The humble potato is one of the most nutritious and long-lasting vegetables you can grow on the homestead or in your backyard. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a beginner just getting your hands dirty, knowing when and how to harvest your potato plants can make a significant difference in your yield and the quality of your potatoes.
Potato plants are ready to harvest when the leaves and stems above ground whither and wilt, indicating the plant is no longer growing and has stored nutrients and energy in the tubers below ground for the next growing season. It is possible to harvest earlier to obtain smaller new potatoes.
Planting and growing potatoes are the first two stages of getting a potato harvest. Knowing when you harvest your crop is the final stage to reap a bountiful harvest of these tubers to feed you and your family. We will investigate the lifecycle of a potato plant, discuss the tell-tale signs that your potatoes are ready to be harvested, and guide you through the harvesting process itself. So, let’s dig in!
How To Know When Your Potatoes Are Ready For Harvest
Potatoes are a versatile crop, finding their way into a myriad of dishes across various cuisines. They’re also a joy to grow at home, offering the satisfaction of producing something truly from scratch.
But one of the most crucial aspects of growing potatoes is knowing the right time to harvest them. Harvest too early, and you’ll miss out on their full potential in size and flavor. Wait too long, and you risk the potatoes becoming tough or succumbing to pests or disease.
Understanding The Potato Plant Lifecycle
Before we get into the specifics of harvesting, it’s essential to understand the lifecycle of a potato plant.
This knowledge will help you determine when your potatoes are ready to harvest and give you a deeper appreciation of the growth process.
Potatoes go through several stages during their growth.
- Sprouting. This is the initial stage where the seed potatoes are planted in the ground. After a couple of weeks, you’ll notice sprouts emerging from the soil. These sprouts will grow into the potato plant.
- Vegetative growth. As the plant grows, it develops stems and leaves, absorbing sunlight to fuel its growth. This is the phase where the plant builds up the energy needed to produce potatoes.
- Tuber initiation. After about 50-60 days, the plant begins to form tubers. This is the start of the potato formation process. The plant redirects its energy from the leaves and stems to the tubers.
- Tuber bulking. This is the stage where the potatoes grow in size. The plant continues to direct energy to the tubers, causing them to expand. Depending on the potato variety and growing conditions, this stage can last for several weeks.
- Maturation. The plant’s leaves and vines start to yellow and die back, signaling that the potatoes are maturing. The skin of the potatoes thickens during this stage.
Each of these stages plays a crucial role in the development of your potatoes. The timeframe for each stage can vary depending on the potato variety and the growing conditions, but generally, potatoes are ready to harvest about 70-120 days after planting.
In the next section, we’ll discuss the specific signs indicating your potatoes are ready to be harvested.
Signs That Your Potatoes Are Ready For Harvest
Knowing when to harvest your potatoes can feel like a bit of a gardening guessing game, but there are several signs you can look for that indicate your potatoes are ready to be unearthed.
- Changes in the Plant’s Appearance: One of the most obvious signs that your potatoes are ready for harvest is a change in the plant’s appearance. As the potatoes mature, the plant’s leaves and vines will start to yellow and wilt. This is a clear sign that the plant has completed its lifecycle and the potatoes are ready to be harvested.
- Flowering and Fruiting: Some potato plants produce flowers and small, tomato-like fruits. While not all varieties of potatoes flower, if yours do, it’s usually a good sign that the tubers are developing. However, the presence of flowers doesn’t necessarily mean the potatoes are ready to harvest. It’s just an indication that the tubers have started to form.
- Checking the Potato Size: If you’re unsure whether your potatoes are ready, you can do a quick check. Carefully dig around the plant’s base with your hand and feel for a potato. A mature potato should be about the size of a hen’s egg. If the potatoes are still small, replace the soil and give them more time to grow.
- The “Soil Test” Method: Another method to check if your potatoes are ready is the “soil test.” Gently rub the soil off one of the potatoes. If the skin remains intact, the potatoes are ready to harvest. If the skin rubs off easily, the potatoes need more time to mature.
It is important to remember these signs are general guidelines. The exact timing for harvest can vary depending on the chosen variety of potatoes and the growing conditions. In the next section, we’ll discuss the difference between early harvest and main crop harvest and how to decide which is right for you.
Early Harvest Vs. Main Crop Harvest
When harvesting potatoes, you have two main options: early harvest and main crop harvest. The choice between the two depends on your personal preference and how you plan to use your potatoes.
