What is the Best Way to Dig Potatoes? (3 Best Tools to Use)


If you are growing potatoes this year, you might be wondering how to dig up potatoes without damaging them.  After all, potatoes without damage will keep a lot longer in storage.

So, what is the best way to dig potatoes?  The best way to dig potatoes is to pull up the entire plant and remove the tubers one by one.  If the stem breaks, then use a pitchfork to dig up the soil and put it in a sifter to separate the potatoes from the soil.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to dig up your potatoes.  Each method has its own pros and cons.

In this article, we’ll look at how to dig up potatoes, when to do it, and how to store them for the long term.

Let’s dig in.

What is the Best Way to Dig Potatoes?

The best way to dig potatoes is to pull up the whole plant.  The potato tubers should still be attached, so this makes it easy to harvest.

Digging up the whole potato plant to get all of the tubers at once is one option for harvesting.

This method is simple, but unfortunately, it isn’t foolproof.  For one thing, the stem might break as you try to pull the plant up.

This is more likely if you wait until well after the plant has really turned yellow and fallen over.  To avoid this problem, you can try digging up the whole plant a little earlier in the season.

Then, harvest the potatoes and put the plant back.  The plant might survive, or it might succumb to transplant shock.  Either way, you get some potatoes out of the deal.

Sometimes, the stem of the potato plant breaks, or some of the tubers separate from the plant.  In that case, you will need to dig to find the potatoes.

However, it isn’t as simple as grabbing a shovel and going to work.  According to the Michigan State University Extension, potatoes will rot faster if they are cut, scraped, or even bruised.

Ideally, you want to be able to store some of your potatoes for the long term.  To prevent the problem of potatoes that rot right after harvest, you will need to be a little more careful about how you dig.

Here are the different methods you can use to dig potatoes, along with the pros and cons of each.

Dig by Hand

Using your hands to dig up potatoes is one of the slowest ways to harvest them.  It is also one of the safest ways, since there is very little chance of damaging your crop.

However, it can be uncomfortable to dig with your bare hands in cold soil.  Before you try this method, find a good pair of gloves to protect your hands.

garden gloves
A good pair of gloves will save your hands when digging in the soil for potatoes.

You might also want to use some small tools to help you loosen up the soil a bit first.

Small Tools

Using a small tool, such as a trowel or claw, will make it a little easier to dig into the soil than using bare hands.  It will also make things go a little faster.

There is a small chance that you will cut or puncture a tuber with this method.  However, if you are careful, you shouldn’t damage too many of the potatoes.

garden trowel
A trowel makes it easier to dig through the soil to find potato tubers.

If you do damage some potatoes, you can always cook and eat those ones right away.

If you like to get things done faster, you might want to use a shovel or pitchfork instead of small tools.

Shovel or Pitchfork

Using a shovel is probably the fastest method to dig up potatoes.  However, it is also the most likely to damage potatoes by slicing into them.

A misplaced shovel can cut a potato in half, so just keep that in mind as you dig.

A shovel is also useful for digging around and under a potato plant.  This is helpful if you want to pull up the entire plant.  By digging underneath the plant first, there is less chance of the stem breaking.

On the other hand, a pitchfork has of a chance of cutting potatoes as you dig.  However, you could still skewer potato with one of the pitchfork tines!

pitchfork
A pitchfork has less chance of cutting potatoes as you dig to find them.

A pitchfork can be a little annoying to use for moving lose soil.  However, if the potatoes are large enough, they should stay above the tines when you dig, while the soil falls through.

Soil Sifter

Instead of digging and feeling in the soil for potatoes, you can use a soil sifter to speed things up.  All you need to do is use a shovel or pitchfork to toss the soil into the sifter.

Then, move the sifter back and forth to let the soil fall through.  The potatoes will be left behind (along with some rocks!) for you to grab.

Another benefit of this method is that it removes rocks from your soil, making it easier to plant next year’s garden.

Just make sure to use the soil sifter when the soil is dry.  It will not work as well in wet soil.

To make a soil sifter, you will need:

  • 4 pieces of wood for the 4 edges of the frame (not too long and wide, since you want to be able to move the sifter easily).  Pieces of 2” by 4” piece of wood will work fine.
  • A piece of rabbit wire/cage (this will let dirt but not potatoes through when sifting)
  • Nails to hold the wood frame together and to attach the rabbit wire to the frame
wire mesh
Rabbit wire is one of the parts you will need to make a soil sifter.

When digging for potatoes, remember that tubers can form anywhere above where the seed potato was planted.

If you piled up a lot of soil around the base of the plant during the season (hilling), then you might have to dig pretty deep!

If you don’t know what hilling is, you can find out in my article on how deep to plant potatoes.

Container with a Door

One cool way to grow potatoes is to use a container with a “door” on the side.  At the end of the season, you can just open the door and pull the potatoes out.

Growing potatoes in a container makes it easier to harvest at the end of the season.

