A Water-Wise Way to Plant Potatoes

May 17, 2014

THERE ARE PROBABLY AS MANY WAYS to plant potatoes as there are gardeners. I plant mine in shallow holes in a raised bed. And then I set a wooden frame over the bed, and gradually fill it with chopped straw. This nifty method is not only water-wise, but it permits the easy “hilling” and harvesting of tubers.

Note. I used to plant my “seed” tubers in deep holes in a raised bed. Although this method produced a terrific crop, I could never find all of the new spuds. And too often I would spear great number of them while digging with a pitchfork. My current planting-method eliminates such trauma.

First, obtain some seed potatoes! You can find certified disease-free tubers from online sources and also from quality farm stores. Or, you can do what I have learned to do, and simply save the smallest spuds from your previous year’s harvest. Let them sprout in a cool, dark location. Pre-sprouted potatoes can be harvested 2-3 weeks earlier than their non-sprouted kin. Next, using your hands, dig a hole just deep enough to accommodate a tuber, spacing the tubers 12 inches apart on all sides.

This spring, I planted white ‘Kennebec’…

‘Red Norland’…

And ‘Blue.’

Cover the tuber with one inch of soil.

Now make a frame to fit over your raised bed. My frame, pictured above, is now in its second year. I had it cut to size from the cheapest pine my lumber store had to offer. It stands 12 inches tall, and fits just inside my 8×4 raised bed.

When your sprouts transform themselves into vines…

“Hill” them with weed-free chopped straw*. Only the top 2 inches of greenery should be exposed to sunlight.

And speaking of sunlight, be sure to plant your crop in full, blazing sun. Potatoes grown in part-sun will not achieve their full potential.

*You can find weed-free chopped straw at most garden centers. Shredded leaves are suitable for potato-hilling, too.

New potatoes will form on “stolons” (underground stems) that form beneath the straw.

Hilling is halted when the chopped straw reaches the top of the bed.

I can tell you that last year’s potato harvest, achieved with my nifty bed-on-a-bed method, was substantial indeed. It was easy to pull out the straw (which went into my compost bin) in order to verify that no spud was left behind.

Think you’ll try my easy planting-method? You can let me know by leaving a comment. The method is certainly water-wise, because the straw shades the soil below, and thus keeps it cool and moist. I think I watered my crop only twice last summer, and believe me, it was not a rainy season!

Need more potato growing advice, including when and how to harvest? Then be sure to read this page-turner: How to Plant, Grow, Harvest & Store Potatoes.

Other mind-numbing posts you might enjoy:
Fougasse aux Herbes de Provence
Victorian Beauty from Common Garden Flowers
The Best Lemon Tart in the World

Comments

  1. MaryAnn Quinn says:

    I hilled potatoes with straw one year and it attracted the snakes! Do snakes harbor in the warm hay when it’s in a raised bed?

  2. Hi MaryAnn Quinn – I’ve never encountered snakes in my potato bed.

  3. Laurie says:

    I wish I had read this prior to planting my potatoes this year. Rest assured I will try this next year! After having home grown potatoes it’s hard to settle with ones from the store which lack the flavor and keeping ability of those you grow yourself.

  4. Lori G. says:

    I’ve tried so many ways to grow potatoes. This is a new one on me! I’ll have to get my hubby to fix me up with a box like that next year. I think it’s too late for me this year. How do you keep your ‘seed’ potatoes from going bad over the winter? Guess I’ll read your linked post and find out there?

  5. Lauren says:

    Would this method work with sweet potatoes too?

  6. JoAnn says:

    I’ve grown my potatoes this way & it works great! This year I didn’t want to give up a whole bed so I made wire cages & set them up next to garden, layed some straw in bottom, layed some seed potatoes on it & placed a little more straw on top. We had a couple of freezing nights since then & I was afraid I may have lost them, but I’m starting to see a few green sprouts shooting up through the straw now. If this works then this is how I will grow potatoes every year. :~)

  7. Kathy Cooley says:

    Where can I get chopped straw?

  8. Marjie T. says:

    I have been doing the straw method for a few years and love it. I have not, however, created the second frame within the raised bed. I will try that..it would be a nice way to keep the straw contained. Thanks for the idea!

  9. Shirley Meyer says:

    I have used hard wood shavings around my potato plants for years and have had un believable crops of Red Pontiac potatoes. Before digging I pull most of the shavings away. I try not to dig too many shavings into the soil as they will change the ph of the soil. But I have used the same place for my potatoes for years with no problems

  10. Joyce Killin says:

    What a brilliant idea for growing potatoes. I always struggle with my planting in our community plot, thinking I have not hilled them enough. Your method solves this problem. Thanks.

  11. Julie says:

    Can I use pine straw?

