Potatoes in Containers (the how of it all seems daunting)

susanlynne48(OKC7a)February 24, 2011

I picked up some seed potatoes yesterday - Red Norland and Yukon Gold. A few are sprouting already, but I tried to choose those that didn't have as many sprouts developing yet. They are small, about egg-size. I don't intend to cut them up, but rather plant them whole. They are also kind of spongy feeling - not what I would buy for eating purposes. I don't know if this is good or bad. All the potatoes were softer so I didn't have a choice, and my theory was if they were all spongy to the touch, maybe they're supposed to be?

The bags did not say whether they were pre-treated or not, so I'm assuming they're not. I have read that they should be dipped in sulphur before planting to prevent scab. I don't know if this is necessary since I won't be planting them in the ground, but rather in containers.

My containers are 20 gallon plastic tubs. Not sure about dimensions, but just guessing they are about 2' tall, about 2.5' across at the top, narrower at the bottom, but not much.

I've read that potatoes are pretty heavy feeders, too, but shouldn't be given too much nitrogen which would result in heavy top growth, but few potatoes. What do you use to feed yours? Do you also use any lime or gypsum to sweeten the soil some?

I've read so much about planting and growing potatoes that my mind is now boggled and I'm left unsure how to proceed. Oh, when do you think I should plant them? Now? If not, how should I store them? Dark, cool spot? Hmmmm, where would that be? No garage.

I have read that I should leave the sprouts intact because trimming them off would result in a later, limited harvest, too.

How much watering should I do? When can I expect to harvest them? Can I plant them again for fall harvest? Some sites list "early", "mid season" and "late" potatoe varieties. The two I purchased are considered "early" according to what I've read. Do you plant another variety for mid-season or late?

Lots of questions......but I'm just trying to figure these varmints out!


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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hmmm. I think maybe you're over-researching and over-thinking and exhausting your brain and that makes it seem daunting although it really isn't.

Remember, first of all, that potatoes are designed to grow so they tend to grow pretty well no matter what we gardeners do or don't do.

Planting them whole is fine as long as they don't have too many sprouting eyes. If there are too many sprouting eyes, the seed potatoes need to be cut into pieces weigh 2 to 3 ounces and have 2 or 3 eyes. If you plant a potato with, for example, seven eyes and sprouts grow from all of them, your plants will be overcrowded and may not peform well. I try to select small seed potatoes if I'm purchasing locally so I don't have to cut them. Of the six varieties I'm planting sometime in the next couple of days, only one of them (Purple Peruvian) had to be cut because they were too large.

Seed potatoes are stored a long time...from the end of the last harvest season until late winter or early spring and they become spongy as their water content evaporates slowly over time. It is entire natural.

If the bag doesn't say they were pre-treated with a fungicide, they may not have been specifically pre-treated before they were shipped but I bet they were treated with a fungicide prior to being stored after harvest. I always assume that only those labeled "organic" were not pre-treated. If they are certified non-organic seed potatoes, they were treated....that's what the certified means....that they were raised with the use of fungicidal treatments to keep them from being infected with disease.

Potatoes can be dusted with sulphur (just do it the way you shake and bake chicken, but without the baking) or not. I generally only dust the ones I've cut, but not the others, and I just drop a little sulphur into a Wal-mart bag, add the cut seed potatoes, and shake gently so each piece is well-coated. That is because I am careful to rotate them to a different bed or container each year, using a 3-year or 4-year rotation. I rarely see any disease issue with potatoes anyway so it isn't an issue I worry much about. When cutting potatoes, I like to cut them a couple of days before planting, dust with powdered sulphur, and let them sit on a table in the shade at above-freezing temps and in high humidity so the cut ends can dry out and callus over a bit before planting. This isn't as crucial some years as others...it seems more crucial in colder, wetter years when the potatoes may take slightly longer to emerge from the soil. If I had disease issues, I'd dust them all or if the ground were incredibly wet at planting time and I was worried more about rot, I'd dust them all.