That way, you can avoid digging so much.  You can reuse the container and compost the potato plant to help grow next year’s garden.

How Do I Know When to Dig Up My Potatoes?

It is important to know when it is the right time to dig up your potatoes.

If you dig too early, most of them will be small, with thin skins.  These “new potatoes” are great for eating, but they don’t store well.

If you dig too late, there is a chance that frost will damage the potato tubers.  There is also a chance that some of them will rot, especially in wet soil after rainy weather.

The right time to dig depends on what type of potatoes you want.

New potatoes have thin skins and are smaller, but they are great for fresh eating right away.

Mature potatoes have thicker skins and are larger, and they store well for longer periods.

potatoes
Mature potatoes are larger than new potatoes, have thicker skins, and store longer.

New Potatoes

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, you should harvest new potatoes 2 to 3 weeks after the plant stops flowering.

You can learn more about when and why potato plants flower in my article here.

According to the University of Minnesota Extension, you should be able to harvest new potatoes 7 to 8 weeks after planting.  Be sure to keep track of your planting dates so you know when to expect them!

If the plants don’t flower or you didn’t keep track of the dates, don’t worry.  You can always dig around in the soil near one of your plants to find a “sample” potato.

If you can’t find any potatoes after searching, there might not be any yet.  In that case, you’ll have to wait a little longer and search again later.

If you are able to find a couple of potatoes, check the size and skin thickness.  If they are large enough for your liking, then go ahead and harvest some!

You can harvest some new potatoes from one plant at a time and let the rest continue to grow.  After all, there is no requirement that you harvest everything at once.

Mature Potatoes

To get mature potatoes, wait until the tops of your potato plants start to turn yellow and fall over.  Usually, the potatoes will be ready for harvest 2 to 3 weeks after the foliage starts to turn yellow.

You can learn more about when and why potato plants fall over in my article here.

There is one exception, however.  If you check the weather forecast and see a threat of frost, dig up your potatoes before then.

Dry soil cools faster than wet soil, so be careful at the end of the season.  By then, you should have stopped or slowed down watering to prevent the potato tubers from rotting in the ground.

In addition to causing frost damage to potato tubers, cold soil makes it more unpleasant to dig potatoes with your hands.

No matter when you decide to harvest your potatoes, remember to keep hilling up soil around the plants until you are ready to harvest.

Should You Wash Freshly Dug Potatoes?

You should not wash freshly dug potatoes.  Getting them wet makes them more likely to rot in storage, even if you think you dried them off well.

Instead, use a brush (a clean paintbrush would work) to dust off the soil.  If the soil is wet, wait a little while and let it dry out before brushing it off.

Wait until right before you cook potatoes to wash them.

How Many Potatoes Do You Get From One Plant?

According to Michigan State University, you can expect about 3 to 5 pounds (48 to 80 ounces) of potato tubers per plant.

Most potatoes weigh 6 to 13 ounces, so you can expect anywhere from 4 large potatoes to 13 small potatoes from a single plant.

potatoes in basket
You can get a dozen potatoes or more from a single plant.

The number of potatoes you get per plant will vary, depending on factors such as:

  • Variety – some potato varieties will yield more than others.  For example, Kennebec, Red Luna, Viking, and Yukon Gold potatoes are high-yielding.
  • Size – you might get many small potatoes or a few large potatoes from a plant.  You can get larger tubers by leaving more space between plants.  However, potatoes may get problems (such as hollow heart) if they grow too large.
  • Care – soil nutrients, water, sunlight, and pest protection all play a role in potato yield.

You can learn more about the best type of soil for growing potatoes in my article here.

How to Store Potatoes

It would be a waste to grow and harvest your potatoes successfully, only to let them rot or sprout quickly because you didn’t store them properly.

After harvesting, remember to keep your potatoes out of the sun.  Otherwise, they will start to turn green (due to chlorophyll) and produce solanine (a toxic substance with a bitter taste).

You can learn more about why potatoes turn green in my article here.

Next, cure your potatoes.  Give them about 10 days in a dark place at 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius).  Curing gives the potatoes a chance to “rest” and grow thicker skins.

Then, use a dry brush to remove the dirt from the tubers.  Do not wash potatoes for storage.  Instead, wait until right before you cook potatoes to wash them.

Finally, identify any potatoes that are cut or bruised, and use those ones first.  Store the rest in a cool, dark, humid place at 42 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (6 to 10 degrees Celsius).

Your potatoes should keep for quite a while (months) if you store them properly.  If you cannot go through them all, you can always find a pressure-canner recipe to preserve some potatoes for the long-term.

If any of your potatoes start to sprout in storage, you can try to grow new plants from them.  You can learn all about how to plant sprouted potatoes in my article here.

Conclusion

Now you know some ways to dig up potatoes.  You also know when to harvest them and how to prepare them for storage.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jonathon. I’m the gardening guy (not guru!) who is encouraging everyone to spend more time in the garden. I try to help solve common gardening problems so that you can get the best harvest every year!

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