Have you ever thought of planting potatoes with straw? It's a great way to make planting and hilling up easier, plus harvesting them is fun - and clean - with a lot less wasted to the shovel. Find the how-to along with updates for those who live in damp climates and an alternate way to plant if underground animals are a problem.
When I first started growing vegetables, I planted potatoes the most common way I read about: digging a deep hole or trench, laying the tuber in the bottom, and just covering it with soil. As the plants grow, we're told to add more soil around the base, "hilling up" the plant with soil so that no light could get to the tubers.
What happens when potatoes are exposed to light?
Potatoes exposed to light turn green, producing a toxin called solanine which we don't want to ingest in large quantities (this can happen when stored, too, so always store potatoes the dark and cut out any green spots you see - fully green potatoes should be tossed).
Those first potatoes grew, producing foliage and flowers, and then eventually started to brown and wither, which meant it was time to harvest - yay! Not so yay: trying to find all the new tubers in mounds of dirt.
I started with a shovel. When I realized that more potatoes were pulled up cut in half than not, I moved to a garden fork. Then I had holes in the potatoes. Finally, I just dug around with my hands and a trowel, trying to not miss any.
It was not fun (well, after the initial "I grew potatoes!" feeling faded). And boy, were those potatoes dirty from our clay soil. I read you're not supposed to wash them with water, so it was a muddy mess to get them clean enough to store. (Tip: I use this method to store potatoes since we have no basement or cellar.)
Is there a better way?
Then I read that potatoes could be hilled up with straw, which would make a cleaner and easier harvest. Um, thank you!
Of course I tried it the next season - and not only did it work wonderfully, the harvest was fun and the kids LOVED helping because it was so easy to find the potatoes. It was like potato hide-and-seek, with honors going to those who found the biggest and smallest. They were clean enough that I could store them without doing anything more than curing a bit.
If you'd like to experience this, too, follow the easy steps below of my version of "straw-planting" potatoes. I am not an expert, but have planted this way for about four years now, and I have had great success. I'll never go back to the other way.
(UPDATE: after five years planting this way, I had major damage from slugs and so had to adjust the technique. If you deal with slugs, I've added a section at the bottom where you'll find the additional steps I took. Also, we then started to deal with a major vole infestation and I have thoughts and tips about that below, too.)
Planting Potatoes The Easy Way
1) Prepare A Planting Bed
The bed shown above is about 9'x 20'. I rotate my beds - if you garden organically, it is one of the keys to keeping pests and diseases down - last year this grew corn, and the year before, beans. (TIP: I know this because I keep track in my Garden Success Notebook, which is FREE for subscribers!)
This bed had black plastic on it to kill the weeds about 2 months before planting (like I described here). When it's time to plant, remove the plastic and then simply rake up the debris and pull any remaining deep rooted weeds.
Wait, when is the best time to plant potatoes?
It depends on your gardening zone, of course, but basically 4-6 weeks before your last frost date (click here to see your zone and planting schedule). Here in the mild valley of the Pacific NW (zone 8) we can plant the earliest potatoes the end of March and into April (the old saying is St. Patrick's Day, but I find that to be to wet, even with a no-till raised bed). We can also keep planting potatoes into June, using the earliest maturing varieties for those planted the latest.
TIP: You can just see the bed in the top of the picture above where I grew the previous year's potatoes. Which reminds me that another benefit of growing potatoes with straw is keeping the weeds down all year! I simply leave the straw in place after harvesting until I need to plant the bed the next spring. Love it!
2) Gather Seed Potatoes
There are two ways to get your planting potatoes:
- Buy certified disease free seed potatoes. I regularly purchase from my favorite catalogs, Pinetree Garden Seeds (click to get $5 off your first order), Territorial Seeds, and Nichol's Garden Seeds. You can also find seed potatoes at garden centers and nurseries in early spring.
- Take a chance on store bought potatoes that have sprouted or leftover potatoes from last year's harvest.
I decided to use the last of my stored potatoes that had already sprouted (some gardeners always presprout potatoes before planting). That year we had eaten the last of the good potatoes on April 4 (a record!) that I had stored through the winter like this for a total of 7 months. That remains the longest ever, so it was a very good year.
Varieties of potatoes to try:
I like to plant early, med, and late season potatoes to extend the harvest. In the photo above there are:
- Yukon Gold, an early yellow potato.
- Red Norland, early to mid-season.
- A Russet-type late season potato.
There are lots of fun types of potatoes - try growing something that you can't find in the store if you have limited space, like fingerling.
What was the result of using the previous year's sprouted potatoes?
Well, planting leftover potatoes was an experiment. And I didn't have a good crop that year, so I'm thinking it was because they weren't "certified disease free" seed potatoes. That, plus the fact that I haven't had any leftover potatoes, means I'm back to buying the seed potatoes.
3) Prepare Holes & Add Compost
After the bed is prepped and the potatoes bought, head to the garden, take your shovel and mark where you want the potatoes planted by digging about a 4 inch hole in the soil. Space the hills about 2 feet apart in all directions. I like to plant in alternating rows.
If your soil is good, once your holes are marked and dug, dump a shovel-full of compost on each hole. (Note: this is the forth year for this bed, and I've layered soil with compost on the whole bed every year, so this year I'm just putting compost in the areas I'm planting, plus some bone meal to fertilize.)
What if my soil isn't that great?
Use the steps outlined in how to plant a no-till garden bed: after raking the debris, add a complete layer of good quality garden compost to the bed. Then mark your holes and dig a bit, mixing the compost with the soil as you dig.
