Growing potatoes in Florida

Let’s talk about my most consumed vegetable: potatoes! Although carrots are my favorite vegetable to grow, potatoes are the most consumed throughout the year. Generally speaking, I would say potatoes are fairly simple to grow; just like most veggies, the secret to growing them successfully is to plant at the right time, selecting the right variety, planting at the right place, and giving plants adequate nutrition and watering.

Growth cycle

Potatoes goes 5 different growth stages, knowing these stages aids growers in accessing planting time, fertilizer needs, water needs, and harvest time. 

  1. Sprout stage

This is the initial stage that marks the beginning of the planting season. The eyes of the potato seeds will start to sprout (oftentimes, even before planting). This stage is critical as it marks the start of active growth (one potato becomes many potatoes later on).

  1. Vegetative growth

As the sprouts develop into green shoots, the plant will enter the vegetative growth stage. The stage is about establishing a root system and developing foliage and stems. This stage is crucial for the plant to build a foundation, which later on will lead to tuber formation (the parts of the potato plant that we actually use).

  1. Tuber initiation

This stage is usually marked by the plant’s flowering (either before or after) tuber initiation and is normally cued by changes in the environment, such as day length or temperature.

  1. Tuber bulking

This stage is characterized by the growth of the tubers and the accumulation of starches and sugar within the tubers. Proper irrigation and nutrition are essential to determine tuber growth and prevent physiological disorders such as a hollow heart or irregular shape.

5. Maturation

In the final stage of the potato growth cycle, the tubers reach full size, signaling their readiness for harvest. The top of the plant begins to senesce, or dry out, as the plant redirects its resources towards tuber maturation. As the foliage dies back, the tuber skin thickens and toughens, enhancing its durability and extending its storage life. This process, known as skin set, helps protect the tubers from damage during harvesting and storage.

Varieties

Early valley potatoes.

One of the most important aspects of growing anything in the Sunshine State is choosing the right variety. The blazing summer, high humidity, and sandy soil do not make it easy for novice gardeners. It is important to choose varieties adapted to these factors. After some research, I decided to stick with two varieties. My favorite is Early Valley! This does not mean I am not open to trying other varieties, but these have shown to be extremely reliable, so I haven’t ventured to try other varieties just yet. 

Early valley

This variety is a determined (if you would like to learn about the difference between determined and indeterminate variety, click here) short-season variety. This means that mounding is not necessary, and potatoes can be harvested within 60 days of planting. This fast harvest turnaround makes this variety ideal for fall and spring planting. Potatoes do not appreciate the blazing heat of Florida, making them grow only in the cooler times of the year. Potatoes can be somewhat resistant to light frosts if mounded and/or covered, but if prolonged frosts occur, potatoes should be harvested. This past winter (2023/2024), we grew them through winter (as winter was pretty mild without a frost) until we harvested them in February and March. The potatoes were MASSIVE; I have never seen potatoes as big as these! They were in the ground for about 120 days, which is the amount of time required for most potatoes.

Norland Red island 

This variety is another excellent option for those seeking an early harvest of red-skinned smaller potatoes, followed by a subsequent yield of full-size tubers later in the season. It was a great variety and performed well for us when producing tubers of a regular size. 

Soil 

As I always like to say, soil health leads to plant health. The florida soil is mainly sandy making it hard to hold water and nutrients, mending and adding organic matter into your soil will help with yield and plant vigor. 

For the potatoes beds we added about 20-30% of clay. The reason behind this decision was to improve the soil quality. Clay particle are small and have a high surface area, which helps with water retention (it is important to stick to the 20-30% of clay particle as too much clay can cause waterlogging and lead to plant decline, death and rotting of the roots or tubers. This is specially true for potatoes.) 

Clay particles also tend to stick together improving soil structure and they have a high CEC meaning that they can hold and attract nutrients into the soil. 

Fertilization and bed prep

We like to prepare our soil about 1-2 weeks prior to planting. We usually lightly till comport and organic all-purpose vegetable fertilizer into the soil. And around mid season we do a second application of the same fertilizer. It is also important to have an irrigation system set up as nutrient uptake is related to water uptake, and plants do need water just like us!

Planting potato seed

Germinated seed potatoes

The potato seed is an actual potato tuber that it is directly planted into the soil.  It is important to source for certified disease free potato seeds. These can be found on many online seed retailers and at big box stores (although I recommend sourcing from places such as johnny seeds and grand tenton organics).

