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How to grow Potatoes

Potatoes Growing Guide

They’re Britain’s most popular vegetable, but you might never buy another one once you’ve enjoyed the earthy, concentrated flavour of home-grown potatoes.

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Potatoes quick links

How to grow Potatoes

That great staple of the British diet, the potato, is also understandably one of the most widely cultivated crops. Relatively undemanding and easy to grow, it is a reliable vegetable that has won a spot in almost every kitchen garden. 

The potato year starts in the depths of midwinter when the young tubers, known as seed potatoes, are left to sprout. They’re planted outside later in the spring. If you’re wondering ‘how long to grow potatoes’, there’s no single answer. More than 400 varieties are available to British growers, with varieties grouped into three main categories according to the time they take to mature. 

The harvesting season starts as early as late May with the ‘first earlies’, and continues well into autumn with the ‘maincrops’. In between, the ‘second earlies’ will give a steady supply of tubers right through summer. If you’re a little unsure of your growing prowess, you can invest in potato growing kits to help you along.

The potato has been adapted for modern lifestyles, with growing methods allowing virtually everyone to try their hand at the crop, no matter their circumstances or space restrictions. Growing potatoes in bags (Monty Don does this), pots, tubs and containers has become common practice, while new varieties are available to thwart potato blight. 

Modern techniques even allow for a second planting in late summer for a crop of potatoes in late autumn, raising the possibility of home-grown spuds for Christmas.

Preparing the ground for potatoes

Potatoes are often credited with breaking up the ground for later crops to follow: it’s the preparation of the soil and the lifting of tubers that does this. Potatoes are very heavy feeders, so they need rich earth, ideally in a sunny part of the plot.

They prefer soil to be on the acidic side with a high pH level, so avoid growing potatoes in an area where you’ve recently applied low-pH lime. Lime is often used to combat the brassica-infecting disease, clubroot.

Frost can damage young growth, severely setting back the crop, so pick a site that’s clear of any frost pockets. Begin preparing the soil by digging in ample quantities of well-rotted manure or garden compost. Ideally, do this the winter before planting, and at the latest as you begin to ‘chit’ your seed potatoes.

Add about a bucketful of the organic matter for every square metre. About a fortnight before planting your potatoes, add a good sprinkling of organic fertiliser such as chicken manure pellets to give an extra boost of nutrients.

How to chit potatoes

You should order your seed potatoes as soon as possible, to allow enough time for them to sprout – a process called ‘chitting’. The idea is that they make a quicker start into growth when they’re planted outside, and will therefore produce a heavier crop.

To get chitting underway, take the seed potatoes out of their packaging and lay them out in trays, with the ‘eyes’, or buds, facing upwards. Egg boxes make excellent makeshift trays and will hold each potato in place. Start all this about six weeks before planting time in a cool but frost-free location – a spare room with the heating turned off is a good bet. That usually means late January in warmer parts of the UK, and late February in cooler areas.

How to plant potatoes

Once the shoots are 1-3cm in length, the seed potatoes can be planted outside. The ideal seed potato is the size of an egg, and will have two or three healthy sprouts. First earlies should be planted outside from early April or as soon as the soil has warmed a little. Second earlies and maincrops can follow two to three weeks later.

You can either use a hoe to draw a wide drill about 10cm deep in the soil, or dig individual planting holes using a hand trowel. Space first earlies 30cm apart and leave 45cm between rows. Second earlies and maincrop potatoes produce bigger plants and need a little more room, with 38cm spacings and 75cm between rows. 

Carefully place a potato into each position, taking care not to damage the shoots. Cover them with at least 2cm of soil, or draw up earth from in between the rows using a hoe. This will create a shallow ridge over the lines of potatoes.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]

Growing first early potatoes

First earlies may need some protection from spring frosts. Keep horticultural fleece to hand and place it over emerging potato shoots if frost threatens, or draw up soil around the shoots using a hoe. Once the shoots reach 25cm in height they will need regular ‘earthing up’.

This simply involves drawing the soil up around the potato stems, leaving just the tips of the foliage showing each time. Repeat the process at fortnightly intervals until a clear ridge has formed around the plants and the top growth meets in between the rows.

Potato lovers can (and should) grow some of each group of potatoes. First earlies are a good choice for those with limited space as they can be planted closer together. They will also be out of the ground before potato blight threatens later on in the summer, freeing up room for a second crop in the same season. Maincrop potatoes, however, offer a heavier harvest and the tubers tend to be much better for storage.

Growing potatoes in containers

Like many vegetables, potatoes make excellent container crops, as long as the right conditions and varieties are selected. Select a first or second early such as ‘Mimi’ or ‘Charlotte’, as they will produce smaller plants than maincrop varieties. Use a purpose-made potato barrel, or grow potatoes in sacks or good-sized containers that are at least 30cm wide and deep. 

It’s easy to grow potatoes in a bag or in potato grow sacks. Simply fill your potato grow bag, container or tub with a 10cm depth of compost, then position two to three seed potatoes on top. Cover them with a 15cm layer of compost and water them in.

When the shoots reach 15cm in height, begin ‘earthing up’ the potatoes by adding compost to leave just the shoot tips showing. Continue to add compost as the shoots push upwards, leaving the tips clear each time to enable them to grow on. Water regularly in hot, dry weather, and apply an organic liquid feed to help the tubers swell to a good size. The potatoes will be ready to harvest when the plants flower, or not long afterwards.