4) Plant The Tubers
Mix the soil and compost together a bit, and place a spud in the hole/indentation you've dug.
TIP #1: I usually use small, whole potatoes to lessen the possibility of rotting (it's known to get damp here in the Pacific NW, ha!), but I've used cut and cured pieces as well with good results.
TIP #2: Lay them all out before covering them up, so you can see where they are and don't inadvertently step on one (not that I've ever done anything like that...).
Cover up the tubers with the soil, making a slight mound with your hands.
If there are long sprouts like mine, don't bother covering them, they will be covered by the straw later. Just be careful with them and try not to break any of the sprouts. Though you probably won't have sprouts this long even with presprouting - I think I should've planted sooner that year!
5) Cover Mounds With Straw
After mounding all the potatoes with dirt, cover each seed potato area with straw. The straw flakes off in "leaves" (seen above on top of the wheelbarrow) and these can be pretty dense, so you'll need to separate them so that the straw is light and relatively fluffy to allow the stems of the potato plants to grow through. This is easiest with dry straw so if you get the straw awhile before planting, keep it covered.
TIP: It's important to use straw, NOT hay, as hay will have many more seeds that will sprout into weeds...not something we're after here! I learned this lesson after one time buying a neighbor's "straw" that ended up being rotted hay, so now I just buy a bale from the feed store now.
For this large bed, I used about half the bale for the first mounds, leaving the rest for hilling up after the plants have grown. At about $9 a bale, I think it's worth it.
6) Finish Covering With Straw
Keep going until all the potatoes are covered in a straw mound, and as you're doing that, lightly cover the dirt between the mounds to help keep weeds down.
Do you water now?
If it's not going to rain for a few days, I water the mounds either by hand or with a sprinkler. It also helps to keep the straw in place if it's particularly windy.
7) As Plants Grow, Hill Up With Straw
When the stems of the plants are about 6-10 inches above the current straw mounds, put another layer of straw on them, making sure they are evenly covered all around the base of the plant. The plants shown above are in June and have been hilled up twice.
I usually add the straw around the edges, pushing the plant together in the middle with my hands. If there is a bare spot in the middle of the leaves, I'll add straw there, too. Just make sure they are covered fully.
How do you care for them throughout the season?
Other than hilling up with the straw I usually don't do anything else - they are pretty easy! During the growing season, water weekly if you don't have rain up until the plants are still flowering. Stop watering as much as the flowers fade to toughen the potatoes for harvest.
When can you harvest potatoes?
New Potatoes: As soon as you see flowers, you can pull back some areas of straw and harvest "new" potatoes, carefully covering back up with straw. These are usually ready the same time as the peas, which is why creamed peas and new potatoes are such a treat!
Update #1: Planting Potatoes with Straw When You Have Slugs
I firmly believe that we, as gardeners, should be open to change. It’s OK to have a method that you love, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the bugs attack, or the harvest just isn’t what it should be, a little tweaking is in order.
And in the fifth year of using this method with success as is, my crop was devastated by slugs. While the benefits of mulching are numerous (suppresses weeds, holds in moisture, keeps soil from eroding, to name a few), the one drawback where there is moisture is that it provides a nice place for slugs to hang out.
By the hundreds - or millions like it sometimes seems.
Since they also weakened the plants, it gave a foothold to flea beetles, too, so some tweaking was definitely needed. If you live in a wet climate like the Pacific NW, you may find this adjusted technique helpful, too.
Here's how to grow potatoes in straw if slugs are a problem:
- Dig holes a little deeper (6 inches instead of 4).
- Mound dirt a little higher.
- Circle each mound completely with organic slug bait or diatomaceous earth.
- Here's the big difference: Do NOT add any straw until the plants have grown 6 to 8 inches tall. This allows the tender shoots to grow without providing cover for the slugs.
- When plants are 6-8 inches tall, start hilling up with straw like normal.
This worked really well, so if slugs or snails are a problem, this is your method!
Update #2: Planting Potatoes If You Have Voles or Gophers
I continued to plant and grow potatoes with this method, but over the next few years the vole population (aka, field mice) grew out of control. It seemed like I was growing the potatoes for them - there was hardly a potato that didn't have some vole damage on it.
It got so bad that I actually gave up the potato bed and used it for growing more pumpkins. Instead I tried this method:
Growing potatoes in a clean, unused garbage can. And it worked well - I just can't get as many potatoes from these small bins, of course.
With cans, you can plant in dirt at the bottom and hill up with straw like the beds. You'll just need to water more often because they dry out quicker like all container grown plants.
Here's how to plant potatoes in a garbage can:
- Use a drill with a large bit to add drainage holes to the bottom of your clean garbage can.
- Fill the bottom third of the can with a mix of quality soil and compost.
- Plant seed potatoes into this mix, burying about 4 inches down.
- Water and wait for sprouts to appear.
- Hill up with more straw (or soil) when plants are 8 to 10 inches, continuing to hill up as they grow.
- Water a couple times a week if there isn't any rain.
- Harvesting new potatoes is harder to do without damaging the remaining tubers, so I usually wait for the tops to brown before harvesting.
- You can dump the can onto a compost pile and pull out the potatoes.
So these are all the ways I've planted potatoes the easy way with straw - I'd love to know if you've had any experience with this method, how it's worked for you and if you've made any tweaks to it like I have.
This article has been updated - it was originally published April 2009.
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