Learn how to grow potatoes, it's really easy and there is absolutely nothing to beat the flavour of freshly dug potatoes straight from your own garden. Simply boiled and seasoned with a little sea salt and butter or olive oil they are mouth-wateringly delicious.
Maybe you've never tried growing potatoes because you thought it all seemed too complicated and too much like hard work?
This page concentrates on how to grow potatoes the traditional way which, to be fair, does involve quite a bit of work. But many gardeners relish the physical effort involved in traditional potato growing and gain a great deal of satisfaction and a real sense of achievement from it.
However, if hard work's not your thing, or you're short of time, there are easier ways and I recommend you try using one of these no dig potato growing methods or grow your potatoes in containers. If you want to use either of these methods do please take the time to read through the information below as much of it is relevant whichever growing method you choose.
But first things first, let's clear up any points of confusion and get to grips with the terminology. Seasoned potato growers can often be heard muttering about 'earlies', 'second earlies' and 'maincrops' as they disappear into their sheds to start a mysterious process known as 'chitting'...
If you are a novice this can seem totally incomprehensible and may give you the impression that potato growing is complicated. As you will discover, it isn't!
Basically potatoes fall into three categories: earlies, second earlies and maincrop depending on the time they take to reach maturity.
The earlies and second earlies grow the quickest and are dug up in small quantities to be used as you need them rather than being stored. Earlies take around 10 weeks from planting to maturity whilst second earlies take about 13 weeks.
Maincrop varieties take around 20 weeks to reach maturity but they give higher yields and can either be used straight from the ground or stored for use during the winter months.
Tip: If you are new to potato growing, start out by growing an early or second early variety to give you a crop of potatoes early in the year before pest and disease problems, in particular potato blight, have a chance to develop.
Potatoes are not grown from seeds but from small tubers which have been specially raised and stored. These are known as seed potatoes. New shoots develop from the 'eyes' and the seed potatoes are planted either whole, or cut into pieces.
If you decide to cut them into pieces, make sure that each piece has two or three eyes. Leave them for at least a few hours after cutting to allow the cut portion to dry out and callous over. If you plant them straight away they are more prone to rotting.
It is very important that you buy certified disease free tubers from a reputable supplier in late winter or early spring and keep them in a cool, dark place.
Why can't you just use potatoes that you have bought from the supermarket? Partly because you can't be absolutely certain that they are disease free and partly because they are often treated with chemicals to inhibit shoot production.
Some gardeners like to keep back a few small potatoes from their own harvest to use as next season's seed potatoes and this is fine, just so long as you are sure that they don't have any diseases.
In cooler areas, earlies and second earlies benefit from a process known as 'chitting' which starts them into growth before planting. You can also chit your maincrop varieties if you wish but it isn't absolutely necessary as they have a longer growing season.
Six weeks before you are due to plant, pop the tubers, with the sprouting or 'rose' end up, in boxes or egg trays and keep in indirect light in a frost free place until the shoots are 1-2.5cm (0.5-1in) long.
The sprouting end, with the 'eyes', is usually the widest end but if you get it wrong and shoots appear from the bottom simply rub them off and turn the tuber the other way up to re-sprout.
The new shoots should be green and stubby - if they are white and elongated they are not getting enough light so again, rub them off and reposition the seed potatoes in a brighter place.
Earthing up, as the name suggests, is the process of drawing soil up around the emerging potato shoots. It is done to protect the tubers that are developing near the surface from light which causes them to turn green and inedible.
Working from the sides of the row, use a draw hoe to carefully pull the soil up into a ridge covering about half the emerging foliage.
If you choose to use the 'no dig' method of growing you will not need to earth up as you will be applying surface mulches which will protect the tubers from light.
Choose an open sunny site well away from any frost pockets. Potatoes like a crumbly, moisture retentive soil, rich in well rotted organic matter. They tolerate a range of soil types but prefer a slightly acidic soil so don't add any extra lime.
