You want to grow those delicious, colorful, often heirloom potatoes that you see at Farmers Markets and local restaurants, the kind you just can’t find in the stores. But you don’t have the room. Why not grow them in containers?
Even limited to a patio, container growing can give you a small bounty of spuds ready for boiling, baking, frying, and roasting. Homegrown potatoes, like homegrown tomatoes, are tastier and have better texture than store bought. And growing them in containers can be a lot of fun for you and the kids.
In a garden, potatoes require generous spacing and enough soil for “hilling” (periodically mounding soil around all but the tops of the potato vines; encourages tuber production). Even one or two potato hills can smother a large part of your garden. The space needed for a row or two in a home can be prohibitive.
Potatoes planted in container pots grow vertically. Hilling is easy and contained inside the pot. Give your spuds the right soil and moisture conditions, and they’ll produce bumper crops relative to the size of the container.
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Containers provide the opportunity to experiment with various heirloom potatoes and different-colored spuds — yellow Finns, purple Majesty, red Cloud, and Adirondack blue — all neatly separated in their own container. You can grow fingerlings in one container, late-season keepers in another. And harvesting container-grown potatoes is easier and more exciting than digging them from the ground which, of course, can be pretty fun, too.
You might even find that growing potatoes in pots can add a decorative touch to patios and landscapes. Potatoes flower attractively before the growing season ends. Pots spilling with sweet potato vines are particularly attractive.
The same techniques that apply to growing potatoes in the ground apply to growing them in containers. In addition to compost and soil, they can be raised in coir, perlite, and other mediums that make growing simple and tidy. Growers have success with pots and containers of all kinds, including those fabricated from chicken wire, bins built from kits or scratch, even plastic totes and recycled buckets.
Big pots of all sorts make for good potato growing. They should be a minimum of 14 inches wide at the bottom and deep enough to allow for hilling as the season progresses. Use at least two dry gallons of soil per start (England’s Royal Horticultural Society recommends eight liters of soil for each potato start, a bit less than two, dry-measure gallons). More is a good thing. Crowding starts will result in smaller harvests of smaller spuds.
Potatoes, usually spaced 10 inches apart, can be crowded a bit (but only a bit), when planted in containers. A pot with a 14-inch diameter at the bottom will have plenty of room for three starts. The deeper the pot, the better, but it should be at least 15 inches deep. This allows for at least two inches of growing medium under the starts and room for modest hilling.
Good drainage is crucial. Make sure your container has drainage holes if at all possible. If the container you’re using doesn’t have drainage out the bottom (and you can’t safely create it), lay down an inch or two of stones and gravel at the bottom of the container. Water carefully and don’t saturate soil.
Big pots can be extremely heavy when heaped with damp soil. Be sure to find a place for your pot before you fill it. Or consider heavy-duty rolling plant stands. Remember that potatoes do best in full sun. Also consider that tipping over the pot, the preferred method of harvest, can make quite a mess on your newly finished deck.
In addition to garden pots, there are a variety of containers that can serve as potato producers.
Grow bags and Smart Pots are particularly suited for potato growing. Don’t skimp on the size.
The chicken fence potato tower is a easy and productive means of growing potatoes, especially when using straw. The design can be as simple as driving four snow-fence posts at corners in a square, then tightly binding the fencing around the poles. in Resourceful backyard gardeners fashion potato towers from chicken fence or other wire fencing. Repurposed wooden palettes can also be used to construct potato growing bins.
Just add your favorite soil! The Hydrofarm® Dirt Pot Box is a framed fabric raised bed that provides superior drainage and aeration for roots, ensuring a healthy, massive harvest. Built stronger than similar products, with a sturdy PVC frame that supports the entire planter.
Towers can also be made from outdoor shades or screens made from bamboo or other reeds. These screens are usually wide and turned on their sides can provide plenty of much-needed depth. Roll them length wise into the desired size (doing it around a right-sized pile of straw or loosely around a barrel can make it easier) bind with hemp twine top, middle, and bottom.
Standing compost containers, including the GEOBIN make excellent containers for potato growing. You can purchase commercial wooden potato planters (often requiring assembly) that feature doors near the bottom for potato harvesting.
Potatoes have been grown successfully in everything from five-gallon buckets to plastic laundry bins. Wooden bushel barrels also work well. Using your imagination can have its rewards.
Here are detailed plans for a wooden potato tower from Washington State University. And the University of Minnesota extension service offers this potato tower project to do with your kids.
Galvanized steel cans and containers are gaining popularity among patio gardeners. And we’ve seen incredible pictures of sweet potato vines growing from shiny metal trash cans. But we’ve also encountered recommendations against using metal containers.
Be aware that the safety of using galvanized containers –small stock tanks and the like –for vegetable crops is in dispute and the internet hosts various opinions taking one side or another. (The Cooperative Extension Foundation provides a thoughtful take on the issue.)
Galvanized containers have a long history of providing water to humans and livestock. Containers are galvanized with zinc and, often, cadmium, which shouldn’t leach under most normal conditions (“most” because it’s speculated that acidic soils may encourage corrosion). The safety of new, galvanized containers is widely accepted for landscape growing, less so for food crops. Some suggest lining galvanized containers with plastic but this seems like substituting one problem for another. If you intend to recycle older cans, avoid those that show signs of rust or other damage or have been used to throw away pesticides, household cleaners, motor-oil and other lubricant containers, and other toxic products.
Growing potatoes in stacks of old tires, a way to keep tires out of landfills, is tried and true. But contamination safety is also an issue with tires. Those that say growing in tires is okay claim that the contaminants, such as heavy metals and carcinogens including benzene, are bonded in and don’t leach out unless the tire is burned. Some leaching has been noticed when tires are “chipped” to be used as playground surfaces.
