Time to start planting potatoes

February 04, 2010

by Gerald Bludau
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Victoria County Master Gardener
Whether you call them papas, kertufel, brambor or spud, the potato has long been a staple in the American diet.

With the average American consuming about 125 pounds each year, the potato is one of our country's most popular vegetables.

As we approach the spring gardening season, many of you seasoned gardeners, as well as beginners, will be planting this popular vegetable.

In the South Texas Coastal Bend, the best time to plant potatoes is around "Presidents Day," somewhere between President Lincoln and President Washington's birthdays. This is usually about three to four weeks before the area's last frost.

But before you rush out and start planting, there are some important steps to consider.

Soil Preparation, Fertilization

Potatoes will do best in a loose, well drained soil that is slightly acidic (5.5-7.0 pH). Because potatoes need adequate fertilizer in early growing stages, you should apply most of your fertilizer or organic matter if you are growing organic before planting.
With potato planting time here, Red LaSoda and white Kennebec potatoes shown with buds swelling, are currently available in bulk supply at many feed stores and nurseries.
Properly cut potatoes for planting are about chicken egg size. For improved disease resistance, they should be cut and allowed to dry before planting.
If you have not had a soil sample taken from your garden area, I would certainly recommend getting one.

Without a soil test, the use of a 10-20-10 fertilizer at a rate of two to three pounds for each 30 foot row is recommended. This should be placed on each side of the row, about one inch below where the seed will be planted.

Seed Selection, Soil Preparation

As a rule of thumb, one pound of potatoes can be cut into nine to 10 seed pieces, and they are generally planted about 10 to 12 inches apart, in rows two to three feet apart. It is better to plant in the wider rows because it allows you to run your roto-tiller between, to keep the soil loose and to control weeds. It will also allow you to hill your rows, pulling the soil around the plants when they are about four inches tall.

Determining which variety to plant is a matter of choice. In our area, three to four varieties perform best. Many of us plant red (skin color) varieties such as Red Pontiac, Red LaSoda or Norland.

There is, however, an excellent white variety called Kennebec.

Most red varieties store better than white, but the Kennebec has better cooking qualities.

I have planted three of the four varieties and am partial to the Kennebec.

Many people will ask, "Where do I get my potato seeds?"

Usually around the latter part of January through early February, many of the local feed stores and nurseries will have them available.

Some may ask, "What about potatoes purchased from the grocery store?"

It is best to avoid using these, because you don't know the variety and many have been treated with a sprout inhibitor to keep them from sprouting.

Seed Preparation

Once you have decided on a variety and have made your purchase, you need to prepare the potatoes for planting. I might add that it is best to purchase medium to large potatoes, because small potatoes, which are generally planted in the fall, do not do well in the spring.

Your newly-purchased potatoes have buds or eyes, which will sprout and grow into plants.

Before you can plant, you must cut your potatoes into small pieces, about the size of an egg, making sure that each piece has at least one eye or bud.

If you cut these too small, you will have a weak plant and thus not a good producer.

The potatoes should be cut about two to three days before planting, to allow the cut side to dry and scab over. You can encourage the drying by dusting with garden sulfur, which also serves as a fungicide. In years gone by, many of the "old timers" dusted the pieces with ashes.

Planting Your Seeds

Your prepared seed pieces should be dropped in a prepared row about three inches deep. If covered too deep, the pieces will be slow to break the soil surface and are more subject to disease and decay.

Planting the eye facing up will encourage faster, more uniform emergence, but is not really necessary.

Care After Planting

Your potatoes will form as tubers above the seed piece, so it is important to pull soil up and around the plant when it reaches a height of about four to six inches.

If the tubers bulge out of the soil as they grow and are exposed to sunlight, they will turn green from excess chlorophyll, which can give the potato a bitter taste.

Potatoes that are slightly green can be eaten provided the green is peeled away.

Soil moisture should be kept constant during the growing phase. When the plants reach four to six inches in height, you need to apply about one cup of a balanced fertilizer per 30 foot row. Once applied it should be watered-in very well.

An important fact to remember is that too much water is not good, either. Anyone who has had a crop about ready to harvest and gets a heavy rain, knows that this will cause enlarged pores on the potato that appear as white spots and will cause the potatoes to rot very fast.


The most common insects to watch for on your potatoes will be the Colorado potato beetle and an occasional tobacco horn worm. The larval stages can be controlled by dusting with any of the "Bt" products."

The adult beetles can be controlled with the insecticide carbaryl.

Harvesting and Storing

Your potatoes will be ready to harvest when the bushes begin to yellow and die back. Dig up the tubers and allow them to dry and store in a well-ventilated area.

If you are successful and produce a good crop, there are so many ways to cook this popular veggie.

Oh, and the freshly-grown cooked potato flavor is outstanding compared to anything you buy in the store.

However you choose to prepare them, you can take satisfaction from that fact that you grew them yourself. Good luck and remember to plant your potatoes in the next couple of weeks. Happy gardening
1. Buy seed potatoes from nurseries or feed stores
2. Cut potatoes into seed pieces and dry.
3. Plant around the second week of February.
4. Plant three inches deep, 10 inches apart in well-tilled, fertilized beds or rows.
5. Hill up soil around plants when 4-6 inches tall.
6. Start eating small potatoes in April.
7. Harvest all potatoes when plants mature/yellow in late April/May.

Monday, Feb. 8
Dr. Pattie Dodson Public Health Center, 2805 N. Navarro St., Victoria
Noon to 1 p.m.
Free to the public
Bring your lunch and drink
"Drip Irrigation," presented by Victoria County Master Gardeners
Charlie Neumeyer and Ron Gillig
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.