I remember those early spring days when my family would take my brother and me out in the fields to help them plant potatoes as far as the eye could see. We packed big bags of seed potatoes and there was a lot of digging involved – trenching and hilling up. Us kids were responsible for placing those tubers in the ground as fast as we could.
Those were fun times, but I doubt they would still be fun if I had to do all the digging. Luckily, in a small garden, or a normal-sized allotment, we can take better care of our soil and approach potato growing in an entirely different way. I embraced the no-dig method a few years ago, and I won’t make an exception for potatoes.
So how exactly do you grow potatoes without digging? Is it proven to work, and is it really that effortless? The answer is a resounding yes!
In this article, we’ve prepared 4 methods to choose from, so you can grow no-dig potatoes the easy way, with materials you already have on hand. But first, let’s shake off some old school beliefs, and learn why no-dig is so beneficial for your garden and even your potato yield:
Advantages of growing potatoes the no-dig way
If you’ve done a little bit of research, you’re probably already aware of the benefits of the no-dig method. Here’s why you want to disturb the soil as little as possible when growing potatoes in this new, permaculture-inspired way:
- You won’t have to work as hard. Let’s face it, not all of us are equipped with the strength needed for digging trenches. And the majority of us are lazy (yes, even gardeners – there, I said it).
- Planting potatoes the no-dig way is clean and fast.
- It nourishes the soil. The added mulch or compost suppresses weeds while feeding the topsoil as it breaks down.
- There’s no need for the additional work of hilling up potatoes – you can add a thin layer of compost or mulch at a later date.
- You won’t need to water as much, as the top layer will hold onto more moisture.
- Harvesting is a breeze – just pull the plant out and search for tubers with your hands.
- Your potatoes will be clean and dirt-free.
- You’ll avoid fork damage when harvesting because you won’t need to dig potatoes up.
4 ways to grow no-dig potatoes
1. Plant potatoes in beds mulched with compost
Your style of gardening will most likely define how you grow your potatoes. If you mulch most of your beds with wood chips, straw, or leaves, you’ll want to mulch your potatoes too.
If you have access to large quantities of compost or aged animal manure, you may want to go the “Charles Dowding” route and cover the topsoil of your beds with compost.
Growing potatoes in compost-amended beds looks like growing any other crop. You start by preparing your beds and covering them with at least 3-5 cm (1-2 inches) of homemade compost or aged cow or horse manure. Ideally, you’ll be doing this in the autumn to allow frost to break down any clumps and make the soil nice and loose.
There are two ways to plant potatoes in a no-dig garden:
- Create holes with a bulb planter – it’s quick, non-invasive and gives you a good depth.
- Push the compost away slightly with a trowel, and insert the potato with the chitted side facing up, while still holding the trowel.
While this is not meant to be a comprehensive potato growing guide, here are all the details you need to know when going no-dig:
- Depth: Plant your no-dig potatoes about the depth of a hand trowel – that’s more than enough. You’ll most likely reach firm, native soil, and that’s okay, as long as you have nice, friable compost to cover your potatoes with.
- Spacing: 40cm(15 inches) apart for first earlies and second earlies, 45cm(17 inches) apart for maincrop potatoes
- Timing: mid-March for first earlies, early April for second earlies and late April for maincrop. Adjust your planting dates according to your last frost date and don’t rush – while potato plants won’t die from frosts, they’ll be set back. Potato plants sown at a later date quickly catch up.
- Harvest: increase watering near harvest time to help tubers swell, but strive to harvest them on a dry day to get clean, dirt-free potatoes. Pull the plants out and scoop potatoes out manually. If you’re not sure when to harvest – check this article.
You’d think compact, no-dig soil means smaller potato yields, but Charles Dowding has actually proven that, out of 3 experimental beds, the one that was disturbed with a fork always had smaller yields than its no-dig counterparts.
With no-dig, you’ll have two layers of density in your raised beds – a top, fluffy layer of compost, and a deeper layer of firm native soil. This is why it’s so important HOW you place your no-dig seed potatoes – always with the ‘eyes’ facing up. Potato chits need the friability of the compost layer, growing upwards, while potato roots don’t have a problem growing through firm, undisturbed soil.
As the potato plants grow and reach closer to maturity, check their bases every once in a while and feel the soil for new potatoes that might be close to the surface. Any potatoes that are exposed to light will turn green and slightly toxic, and that’s why potatoes are traditionally hilled.
No need to hill potatoes with the no-dig way. Simply add a handful of compost on problem areas, or rake the neighboring compost closer to each plant. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a lot of soil or mulch to shield new potatoes from light.
Harvest time will also prove to be easy as no-dig potatoes tend to grow horizontally inside the compost and topsoil layer, which means less digging and looking for tubers deep in the soil.
2. Plant potatoes in straw / wood chips / grass clippings / leaf mould
The second, and possibly more popular method of growing no-dig potatoes is covering them up with a generous layer of mulch. You might not have heaps of compost readily available, in which case, use what’s on hand:
- hay (make sure it’s from a reliable source, free from pesticides)
- wood chips
- leaves (avoid walnut leaves, though)
- leaf mould
- grass clippings
These are all excellent choices to serve as a medium for growing no-dig potatoes. Straw is definitely the most popular option and works best in hot areas, where keeping the soil damp during those hot summer months is not an easy task.
When growing no-dig potatoes using straw or different mulches, make sure you follow these basic steps of garden prep:
- Remove the weeds on top of your bed, rake level and break up any soil clots.