I am almost sure that you either have seen people using the old potatoes that they bought from the store as “seed,” or you have done this yourself. Although you can definitely use those, there are often three problems associated with them. First, these potatoes may carry certain pathogens that can impact your current crop and future crops (certified disease-free potato seeds are tested for the presence of the most common pathogens.). The second one, as I said in the beginning, is that one of the biggest tricks to successfully gardening in Florida is choosing the right varieties. The ones from the supermarket may not be suitable to be grown in florida. The third reason is that store-bought potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitors, which may impact the potato seeds’ ability to sprout. 

To encourage sprouting, it is recommended to place the potato seeds in a room at room temperature. Each potato seed (depending on the size) can be divided into many “seeds” by cutting the potato seeds into smaller parts, as shown below. The only issue with cutting the potato seeds is that the seeds should be allowed to dry in a paper towel a few days before planting. Otherwise, rot can occur. 

We like to plant our potato seeds about 12-18 inches apart in a triangle pattern and 4-5 inches deep.  This method decreases pathogens by increasing air circulation and uses space more efficiently than traditional rows in our experience. 

Hilling and when is it necessary

Potato hilling is a cultivation technique used to promote healthy potato growth and increase yields. It involves the process of mounding soil around the base of potato plants as they grow. This practice serves several purposes and is especially beneficial for both determinate and indeterminate potato varieties, although the timing and extent of hilling may vary.

How Potato Hilling Works:

  • Supporting Tubers: One of the primary purposes of hilling is to support tuber development. By mounding soil around the base of the plants, gardeners provide additional support for the developing tubers, preventing them from being exposed to sunlight and turning green, which can make them bitter and toxic.
  • Preventing Greening: Sun exposure can cause potatoes to produce chlorophyll, leading to green patches on the skin. These green areas contain a toxic compound called solanine, which can cause digestive issues if consumed in large quantities. Hilling helps to bury the developing tubers deeper underground.
  • Root Development: Hilling also encourages the development of additional roots along the buried stems of the potato plant. These additional roots enhance the plant’s ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, promoting overall plant health and vigor.

Pest and disease management

Growing potatoes can be susceptible to various pests and diseases, which can impact plant health and reduce yields if not properly managed. Here are some common pests and diseases that potato growers may encounter:

Common Diseases and Pathogens:

  • Late Blight (Phytophthora infestans): Late blight is a devastating fungal disease that affects potatoes and tomatoes. It thrives in cool, moist conditions and can spread rapidly, causing dark, water-soaked lesions on foliage and stems. Tubers may develop rotting lesions, leading to complete crop loss if not managed effectively.
  • Early Blight (Alternaria solani): Another fungal disease, early blight, causes dark, concentric lesions on potato foliage, starting from the lower leaves and progressing upward. Infected plants may experience defoliation, reduced photosynthesis, and diminished yields.
  • Potato Scab (Streptomyces scabies): Potato scab is a bacterial disease that affects potato tubers, causing rough, corky lesions on the skin. While scab-infected potatoes are still edible, the aesthetic quality may be compromised.
  • Nematodes: These microscopic roundworms can infect potato roots, causing swelling, stunting, and reduced yields. Potato cyst nematodes can persist in the soil for several years and are challenging to manage once established. We apply crab meal twice a
  • Colorado Potato Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata): One of the most notorious pests of potatoes, the Colorado potato beetle feeds on potato foliage, causing extensive damage if left unchecked. Both larvae and adult beetles can defoliate plants rapidly, leading to reduced photosynthesis and stunted growth.

Harvesting and storage

If allowed to grow the full season (about 120 days) potato plants will look dead (and they will be dead :D) by harvest time. The varities I recommended above can be harvested within 60 days and plant should still look green by harvest time unless frost, insect damage, poor watering or other mismanagement happens. 

When harvesting, I like to cut the plant 4-6 inches above the soil line and then use my hands to dig around the area to look for the tubers. After bringing them inside, I like to use a dry brush to remove the excess soil and keep them in a dark, well-ventilated place until fully consumed. If any of the tubers are damaged during the harvesting process, they can still be utilized as soon as possible and should not be kept with the other tubers as they can encourage rotting and molding. 

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