When growing in a container, I space the seed potatoes about 4" from the sides of the containers and 4 to 6" from each other. (I use wider spacing in the ground.) To plant in a container, put 5 or 6" of growing medium in first, then your seed potatoes, then 2 to 3" more of growing medium. Water well and keep the growing medium moist at all times because potatoes need evenly moist soil. After the seed potato spouts have emerged and are 6 to 8" tall, add more soil to bury about half the emerged plant portion. Keep doing this as they grow until your soil level is as high as it needs to be in that container. Managing them this way makes it easy to keep an eye on them and are growing well, instead of burying them a foot deep in the container to begin with. In a cold, wet year, planting deep can cause problems so you plant them more shallowly and add soil to the container as they grow. This is similar to in-ground potatoes being "dirted" as they grow. It is always a good idea to stop adding dirt when the soil level is 3 or 4 or 5 inches beneath the top of your container and just add 2 or 3" of grass clipping mulch or some other mulch of your choice on top of the growing mediumg to help with moisture rentention.

I don't specifically feed potatoes grown in the ground unless they are looking hungry and I think they need it, which rarely occurs. Instead, I just plant them into a bed heavily amended with compost...so I am feeding the soil with the compost before I plant the potatoes and letting the soil feed the plants. In containers, the constant watering can leach nutrients out of the soil even if you plant into a compost-rich mix, so you'll need to feed them every week or two. With potatoes in containers, I only use organic, water-soluable fertilizers that are naturally low in nitrogen...something like compost tea, liquid seaweed or fish emulsion or a combination product that contains liquid seaweed and fish emulsion. (Note: cats will find your potato plants quite attractive if they are watered with fish emulsion). As long as you avoid synthetic fertilizers high in nitrogen, you won't create any issues with excessive foliar growth for your potatoes.

You only lime potato soil if your soil pH is too low and you need to raise it. If your soil pH is too high, you add sulphur (or, in my case, you just add tons of compost) to make the soil less alkaline. In general, potatoes grow fine in any soil or soil-less growing medium with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, but really, they'll often tolerate pH as low as 5.2 with no negative effect or as high as 6.8. A soil pH lower than 5.2 can negatively impact yields.

Potato scab is generally only a problem in more alkaline soils or in soils that have been heavily limed. I wouldn't do anything to raise or lower soil pH until I knew for sure what it was.

Most years you plant about a month before your average last frost date. You kind of have to wing it and adjust the date to suit you depending on what the weather is doing. If soil temps are warm and air temps are too, you can plant earlier as long as you can cover up the potatoes if temps are dropping to freezing or below freezing after the foliage has emerged. While potatoes in the ground tolerate the colder temps, the foliage can freeze at temps around or just below 32 degrees. If the foliage freezes, the potatoes generally regrow but you will be starting over and may have lower yields because the potatoes have to send up new foliage which can take another week or two after they freeze.

Potato plants generally grow and produce best when nighttime temperatures range from 40-55 and daytime temperatures range from 60-75 and that's why we plant them so early here. Additionally, your potatoes set and size their tubers before soil temperatures reach 85 degrees so you want to have your plants big enough that you'll get both good numbers of potatoes and good-sized ones too. Anything you can do to cool your containers' soils once the soil temps are in that range helps too. You can insulate them by placing cardboard, hay, straw, bark mulch, etc. around the exterior of the containeres. You can use a silvery reflective surface to deflect heat back away from the containers. The cooler you keep your container soil, the better your tubers will size and set.

One problem with potatoes in containers is the soil in the containers can warm up a lot on hot days and you want to avoid that. You'll generally get better yields when growing in containers if you use early and mid-season types. Often late-season types aren't setting and sizing tubers until our soil temps are pretty hot.

The other issue with growing potatoes in containers is moisture. It is critical that your growing medium in your containers remains evenly moist all the time for the best quality tubers and the best yields. If subjected to alternating periods of wet soil/dry soil/wet soil, the potatoes can crack or be misshapen. When I grow potatoes in containers, I check the soil for moisture using the old stick-your-finger-into-the-soil method every morning and every evening and water as needed. Potatoes in the ground also need even moisture, but the advantage they have is they can send out roots seeking moisture further away whereas the potato plants in containers cannot send roots outside the containers.

