The How-to of Growing Potatoes

Growing potatoes

Growing potatoes in the Redlands can be tricky, as potatoes are a cool climate crop. This means they grow well in Australia’s the southern states, but don’t like our coastal humidity!

Potatoes starting to grow

In southern states potatoes are a summer crop because they are frost tender. If you want to grow potatoes in the Redlands, you need to plant them in autumn so that they grow through our winter. Any time from April to June is best as they take around 90 plus days to grow, multiply and produce a crop.

Which Variety?

First you have to decide which variety of potato that you want to grow. And this is where it starts to get interesting.

The great thing about growing your own potatoes is that you get to choose different varieties from those you buy in the supermarket. There are actually hundreds of different varieties of potatoes you can grow, providing you can get the seed potatoes!

I didn’t realise potatoes had suffered a similar fate to tomatoes. As you know, there is a huge difference in taste between the tomatoes you buy in the supermarket and the tomatoes you grow at home. Well the same thing can be said of potatoes and it kinda makes sense, if you think about it!

Potatoes we buy in the supermarket are chosen because they travel well, have thicker skin and can last a long time on the supermarket shelf while they are waiting to be bought! This can mean they are not the best from a flavour perspective, or even from a eating perspective.

While we get to choose between washed potatoes and brushed potatoes and maybe a few named varieties like Desiree or Kipfler, in the UK they have around 20 different named varieties available in their supermarkets!

And these varieties differ considerably in taste, colour and thickness of skin. They also suggest what recipes they enhance the most.

How do you want to use them?

You should choose your potato variety by what you want to do with them. For example if you want to make a great potato salad then you want a waxy potato like Bintje, Kipfler or Nicola. These potatoes hold their shape when they’re cooked, so they don’t crumble and become a watery mess!

If you want to make mashed spuds then you should choose a variety like Yukon gold, red rascal, Dutch cream or golden delight. These are “floury” and easily fall apart, making for a great mash. For a real difference why not try purple Congo, which gives you purple coloured mash. It’s great for an unusual coloured gnocchi.

Floury potatoes also make great baked spuds and potato chips, because they crisp up nicely on the outside but are soft and fluffy when you bite into them.

Seed potatoes

When you start learning about growing your own spuds, you will find a lot of advice about not using supermarket potatoes and how you need to use “seed” potatoes.

You can’t actually grow potatoes from a traditional seed, like carrots or beetroot and other root crops. Seed potatoes look just like little potatoes and that’s what they are! You can eat seed potatoes just like you eat normal potatoes. However, they are a bit more expensive at between $6 to $8 per kilo.

The big selling point for seed potatoes is they are guaranteed to be free of disease. Potatoes can suffer from a number of diseases which you don’t want to introduce into the soil in your garden. As I grow my potatoes in large buckets this is not a major concern. The only other benefit from using seed potatoes seems to be the different and more unusual varieties.

A big downside is that although we can buy more than 20 different varieties of potato to grow in our veggie patch, the potato growing industry is customized to the southern market. When I went online to find what potatoes I wanted to experiment with, all the seed companies say the seed potatoes aren’t available until the end of July!

There were some really interesting varieties, but planting them in August means you are looking at late November for harvesting and that’s really too late. If we get spring rains or a heat wave in August as happened in 2019 and 2020, there goes your crop!

Supermarket potatoes

You can also try growing potatoes from those that you buy in the supermarket or at the fruit and vegetable store.

When we get away from producers and supermarkets not wanting us to grow our own veggies, the main downside of using supermarket potatoes seems to be the potential disease.

Lots of websites claim that store-bought potatoes are sprayed with a chemical to deter sprouting. However I found very few references to this spraying happening in Australia, so I’m not sure how widespread this practice is. I’ve certainly had my share of potatoes sprout in the cupboard!

The general advice seems to be that if you can get it to sprout, then try growing it! The main problem to me is the lack of different varieties.

Buying seed potatoes

As I said, the seed potato business in geared toward the southern market and they don’t plant their potatoes until spring.

