Harvesting potatoes is a lot easier than you might think. After all, there’s a reason why these tasty tubers are beloved worldwide. They’re easy to grow, simple to dig up, and last really well in storage. Read on to learn how to dig up your spuds, and how to keep them fresh and delicious all winter long.
All You Need to Know about Harvesting Potatoes
If you’ve read our informative article on growing potatoes, you’ll hopefully have picked out some favourite varieties and have a crop planted. All that’s needed now is a bit more work and patience before you finally get to see what treasures are waiting for you just below the soil.
Growing potatoes used to happen primarily in the ground or in straw bales. I grew up on my grandparent’s farm and have wonderful memories of harvesting potatoes. Often as I stood barefoot in the warm earth, my grandfather would carefully dig up the plant and then it was my job to go digging.
I loved this yearly ritual. I never knew how much I would find, or how big they would be. Perhaps that was part of the allure. I think everyone else was just happy not to be crawling around in the dirt.
Since the rise of urban and small-space gardening, people have come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to grow these spuds. If you’re interested in the various methods of harvesting potatoes, read on and enjoy!
When to Harvest
First let’s take a look at when is the best time harvest. For winter storage, let both your plants and the weather dictate when you should start gathering. Potatoes can handle a bit of frost but you’ll definitely want to get them out before any hard frosts are expected.
You can be confident about harvesting any time after the tops of the vines have browned. If you don’t get frost, harvest before the soil temperature dips below 45F (7C).
Harvest a small “test” section to start with. If the skins of the potatoes are too easily rubbed off, your potatoes are too new. As a result, they’ll need to stay in the earth a couple more days to mature. Your test potatoes will make a scrumptious meal though, so nothing’s wasted.
Different Ways to Plant and Harvest
Now that you’ve done a test and are confident that your potatoes are mature, continue reading to see the best way to harvest for each method of planting.
Trench and Pile Method
The trench and pile method is the classic way to grow potatoes. That said, it requires the most space and is quite labour intensive. Harvesting the potatoes, however, is an especially rewarding experience (although I might be biased).
To get started, loosen the plant’s roots so you can pull it out and access the spuds underneath. You can use a shovel, a spading fork, or your hands. Take care when using large tools, as badly damaged potatoes will rot in storage.
Give the plant a wide berth and sink the shovel down as deep as you can. Then use the shovel to pry up the roots and plant. You can then go in and start digging with your hands to get the rest out.
Container growing is becoming more and more popular as urban gardening gains momentum. More and more people realize that gardening isn’t out of their reach after all. While you can’t expect the same heavy yield as someone with a large garden, the reward is still there. Best of all, getting at these potatoes is much easier.
A hand fork is all that is needed to break up the earth around the plant. This can create a bit of a mess, but you can also simply tip over the container and sift through the dirt with your hands.
If you aren’t as keen on making a big mess that needs to be cleaned up after, breaking up the earth and sifting through with your hands is a great way to extract the potatoes as well. Having an empty container nearby to place the dead plants will keep the mess at a minimum as well.
This is a great alternative for those who are even shorter on space and are looking to make use of as much vertical space as possible. For those like myself who don’t want dirt spilling out all over the balcony, it’s best to perform this harvest over a bucket or other container.
You can simply slice open the bottom of the sack and let the potatoes tumble out. Even with the bottom cut out these bags can be re-used next season. Simply sew up the bottom with some good thick thread and they’re good to go another round.
This was a very popular method in the past. Furthermore, growing potatoes in straw is a great way to reconnect with our ancestors. It’s also ideal if there’s only a thin layer of soil surrounding your home. The seed pieces are planted on the surface of the soil, so there’s no digging required. This method also makes harvesting really easy.
No tools are necessary except for your own hands. Simply pull the hay away from the plant and retrieve the potatoes. Easy peasy! Since you’ve been watering this hay regularly, toss it directly into the compost after all the spuds are out.
Harvesting New Potatoes
There’s no reason you can’t pull up just a couple of potatoes for dinner. These young potatoes can be pulled up two to three weeks after the plant has stopped flowering, and are a delicious mid summer treat. Just take care not to damage the plant. You should also make sure that you eat whatever you pull up within a couple of days.
If your crop is in the ground, or even a container, use a spading or hand fork to pull back some of the top soil. Then use your hands to dig down to recover a couple of potatoes. If using bags, just reach down into the sack and pull out a couple to eat.
Straw is probably the easiest as you just pull back some of the straw and then replace it after. Make sure to give your plant a really good watering once you’ve taken what you need and covered up the remaining roots. This will counteract any minor trauma suffered by the disturbance.
Storing your Potatoes for the Winter
Preparing for cold storage
Your potatoes will need to dry or “cure” before they can be stored. Lay them out in a cool dry place for up to two weeks, if possible. Curing allows their skin to thicken, which helps them to keep longer during winter storage. Take out and cook any that have more than minor damage. These won’t cure properly and could cause your entire harvest to rot in storage.
Cold Cellar Storage
A small amount of humidity is okay, and can even be beneficial, but your potatoes should never get damp. They prefer a cool environment of about 38 – 40 F (3-4C). Lightly brush the dirt off, but don’t wash them. This will shorten the amount of time they will keep for.
As was common with many people from their generation, my grandparents had a cold cellar in their basement. This is where potatoes and other root vegetables were stored on raised wooden platforms and shelves. The potatoes were spread out on burlap with a layer of sand.
Dirt floors in basements are rare these days, but even an unfinished basement with concrete floors and walls can act as storage as long as it’s cool and dark. Just be careful to keep the vegetables off the concrete.
If you’re storing multiple vegetables together, make sure that apples are in their own storage area. The ethylene gas given off by them will cause your potatoes (and potentially everything else) to rot.
Cold Storage for the Modern Gardener
Unfortunately, modern lifestyle options mean that few people have access to a cold cellar. Since we know that the ideal temperature ranges from 38-40 F (3-4 C) we can come up with some DIY cold storage options.
If you have a closed-in porch that’s cold, but doesn’t dip below freezing, or even a closet on an outer-facing wall, you may be in luck.
An old dresser could be placed on an enclosed porch and used to house several types of root vegetables separated by drawer. Wrapping potatoes in burlap and placing them in the coolest dark corner of that outward closet may also yield positive results.
Just make sure that you check on your experimental storage regularly. I keep potatoes that are for regular consumption in a kitchen drawer. Believe me, forgetting about one and “discovering” it months later isn’t something anyone will enjoy. If you find one potato that’s starting to go bad, remove it immediately. The rot will spread quickly to the rest of the lot.
Summer in the northern hemisphere is drawing to a close, which means that harvest time is drawing near. I hope this post has you excited to dig up those big beautiful potatoes.
Happy digging, and even happier eating!