- Add homemade compost, animal manure or the fertilizer of your choice – bloodmeal works really well for potatoes, but other gardeners swear by chicken pellets.
- Get a head start by chitting your potatoes a few weeks before planting.
- You can maximize the use of your seed potatoes by cutting them in half (provided they have enough eyes on both sides), and letting them dry for a couple of days before planting.
- Place your potatoes in the ground at the desired spacing and push them in just slightly, so they stay in place.
- Cover the bed with a layer of 2-3 inches (5-8cm) of straw, or the mulch of your choice.
- If you’re using straw, hay or grass clippings, place some sticks or temporary mesh to keep it from flying away. Remove the weights once the mulch gets compacted.
- Water the mulch thoroughly and keep on top of watering throughout dry spells.
- When the foliage reaches 6 inches (15 cm), add more mulch to supplement for the old mulch that has compacted or started to break down. You can add mulch up to the plant’s tip.
- When it’s time to harvest, simply push the mulch away and pick those tubers.
Growing potatoes in mulch is great for several reasons. The mulch breaks down, feeding soil life and locking the moisture in, but it’s not completely broken down by the end of the harvest – so you can reuse it for other crops or leave it in place to fully decompose. It can also bulk up your compost pile if you choose to add it to your heap.
Just like with compost, harvest is clean and painless. You’ll get the cleanest, most handsome potatoes if you choose to grow them in straw or similar mulches.
Lastly, this method is dirt cheap if you just use what you have on hand. Gardening doesn’t have to be expensive if you’re resourceful and creative.
3. Plant potatoes using black plastic or cardboard as sheet mulch
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like using black plastic in my garden. It’s not great for the environment and looks a lot like commercial growing to me – lifeless and full of shortcuts.
That being said, there are a few exceptions where I find black plastic acceptable – underneath crops that are impossible to weed, like squashes, and when starting a new garden from scratch.
Starting a no-dig garden can be done two ways:
- Suppress the weeds with a tarp, black plastic or cardboard – and WAIT for at least 6 months.
- Suppress the weeds with black plastic or cardboard and plant a crop while waiting for the sheet mulch to do its job.
So it’s safe to say that you can start planting potatoes as soon as you decide to turn a weedy area into a garden. No pulling weeds and no digging involved.
Now, is growing potatoes in this environment ideal? Probably not – those weeds will still linger and pull some vitality out of the soil before they die off. But is it possible? If it can work for squash, I don’t see why it won’t work for potatoes, and plenty of gardeners have successfully grown potatoes this way.
With black plastic, cut or burn holes 40-45 cm apart and simply place your potato inside the soil. Cover back with native soil or add some compost. Keep an eye out for slugs that like to linger under the protection of the black polyethylene. Water regularly, and when it’s harvest time, either cut the black plastic around the plants or remove it completely and search for your tubers.
Sheet cardboard mulch is more environmentally friendly but needs quite a lot of compost when creating a new garden. Place 2-3 layers of cardboard on top of the soil you want to turn into a garden bed. Cut holes in the cardboard and press the potatoes firmly in. Cover with a layer of at least 1-3 inches of compost and supplement with compost when necessary. This method is very similar to the “growing potatoes in compost” method, with the added benefit of starting a brand new garden.
4. Container potatoes – another efficient form of no-dig
While growing potatoes in containers isn’t technically no-dig, it’s definitely easy and practical, especially when dealing with a small space in the garden. There are multiple advantages of growing potatoes in containers:
- They’re portable, so you can plant potatoes earlier under the protection of a greenhouse or polytunnel, and then move them outside once the weather warms up.
- You can make use of unconventional spaces on your patio or lawn.
- You’ll get a more compact crop in a smaller space.
Growing potatoes in containers works great because of the growing habits of determinate potatoes: first earlies and second earlies tend to have a horizontal growth, so you can make use of the vertical space inside your container and plant two layers of tubers.
As the roots spread out, they’ll be contained, but you’ll get more or less the same harvest you would if you’d grown potatoes the conventional way. This means less space, less fertilizer, less water, and harvesting is as easy as emptying the container into a wheelbarrow and admiring your yield.
Black plastic containers with bottom drainage are excellent for growing no-dig potatoes, and I’d recommend going with the smaller size of about 45 liters:
- Compared to grow bags, plastic containers don’t allow water to evaporate.
- Add some mulch on top and they’ll lock moisture in.
- They’re black, so they’ll heat up faster in spring and you’ll get an earlier crop.
- They have handles and are easy to move around.
- They’re sturdy and reusable, year after year.
When planting your no-dig potatoes in containers, don’t fill up the containers before adding the potatoes – plant your potatoes as you add and mix the soil. Add a layer of compost, mix it with a bit of blood meal fertilizer, and add 2 chitted seed potatoes at the bottom. Continue filling the container with compost mid-level and add 2 more chitted potatoes. All the seed potatoes will shoot growth to the top, no need to worry about that, and you’ll maximize your harvest on 2 different levels of your container.
So there you have it, 4 easy and accessible ways of growing potatoes without going through the trouble of digging trenches, hilling, weeding, and all the additional work that’s associated with traditional gardening.
These are just a few ways to get creative with your resources and your situation, but there are plenty more ways to do it – growing potatoes in tires, mulching them with shredded paper, only to name a few. Try switching things up and you’ll soon discover your favorite way to do it.