Early Harvest (New Potatoes)
If you prefer smaller, tender potatoes, you might want to consider an early harvest. These potatoes, often referred to as “new potatoes,” are harvested while the plant is still green, usually a few weeks after the plants have finished flowering.
New potatoes are renowned for their thin skins and sweet, delicate flavor. They’re excellent for salads or simply boiled with a bit of butter and herbs.
Main Crop Harvest (Mature Potatoes)
If you’re after larger potatoes with a more robust flavor and thicker skins, you’ll want to wait for a main crop harvest.
This occurs once the plant’s foliage has died back completely. The additional growing time allows the potatoes to fully mature, developing thicker skins that help them store well. These are the potatoes perfect for baking, mashing, or making fries.
Deciding between an early harvest and a main crop harvest often depends on your culinary preferences and storage needs.
An early harvest is a great choice if you enjoy new potatoes and plan to eat them soon after harvesting. If you intend to store your potatoes for use throughout the winter, waiting for a main crop harvest is the way to go.
In the next section, we’ll walk you through the process of harvesting your potatoes, whether you’re digging up new potatoes or waiting for the main crop.
How To Harvest Potatoes
Once you’ve determined that your potatoes are ready for harvest, it’s time to get your hands dirty. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to harvest your potatoes:
- Tools needed for harvesting: You don’t need much to harvest potatoes. A spade or garden fork will do the trick. Some gardeners prefer to use their hands to avoid accidentally slicing into the potatoes.
- Choose a dry day: It’s best to harvest potatoes on a dry day. Wet soil can stick to the potatoes, making them more difficult to clean.
- Digging up the potatoes: Start by digging a wide circle around the plant, about a foot away from the base. This helps to avoid accidentally piercing any potatoes. Then, carefully lift the plant and the surrounding soil. You should see potatoes clinging to the roots and in the soil.
- Collecting the potatoes: Gently remove the potatoes from the plant and the soil. Be careful not to bruise or cut them, as this can lead to rot during storage.
- Leave potatoes to dry: After you’ve harvested them, leave them out to dry for a few hours (but not in direct sunlight). This helps the skin to cure, which can improve storage life.
- Cleaning and storing: Don’t wash the potatoes until you are ready to use them. Washing can remove the protective layer on the skin, making them more prone to rot. Store your potatoes in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place.
In the next section, we’ll discuss post-harvest care for your potatoes to ensure they stay fresh for as long as possible.
Post-Harvest Care For Potatoes
Proper post-harvest care is crucial to maintaining the quality of your potatoes and ensuring they last as long as possible. Here are some tips on how to properly care for your potatoes after harvest:
Properly Clean And Store Potatoes
After harvesting, it’s important to let your potatoes dry out for a few hours to allow the skin to cure. Once cured, gently brush off any remaining soil, but resist the urge to wash them.
Washing potatoes before storage can lead to quicker spoilage. Store your potatoes in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated place. A paper bag, cardboard box, or hessian sack in a cool basement or garage often works well.
Curing Process For Longer Storage
If you’re planning to store your potatoes long-term, you must cure them. Curing allows the skin to harden and minor injuries to heal, which can help prevent rot during storage.
To cure potatoes, store them spread out in a dark, well-ventilated place at about 50-60°F (10-15°C) for about two weeks.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
Avoid storing potatoes near apples or onions, as these give off gases that can cause potatoes to spoil more quickly. Also, don’t store potatoes in the refrigerator. The cold temperature converts the starch in potatoes into sugar, which can affect their flavor and texture.
Proper post-harvest care can extend the life of your potatoes and ensure you have a fresh supply for months to come. In the final section, we’ll wrap up everything we’ve covered about harvesting potatoes.
Harvesting potatoes is a rewarding culmination of weeks of patient care and cultivation. By understanding the potato plant’s lifecycle, recognizing the signs of readiness for harvest, and choosing between an early or main crop harvest, you can maximize your yield and enjoy delicious, home-grown potatoes.
Understanding when your potatoes are ready to harvest is an important part of growing potatoes as part of your strategy to grow your own food. Harvesting too late or too soon can reduce your harvest or how long your potatoes will last after the harvest. So, the next time you find yourself trowel in hand, ready to unearth those beautiful tubers, you’ll know exactly what to do!