Potatoes are a cool season vegetable that are among the world’s food staples. They grow well in our area and are easy to plant and harvest, but they need to be started early since they thrive in the cooler part of our growing season. The potatoes we harvest are not actually roots, as most folks think, but are specialized underground storage stems called tubers. Optimal tuber growth occurs at soil temperatures between 60⁰ and 70⁰F, with growth ceasing at about 80⁰F. Therefore, it is important to plant potatoes early to take advantage of optimal soil conditions that will occur in the early growing season. I remember always hearing you should plant your potatoes around St. Patrick’s Day, which seems to work well in our area. Planting too early can invite rot prior to plant development if soils stay too cool and wet. Late March or early April plantings seem to work well in central Illinois as the soil has warmed enough to stimulate growth, allowing potatoes to fully develop before the weather warms and growth tapers off.
Potato planting methods vary widely from straw bale planting to special containers that enable easy harvesting, to simply planting in raised beds or small mounds of soil. The idea is that the potatoes need good drainage and ample loosed, fertile soil to freely develop tubers. I have always had great success planting my potatoes in a slightly raised, 8-10 inch tall furrow of soil. This can be accomplished with a specialized “hiller” or “furrower” that attaches to your tiller, or by simply hand shoveling the soil into furrows after tillage. Space rows about 24inches apart with individual potato seeds spaced about 12 inches apart. Potatoes are planted from “seeds” which are not seeds as we commonly think of, but rather about 2 oz pieces of cut up potato tuber. Seed potatoes can typically be purchased at retail garden centers this time of year or may be ordered online from a variety of sources.