I've been chitting my potatoes since last week and have nice sprouts so they're ready to plant any time now. Maybe tomorrow. I could have done it today, but a little rain fell (not much) so I think I'll just get out and do it first thing tomorrow. It is so windy here right now that the wind might blow away the seed potatoes and I if we ventured into the garden right now.

I leave the sprouts intact because having them gets the potatoes off to a fast start, which is always an advantage in our area since the cool-season is relatively short anyway. If the sprouts break off, the world doesn't end but it may affect your ultimate potato yield. I find that when I chit (pre-sprout) the potatoes by exposing them to indirect light (in my case, a shady table well away from the windows on the sunporch) and high humidity, I get faster emergence of the foliage after planting. If the weather cooperates, I'll get higher yields when I pre-sprout them than when I don't. If you aren't ready to plant and it is too early for you to chit them, store them in a cool, dry location where they aren't subjected to wide swings in humidity levels. I store mine in the tornado shelter if I am going to hold them for several weeks, or in the unheated pantry if I am just holding them a couple of weeks or less.

You water enough to keep them evenly moist at all times, and aim for them to never be sopping wet (they can rot and develop all sorts of diseases if too wet) or too dry. Just try to keep them pleasantly moist which can be harder in containers than in the ground .

Harvest varies somewhat with the soil and other growing conditions. Potatoes can be harvested at any time the tubers reach a size large enough to eat and people often dig into the soil gently around the plants and "rob" the plants of small, early potatoes often referred to as "new potatoes".

Spring-planted potatoes indicate to you when they are mature enough to harvest by the foliage turning yellow and starting to die back. In our climate, because of the high temps and often high humidity, it is advisable to harvest them as soon as they are mature because leaving them in the ground (or, in your case, in the container) can cause them to rot. Since potatoes are going to look bad as they mature, I generally plant them at the end of the garden that sees less traffic since they're unattractive at that time. However, every 3rd or 4th year, they make it to the "good side" of the garden thanks to crop rotation and I jsut have to accept they will look like crap as they die back. I always feel like I should explain to everyone who sees them that "they're supposed to look like that--it tells me they're almost ready to harvest".

I plant a variety of potatoes, but more for various culinary purposes than for early, mid or late-season harvest. Some varieties are better for baking and some are better for frying, etc. so I choose varieties according to how I intend to use them. I also like to choose various colors because I find them interesting and also there may be health benefits from consuming the compounds that make blue potatoes "blue" or purple potatoes "purple".

I always get the best production from early- and mid-season types. Often, the late-season types don't begin setting and sizing their tubers until the temperatures here in southern OK are already pretty hot...probably too hot for them. That doesn't necessarily mean I don't plant late-season types, but just that they aren't my main crop. My earlies and mids are my main crop.

I think I answered all your questions. If I didn't, remind me of whatever area I failed to cover.

Potatoes just aren't as hard to grow as some people think they are. I can throw a potato on the compost pile because it is sprouting in the pantry, and it will grow in the compost pile and give us a harvest about 8 times out of 10 with absolutely no care whatsoever. There's a lesson in that for us, I think.


    Bookmark   February 24, 2011 at 4:09PM
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Thank you for all the great info, Dawn. I probably am overthinking it, which may be an issue with most new gardeners. I almost bought a sack of the purple potatoes, but there were fewer to a sack and they were more expensive. I decided since it is the first time I will be growing potatoes, I would rather risk the less expensive types.

Do you think it is safe to add Chicken Manure to my peat-based potting mix? It is the Back To Nature brand, so I think I'm safe from E-Coli issues with it, which is my only concern. I have my organic Lady Bug John's fertilizer, which contains seaweed, Medina Soil Activator, humic acid, and molasses, along with emulsified and hydrolyzed fish - no artificial chemicals, and it provides trace minerals and growth enhancers that benefit foliar and soil microbes. The formula is 3:1.5:2, and it can be used as a foliar spray or soil drench. It's made by a fellow in Texas and Horn's Seed is the only place I know of that carries it. Anyway, after using it last year, I am extremely happy with it.