  12. Rita says:

    In the fall I pile bales of hay around the perimeter of my garden. By spring that has sunken down and is like the most wonderful compost ever. I take my seed potatoes, wiggle an opening into the bale and pop the potatoes in there – like eggs in a carton. I put about a foot of hay over the top and let it go. Rarely I water. When we want potatoes we just lift the hay, pick the ones we want and pull the hay back over to let the rest keep growing. Some of us like the tiny spuds and others like the middle size and then of course we all like the Big Billy Goat Gruff ones! This way sure beats digging and the new potatoes are as clean as a whistle and oh so tasty. :)

  13. Mary Jouver says:

    How do you know when the potatos are ready for harvest?

  14. Jan Evancho says:

    Thanks for another great posting with photos. I am going to use your idea in one of my raised beds, but instead of adding a wooden frame in there, I will put a circle of chicken wire around the plants and begin to pile up the straw around them as the potato plants grow taller. I just love reading everybody’s comments. I get the benefit of several good gardening brains all in one place!

  15. Jan Evancho says:

    Oh, in answer to Mary Jouver’s question, your taters are ready when the green leaves begin to wilt and die back (but you can usually sneak a few good ones from the bottom even before then).

  16. Mary Jouver says:

    Thank you Jan!

  17. Verilee Herpich says:

    last year I planted in feed bags with holes poked in the bottom for drainage. just kept adding more soil/compost as the plants grew! then dumped them out at the end of the season and voila, potatoes! idea came from commercially available potato bag growing systems and I have chickens and buy sunflower seed and thus have lots of those reinforced woven bags. I didn’t put in the drainage until the soil was in…made it easier, just used a paring knife…like this system with the straw too!

  18. LynnB says:

    I do much the same but I use old car tyres. Usually 3 one on top of the other. The rubber gives protection from frost in the earliest part of the season and helps conserve water in the hottest months. The used straw makes marvellous mulch.

  19. Colleen says:

    This is similar to the Irish method which stacks pieces of pipe. Maybe you could stack another box on top?

    Now that the garden is tidy, back to indoors! Where can I find a microfiber wall/ceiling dust mop like yours?! I have looked and looked.

  20. Lori Schmidt says:

    This post could not have come at a better time. I planted my seed potatoes about four weeks ago and they started to sprout a week after or so. I have a raised bed and I made the wooden frame like yours out of 2×12 treated lumber. The instructions I had were to put 12 inches of loose straw on top of the sprouts and wait till they came through. We had torrential rain a few days later which spanned three or four days and then promptly had low temps in the mid 30s at night (I am in the same zone as you) which threatened frost and of course the straw had compacted down with all the rain. I dug gently down into the straw to see what was happening to my plants and they looked dreadful!!!! I pulled most of the straw off of them, it was soaked from top to bottom and now am waiting to see if they will recover. I will add straw gradually as they grow like you suggested. I have to admit that I wondered how successful it would be plonking 12 inches of straw on top of healthy plants and I guess I got my answer. I have a second bed that is just starting to sprout and I will definitely do the gradual addition of straw on that one. I was really feeling badly about it when I came in tonight. now I have new hope THANK YOU!

  21. Lori Schmidt says:

    Another question, how do you know how often to water when you can’t see the soil? Do you watch for wilting or drooping? Thanks so much.

  22. Hi Lori Schmidt – You’ll find detailed information on watering, harvesting, etc. in my post How to Plant, Grow, Harvest and Store Potatoes.

    To check for water, I simply reach beneath the straw, and poke a finger 2 inches into the soil. If the soil feels moist, no action is required. If the soil feels dry, then a deep, thorough soaking is in order.

    Once the hilling material has reached the top of the bed, you’ll find the soil remains moist for a considerably long period of time. Well, that has been my experience!

  23. jane says:

    Kevin, this advice could not have been more timely for me up here on Canada’s west coast. I just planted potatoes in my raised bed, so now all I have to do is get the frame and chopped straw. Thanks!

  24. Lee McCann says:

    So I asked my daughter to put a few potatoes in a container. I have 2 large urns on my front steps where I like to put the bright spring flowers like “johnny-jump-ups, pansies and items like that. She took the bag of potatoes (Idaho) and planted them all in with the flowers which are now struggling to grow. the potatoes are doing great. I’m sure I will have to remove some but
    green will push up! I have grown some in a container before and got a few nice ones. Let’s see what happens this year. I probably won’t be selling them.

  25. Dale says:

    Would low wire fence inside the edge of our raised bed work, too? It would hold the straw in place, but I didn’t know if the solid wood frame would keep it darker. What do you think?

  26. Hi Dale – Initially my plan was to use a low “chicken” wire fence. But then I realized how flimsy the material is. It’s also tricky to attach. The wood frame is great! If you have the lumber yard or hardware store cut the wood for you, your only work is to screw the pieces together.

  27. Ann Honer says:

    We live in Northern Illinois.
    The last 2 yrs. I have used ‘grow bags’ filled with container mix. When the vines die back, I just tip the bag into a garden cart, pull out the potatoes and add the soil mix back into the garden.
    So far, this year, my potato plants are already above the top of the bag!
    I like the idea of using weed free straw.

  28. LoveyO says:

    I had great harvest, thanks to your fine tutorial!

  29. LoveyO – So glad the method worked out for you!

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