Like garden-grown potatoes, container-grown potatoes need a rich, well-drained loamy, soil. A mix of potting soil and compost with added sand (about 20% of the total) serves potatoes well. Add a handful of well-balanced organic fertilizer as you’re making your soil-compost mix. Potatoes aren’t heavy feeders but do require small amounts of trace nutrients for maximum production.
Don’t rely on garden soil for potato pots (or any container growing for that matter) as it tends to compact too easily (it’s fine in small amounts). Well-finished compost is ideal. Remember that too much organic material can encourage disease.
Soil should be acidic, around 5.0 (7 is neutral). Potatoes grown in soil with a pH higher than 6.0 are susceptible to potato scab. Adding elemental sulfur or some other acid raising supplement will bring your potting soil into acceptable limits. Never add ashes or lime to soil you might use to grow potatoes. It will increase alkalinity.
Made of 100% pure compressed coconut husk fibers, Roots Organics® Coco Coir is a terrific addition to your planting mixes, possessing a near perfect natural pH level of 5.2-6.3 for ideal nutrient plant intake.
Once potatoes starts are placed on soil, they can be covered with more soil-compost-sand mix or straw. Once the vines emerge, they can be hilled with soil or straw as well.
If using straw, pack it into the container tightly. Too much air space will allow the pot to dry out too quickly. You can improve straw’s moisture retention by adding peat or coir to the mix (remember to soak it thoroughly before adding to the mix). Using partially decomposed straw will make tight packing easier.
Any straw or hay that you use should be as free of seeds as possible as potatoes don’t do well when competing with weeds. Container advantage: growing in pots makes spotting and pulling weeds easy.
Coir and peat can be used in place of straw. Both afford better water retention. Peat (pH of 3.6 to 4.5) tends to be more acidic than coir (5.5 to 6.8). Coir, on the other hand, holds water better.
Perlite is another growing medium that works well. Because perlite has no nutrients, potato plants should be given a modest dose of liquid fertilizer with each watering. Here are detailed instructions for raising potatoes in storage containers using perlite from the University of Florida’s Gardening Solutions website.
As you would with garden potatoes, choose cultivars known to do well in your area. Buy from reputable nurseries and local growers. Most grocery store potatoes have been treated with tuber inhibitors and the chances are you won’t get much of a crop. Though they’ll often work, they may carry diseases that will spread from your garden to the neighbors.
As a rule of thumb, early and mid-season potatoes do best in containers. The long growing season needed by keeper potatoes gives diseases including potato varieties
Planting and Care
Consider where your container will go before planting. Potatoes need full sun a minimum of six hour a day. Don’t place containers under eaves or tree limbs that might funnel rain water into the container.
Once the seed potato eyes begin to sprout — put them near a sunny window for a day or two to encourage sprouting– they can be cut into golf ball sized pieces with at least two eyes for planting. Plant them in your outside container beginning a week or two before the average date of last frost (potato vines are very susceptible to frost). They should be 10 to 12 inches apart and four to five inches from the side of your container on a bed of two inches or so of soil (more is a waste). Don’t water directly after planting but make sure your soil bed is moist. Wait until the first vines appear, then keep soil moist but not damp. Crumbly might be the best description.
Containers holding potatoes will dry out more quickly than the soil in your garden. Careful monitoring is required to keep your potato container uniformly moist. Potatoes need at least an inch of water a week, 1 1/2 inches for maximum production, particularly after tubers have started to form. Container growing makes it easy to check. Just reach in to judge conditions.
Watering is a good time to introduce a liquid fertilizer. Applications of foliar sprays or seaweed extract two or three times during the growing period will also encourage healthy tuber growth.
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The time to hill is when vines reach ten inches or so and begin to trail. Tuck soil, to a depth that leaves only the top leafs visible. Mound the soil, finished compost, straw or other growing medium around the stems being careful not to break them. Cover all but the last two or three inches making sure to keep some leaves above the soil.
Hill again as many times necessary as plants continue to grow. You can add a few shovelfuls of finished compost as you hill to provide your plants nutrients and possibly some elemental sulfur to maintain the acidity that potatoes crave.
Harvesting container-grown potatoes is easy and something of a treasure hunt. And, since you can do most of the work with your hands, there’s no damage to your crop from spades and garden forks. When ready to harvest, just tip the container over. Grow your potatoes on a deck or patio? You might want to put down a tarp to make cleanup easier.
Towers filled with straw or other growing medium can be lifted off the stack or dug out as needed.
Plants will produce small attractive flowers well before the vines start to die off. They’re especially attractive when growing from containers. Enjoy them. They’re also a signal that the plants will soon be ready for harvest.
Don’t be afraid to harvest some potatoes early. These “new potatoes” are especially tasty with thin skins and a toothsome texture. Use them as soon as possible. Those thin skins keep them from lasting long.
Stop watering when vines begin to yellow and wither. For storage potatoes, allow the vines to die back completely before harvesting. Dry a day or two as necessary before putting up.
Tips & Tricks
Plant a container of early-harvest potatoes such as Dark Red Norland or White Rose beginning in March or April as soon as conditions allow so that you’ll have fingerling and baby-potatoes for use in July.
Is container growing as productive as growing them in the ground? Here’s a head-to-head contest conducted by the University of California Master Gardeners of San Mateo and San Francisco. The results may not surprise you but all the thinking the growers put in to their evaluation is fascinating. Spoiler Alert: They conclude growing potatoes in containers is worth it. We think so, too.