I was really looking forward to trying purple congo or royal blue or even Japanese sweet but these aren’t available until late July.

Growing Potatoes – the How?

The good news is that you don’t actually need a huge amount of space!

You can grow potatoes in pots, old garbage bins, plastic paint buckets with drainage holes added or specific grow-bags. I’m growing mine in some recycled paint buckets.

Paint bucket repurposed to grow potatoes
Paint bucket repurposed for growing potatoes

One thing that’s not recommended is to grow them in old tyres. This used to be quite trendy. However, research has shown heavy metals such as lead and zinc can leach out of the tyres into your potatoes.

The actual growing is quite easy although there is some preparation.

Chitting

It is recommended that you do a process called “chitting” for your spuds. All this means is to start the potato sprouting before you plant it. This makes sense to me as then you know that they are viable and going to grow!

To chit potatoes, place them in a warm, moist location for a couple of weeks and they should start to sprout. The sprouts grow from the “eyes” of the potato. You only need a few eyes on each potato to sprout, so remove the others and keep only the strong sprouts.

Chitted Golden Dream potatoes

Keep the potatoes separated while they are sprouting. An old egg container is great for this as you can use the lid to keep the potatoes warm and dark.

While your potatoes are Chitting, choose your container.

Also, at this point, choose your location. Potatoes like full sun in our winter.

Planting

When your potatoes have started to sprout (sprout formation can take 2 – 3 weeks). Grab your container or grow bag and put a several centimetres of compost in the bottom. If you don’t have home-made compost, you can use a premium potting mix. Want to know how to make your own compost? Check this link Compost Bins: Composting Tips for your garden

Place two to three of the sprouted potatoes on top of the compost. You need to take care when handling the potatoes, being careful not to damage the sprouts.

Place the potatoes so the sprout is pointing upward. If you have several sprouts that have grown either carefully remove the excess or else carefully cut the potato into pieces and plant each piece. Plant the cut side down and it should heal and not rot out.

Carefully cover the potato and sprout with around 10 centimetres of compost or potting mix.

As the potato shoots grow, you keep adding compost until the container is full. It’s this continual heaping up that encourages the plant to grow more potatoes. You should get around 10 potatoes for each sprouted potato you plant.

Make sure that you only use really well composted compost or potting mix. Potatoes hate coming into contact with green manures as this can encourage disease.

Water and fertilising potatoes

Potatoes require quite a lot of water to grow big, juicy spuds, so remember to water regularly. For the first week or so go a bit light in the watering, but as the plants grow they need a fair amount of water.

If you want to fertilise, use composted chook poo as this has all the nutrients your growing potatoes will need.

Pests

Potatoes can attract pests so keep an eye out for any leaf damage.

You need to check your potatoes for any of these pests regularly, as they can do significant damage almost overnight. This will seriously impact how many potatoes you get to harvest. The main pests to look out for are the black beetle, potato/peach aphid, potato tuber moth, cluster caterpillar and nematodes.

The best method of treatment is to remove any beetles or caterpillars you find and spray the plants with eco pest oil. Even better, encourage beneficial insects to do the work for you. Want to know more? Good Bugs for the Vegetable Garden

There is also a new pest called the tomato/potato psyllids. These are sap sucking insects and you need to control these using eco pest oil.

Harvesting potatoes

After about 3 months the leaves of your potato plant will go yellow and start to die back. At this point your potatoes are ready to harvest.

By growing them in a bucket or grow bag you can harvest them just by tipping the container on its side and dumping out the contents.

Store in a cool dark place. If potatoes are exposed to sunlight they will develop green patches under the skin. This is caused by a glycoalkaloid called Solanine which can make you sick in large doses.

potatoes just harvested

Potatoes just harvested

Sweet potatoes

You can grow sweet potatoes, particularly the orange kumara using a similar technique, except you don’t need to heap up the compost. I would recommend confining them to a bucket or large bin though as they can become quite invasive.

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