Published on 01/31/01

It's About Time to Plant Potatoes

Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS

Many south Georgia gardeners are only days away from planting their first potatoes. North Georgia gardeners are more likely to plant around April 1.
Some dedicated gardeners probably have already gotten their seed potatoes and have the rows ready. Potatoes are one of the first vegetables Georgia gardeners can plant each year.

Some south Georgia gardeners aim for planting on or before March first, while north Georgians will plant potatoes around April Fool's Day. Because Georgia's weather can be so unpredictable, it's hard to offer precise advice on a planting time.

Potatoes are considered a cool-season crop and can be planted just as soon as the ground has dried enough to safely work the soil.

Let Soil Dry First

It's critical to let the soil dry adequately. If worked while it's still too wet, soil becomes hard and compacted, leading to long-term frustrations for the eager gardener.

The potato plant can adapt to most types of soil. But it has to have good drainage to prevent the tubers from rotting before they can be harvested.

Choose a sunny spot and work in the recommended amount of a balanced, low-analysis fertilizer (5-10-15 or 10-10-10) to promote vigorous plant growth.

The part of the potato plant that we eat is called a tuber, a technical name that refers to an enlarged, modified stem that grows underground. Potato tubers that are used to create a new planting are called seed potatoes.

Use Quality Seed Potatoes

You'll want to start with the best quality seed potatoes, so look for those that are labeled as "certified disease-free" at garden shops and in mail-order catalogs. Don't buy potatoes from the grocery store for planting. They've usually been treated to prevent sprouting.

To start a new planting, cut the seed potato into pieces so each piece has at least one healthy-looking bud (often called an "eye"). Many gardeners say the piece should be about the size of a small egg.

That bud will become the shoot of the new plant, and as the stem develops, it will also produce new roots. The piece of tuber attached to the bud provides a source of carbohydrates to sustain the young plant until those new roots and shoots develop.

Plant the pieces 2 to 3 inches deep. Space them about 12 inches apart within the row, and leave 24 to 36 inches between rows.

Tubers Start in Spring

New tubers that will become this year's harvest begin to form sometime in late spring. They'll continue to grow until early summer, as long as they get adequate moisture, air and nutrients.

The tubers can be harvested as "new" potatoes in midspring, before they reach full size and before the skins start to toughen. New potatoes are tender and tasty, but they don't keep very long. The plant is pulled up to harvest the tubers, and yields are generally small.

If you want bigger yields of full-size tubers, it's best to leave the plants until they begin to die back on their own, usually by early summer.

Dig Potatoes Carefully

As the plants begin to turn brown, gently lift the tubers with a digging fork and remove them from the plants. If you're going to use the potatoes immediately, no further treatment is needed.

However, to be able to store the potatoes for later use, you'll want to allow the tubers to "cure," or air-dry, for a week or two to allow the skins to thicken and dry.

The biggest challenge for gardeners who intend to keep their potatoes is finding dark storage conditions at 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Both light and warmth promote sprouting of the buds.

For best results, store only the best-quality tubers that are free of cuts, bruises and diseases. Potatoes can be stored from two to nine months, depending on the cultivar and storage conditions.

For more information on potatoes, check the Web publication at pubcd/C849.htm.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.