and second earlies. If growing maincrop varieties, they may benefit from another feed at the time of the second/third earthing up. Continue to keep an eye on things over the weeks until you approach harvest time. Rest assured that most of the work has been done at this stage, and we think you’ll agree it’s quite straightforward.
Harvesting Your Potatoes
As mentioned earlier, when to harvest will depend on your chosen seed potato variety, weather and growing conditions.
As a general rule because potatoes tend to grow larger over the growing period, start harvesting first earlies as ‘new potatoes’ when their plants begin to flower. You can continue to harvest early varieties in stages from this point forward, leaving the remaining plants to grow on as they are needed. Following an approach like this ensures you enjoy them at their freshest.
Maincrop varieties are best left in the ground for at least two weeks after the leaves and stems wither, to allow their skins to set. Cut down the stems with secateurs to just above soil level as the leaves wither. Then, on a dry day, harvest with a fork taking care not to accidentally pierce any of them. Brush off soil then let the potatoes air dry for a few hours. Wash and scrub potatoes before using. Then enjoy!
Home-grown potatoes, particularly maincrop potatoes, will store well for many months in a cool, dry and frost-free place. Only store the best potatoes and remove any that show signs of damage. Also, do not wash before storage. It’s important to know that they must be in darkness to stop them turning green and therefore poisonous. Get some thick brown-paper bags or sacks as these will do the job nicely. Check on them regularly to make sure they are OK and continue to remove any that have gone bad.
Common Problems to Be Aware Of
Potatoes can suffer from some problems, but with the right preparation, care and attention you will have minimal issues. Here’s a run through of what to know and watch out for though:
Potato blight is a common fungal disease of which there is no cure, which turns foliage yellow with dark patches and causes the tubers to rot. Some options include growing a resistant variety of potato. You can also cut the potato plants down at the first sign of infection, as the fungus will not have reached the potatoes by that stage. Then harvest the tubers as soon as you can.
Potato blackleg is common bacterial disease of potatoes which causes a black rotting at the base of the stem. Initial infections cause stunted growth and yellowing stems. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and the only real option is to dig up all traces then destroy them by burning.
Slugs & Other Pests
Slugs, cutworms, wireworms and potato cyst eelworm are creatures to watch out for and all will cause damage to potato crops. Choosing slug resistant varieties might be an idea to start but if you happen to be unfortunate enough to get an infestation they could ruin your whole crop.
As mentioned earlier you should never grow potatoes in the same soil year after year as this could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Be sure to dig out all traces of plants and potatoes to avoid rot that will attract disease and pests to the area.
Your Very Own Home-Grown Spuds
There you have it! Now you know how to tackle growing potatoes at home in the ground. Most seed potatoes and plants produce a bountiful crop, so you’ll have plenty to enjoy over the growing season. Will you mash, boil, make chips? All? Why not?! And once you’ve grown your first chosen variety all the way to harvest, why not try some others next time around?