The ideal time to plant potatoes is from late January in a heated greenhouse, or late February in a cool one for a crop as early as Easter. Specially held-back seed potatoes from seed merchants can be planted in late August or September for a crop in late autumn. If you’re growing potatoes in pots in the UK, keep these containers in a sheltered position that’s free from frost. You may even be able to enjoy a few of your home-grown spuds at Christmas!

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Growing Potatoes month-by-month

January

In warmer parts of the country, begin chitting potatoes. For a really early greenhouse crop, plant seed potatoes in containers.

February

Gardeners in the far north of the country can be chitting now. Aim for shoots that are 1-3cm in length on the seed potatoes.

March

Begin planting potatoes outside in warmer parts of the country by the end of the month.

April

This is the main month for planting potatoes. First earlies should be in by the end of the month. Harvest the first greenhouse spuds.

May

Finish planting out second early and maincrop varieties. Begin earthing up potatoes as the shoots push through, and water in dry weather.

June

Earth up potatoes until the top growth meets between rows. Start harvesting the first outdoor potatoes.

July

Continue enjoying your first and second early potatoes. Water the plants in dry and warm weather to ensure that the potato tubers swell fully.

August

Start lifting the first of the maincrop potatoes. Watch out for potato blight this month. Plant seed potatoes for an autumn harvest.

Must do this month!
September

Towards the end of the month, most of the maincrop potatoes should have been lifted. Dry them properly and store any you want to keep for winter.

October

Keep earthing up potatoes for a late autumn harvest. Check on stored potatoes frequently and remove any that show signs of disease.

November

Enjoy autumn potatoes, while checking on those in store. Begin preparing the soil for next year's crop.

December

Keep digging over the soil, adding plenty of organic matter as you work. Place orders for next year's seed potatoes as soon as possible.

Caring for your Potatoes plants + problems

With their impressive foliage growth, it’s no surprise that potatoes need plenty of moisture. This is particularly important when the young tubers begin to swell, and will have a big impact on the final yield. If the weather is warm and dry, give plants a thorough soaking once a week.

Maincrop potatoes will not need extra watering until the tubers are the size of marbles. To check that they have reached this size, simply scrape back an area of soil beside one of the plants to find one of the young tubers.

If you’re watering with a hose, aim the water at the base of your potato plants, and avoid getting the leaves wet to lower the chances of blight spreading. Alternatively, invest in a drip irrigation system – ‘leaky’ pipes which can be laid along the rows to deliver the water exactly where it’s needed.

Potatoes don’t usually need much extra care other than this, although in poorer soils they may benefit from an occasional organic liquid feed to satisfy their nutrient requirements. The foliage is thick and will shade out weed growth, effectively clearing annual weeds for the crop that follows.

How to harvest Potatoes

If you’re wondering how long it takes to grow potatoes, harvest time will depend on the potato variety you grow. It doesn’t take long to grow some types of potatoes: first earlies will be ready within 12 weeks. Some immature ‘baby’ potatoes can even be dug out as soon as eight weeks from planting.

First earlies are lifted as the flowers appear, and while the top growth, known as the haulm, is still green. To harvest the potatoes, plunge a fork into the soil some distance from the plant and carefully work your way towards the centre. Take care not to spear the spuds with the tines.

It’s worth lifting a few smaller potatoes first to enjoy as an extra early treat, leaving the other plants to grow on. Second early potatoes will take a few weeks longer to grow, and are harvested in the same way.

Maincrop potatoes will be ready towards the end of summer and into autumn. The haulms are likely to die back beforehand, and this is perfectly normal. You can cut them down to ground level when they do, but leave the potatoes in the ground for at least another week. This allows the tubers to harden their skins in preparation for storage. 

Lift the potatoes on a dry day and leave the unearthed tubers on the soil surface for a few hours to dry off. Use any damaged or diseased tubers immediately, and place the remainder into storage in clean hessian sacks. These are widely available from seed potato merchants, and will allow the potatoes to breathe while excess moisture evaporates. Keep them out of light, and in a cool but frost-free shed or garage.

If you’re a fan of rose gardens, and you have some spare spuds, did you know you can grow roses in potatoes? It sounds crazy, but if you bury cuttings from rose bushes in potatoes before planting them, the rose roots should stay moist.

Varieties of Potatoes

Potatoes varieties to try

'Sarpo Mira'

Generous yields of floury, tasty potatoes can be enjoyed from this easy-care maincrop variety. It produces vigorous plants that are resistant to potato blight, and the tubers keep particularly well.

'Swift'

If you fancy growing new potatoes, and you’re wondering ‘how long do potatoes take to grow?’, then consider this variety. It’s arguably the earliest spud of them all, and very quick-growing. The seed potatoes can be supplied pre-chitted for a delicate-tasting crop in as little as seven weeks. It has short, bushy growth, so is good for growing potatoes in tubs or containers.

'Nicola'

Small, firm and waxy spuds make 'Nicola' an ideal salad potato, and it has bags of taste. This maincrop variety produces long, golden tubers with good eelworm resistance.

'Pink Fir Apple'

This is an old maincrop potato variety that's made an impressive comeback. The knobbly tubers are pretty pink in colour, and open to reveal a succulently creamy, yellow flesh with exceptional flavour.

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