As potatoes are prone to a number of diseases, it is worth using a system of crop rotation to prevent any build up in your soil. If you're not sure what this involves, check out this simple three year rotation plan in our raised bed vegetable gardening section.
As potatoes are tender plants you should wait until late March or early April to plant your earlies. Err on the side of caution if you live in a cool region and choose the later planting date. Second earlies can go in a week later and maincrop varieties a week after that.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and if frost is predicted earth up or mulch, depending on which growing method you are using, to protect the emerging shoots.
Potatoes need a planting depth of 12.5cm (5in) (unless you are using the no dig method) and grow best in rows aligned north to south to maximise the amount of sun each plant receives.
For earlies each tuber should be planted at 30cm (1ft) intervals and the rows should be spaced 60cm (2ft) apart. Second earlies and maincrops need a planting distance of 38cm (15in) with 75cm (2.5ft) between rows.
The traditional way to grow potatoes is to first prepare the ground by deep digging removing any weeds, and in particular the roots of perennial weeds, as you go and incorporating as much organic matter, in the form of well rotted manure or garden compost, as you can. It is important that you don't use fresh manure as this promotes the development of potato scab.
Mark out your rows and dig, or scrape out, a trench, 12.5cm (5in) deep, down each. Place the seed potatoes in the bottom of the trench, at the recommended intervals, with the 'rose' or sprouting end upwards. Carefully backfill the trench to avoid damaging the shoots. Do not firm down as the potato tubers develop best in loose, uncompacted soil.
If you prefer, rather than digging a trench, you can make individual planting holes of the required depth and at the recommended spacing.
You will need to hoe regularly to remove weeds in the early stages. The good news is that, once the foliage has developed, it will form a dense covering which will effectively smother the weeds with no help from you!
If frost is predicted earth up as above or protect individual plants overnight with upturned plastic flower pots.
Once the foliage reaches about 15cm (6in) high, you can apply a handful of blood, fish and bone fertilizer (as a guide sprinkle on a handful for each metre/yard of row) and then earth up the rows to protect the tubers from light.
Unless you live in a particularly dry region, or the summer is long and dry, potatoes can manage with relatively little watering. The most important point is to keep them evenly moist otherwise the growth rate will be uneven leading to cracking, so use your judgement and water in dry spells.
Tip: Probably the single most effective thing you can do to increase yields is to give the plants a really thorough watering once the flowers appear.
So how do you know when to pick your potatoes? Earlies and second earlies should be harvested one to two weeks after flowering: around early June for earlies and mid-June to early July for second earlies. Maincrops are ready once the foliage starts to die down from September onwards.
It is very easy to damage the tubers when you lift them so stand to side of the row and carefully push a fork into the ground about 30cm (12in) from the base of each plant. Gently lever the fork upwards to loosen the plant and then take hold of the base of the stem and with luck most of the potatoes will come up. Sift through the soil to find any that have become detached and then move on to the next plant.
With earlies and second earlies, harvest one or two plants as you need them and leave the rest in the ground.
If necessary, maincrops will keep in the ground after the foliage (known as the haulm) has died down but they must be lifted before the weather turns really wet as this increases the risk of slug damage and affects their keeping qualities.
Try to harvest maincrops on a dry, sunny day and leave them on the surface of the soil for a few hours to dry out so that they will store better. If this is not possible, spread them out on racks in a dry airy shed. Inspect the tubers and discard any that are damaged as they will not store well. Put the rest into hessian or brown paper sacks and keep in a cool, dry and dark place. If you store them in the light they will turn green and toxic.
Tip: If you want a few new potatoes for a meal before the plants are ready, you can carefully feel around the base of the plants, without digging them up, and remove a small number of tubers, leaving the rest to keep growing.
You can find out about no dig potato growing at growing potatoes without digging.
More information on vegetable growing can be found at creating a successful home vegetable garden.
If you're new to vegetable gardening, do try these easy vegetables to grow.
And if you are thinking of growing your vegetables in raised beds you will find lots of tips and information at planning a raised bed vegetable garden.