More than you wanted to know, I'm sure. I plan to get my potatoes planted by the end of the weekend.


    Bookmark   February 24, 2011 at 7:02PM
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You might check your soil, peat soil tends to be a bit acid. I would pick up a test kit at atwoods or somewhere, they only cost a couple of dollars and can tell you a lot about your soil. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2011 at 9:00PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Susan, You're welcome. If your growing medium is a peat-based or compost-based mix, which means it would lean towards being acidic, I don't think manure will be harmful in any way. I'm sure the BTN chicken manure is fine to add to your growing medium. The conventional wisdom is to avoid using manure where you grow potatoes because manure often is alkaline and makes soil more alkaline and, therefore, more prone to scab. However, I've ignored the conventional wisdom for eons and have used manure in potato beds in my very alkaline soil with no problem.

The Lady Bug John's fertilizer sounds fine. I'd only be worried if someone were using a high-nitrogen synthetic fertilizer. Use what you're happy with and see if you like the results with potatoes. I bet you will find the potatoes are perfectly happy with it.

Have fun planting....potatoes are fun because for so long you don't know what's happening down there underneath the soil or growing medium, and then when you finally get to dig them, it is like a treasure hunt!


    Bookmark   February 24, 2011 at 9:01PM
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Well, you've got me all excited about the "treasure trove" I may find beneath the soil come time to harvest. I have heard there is nothing like eating a home grown potatoe!

Thanks for the info. Woo hoo!

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 11:04PM
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This is my second year of official veggie growing and you will be AMAZED at how much you learn this year with the help of this forum !!!
A lot of my stuff failed last year but I knew it was a learning time, and I was thrilled with what flourished. I keep a simple gardening journal to keep my thoughts straight and I refer to this forum OFTEN !!! Good luck with your potatoes!

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 1:27PM
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Thank you, Jammie. I need all the luck I can get! I think I'll plant tomorrow.


    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 9:33PM
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I am posting on many forums.
I am looking for a thread on container taters that talks about two types of taters.
1 grows tubers only on the bottom of the plant.
The other is growing on the bottom & along the buried stem, which is one of the reason for putting them in a deep 32 gallon can.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2012 at 3:02PM
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Last year, I grew potatoes in Walmart reusable bags set in the partial sun by my back fence - I got lots of foliage but only a few potatoes. The bags fell over and I had problems with keeping them watered.

I also grew some in some giant deep drawers I got at the Habitat Restore. That worked pretty well, as the wood kept the moisture in better, but I planted those too late and the heat kept them from producing well.

The best results I had was in two wooden trash can covers the previous owner had left on the property. They were about 2 1/2 foot square and about 3 1/2 foot high. The bottoms were open and the tops had a piece of plywood with a hole cut in the center. I moved them off the deck and into the yard and set them on a brick on each corner. Planted my potatoes in them, and then added dirt as they grew. They didn't get too wet because of the space at the bottom from the bricks and they didn't get too hot either. I think it was because after 2 in the afternoon they were in partial shade. I got about 30 good sized potatoes out of each of them.

I didn't plant them until May, so I think my yield would have been better if I had started them earlier.

Here is a link that might be useful: Container potatoes

    Bookmark   January 29, 2012 at 3:55PM
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Susan, Potatoes are easier to grow than most of those other things you grow for the birds and butterflies. You are a good gardener, so you won't have any trouble with potatoes...IF you will just close your eyes to the fact that they look ugly for awhile. The fresh growing plant is a nice looking plant, but when it starts turning yellow and dying back, it is hard to ignore it until it is time to harvest.

jolj - I have read a lot of info on potatoes that grow all of the way up the stem but I have never seen a potato growing like that (or a picture) although I have tried and know others have tried. If you find a potato that grows more than 6 or 8 inches up the stem, please be sure to come back and tell us. Pictures would be nice also.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2012 at 4:30PM
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