Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables for cooking and a common item in gardens around the world. Though you can stick the seed potatoes in the ground and leave them alone, hilling them throughout the growing season is a better option. Doing so requires a bit of work and consistent monitoring, but the benefits at the end of the year make it all worthwhile. So, what is hilling potatoes, and why do we do it? Let’s find out.
Why Hill Potatoes?
When a potato seed is planted, it is covered with dirt to give it the nutrients and protection it needs to spout new potatoes. Unfortunately, as those new potatoes grow, they push up through the soil, often poking out of it.
If potatoes are exposed to sunlight, they turn green. Not only does this give them an unappealing look and bitter flavor, but it can also be dangerous. Green potatoes may contain solanine, which is fine in small doses but causes illness if large quantities are ingested. Hilling potatoes protects them from the sunlight, preventing those green areas.
If you plant your potatoes during the spring, frost could still be a risk. The extra soil coverage protects the potatoes from frost, so they are more likely to survive. Hilling also smothers any weeds that may have sprouted around your potato plants. Weeds suck up nutrients and moisture, so eliminating them ensures all those necessary elements are left for your plants to absorb.
As well as protecting the potatoes beneath the soil, hilling adds stability to the green stalks growing above it. They can get taller without requiring stakes or cages to keep them upright. This can end up saving you money in the long run not having to buy additional gardening equipment.
When To Hill Potatoes
When seed potatoes are planted, they are placed in a trench and covered with soil. It takes a few weeks for the green stalks to appear. Once they reach heights of 6 to 8 inches, you can hill the potatoes for the first time. Cover the stalks until only the top leaves are above the soil.
Once the potatoes have been hilled for the first time, new potatoes will sprout beneath the larger pile of soil. The stalks will continue to grow as well. When they are 6 to 8 inches tall again, repeat the hilling process. It will take a couple of weeks for them to grow this tall, so you’ll likely be hilling potatoes at least once a month until they are ready to harvest. It seems like a lot of work, but is a key step to increasing your potato yields.
How To Hill Your Potatoes
Hilling potatoes is a simple process requiring only some extra soil to cover the potato plants. Pile the soil over the area, covering the stalks almost completely. Then water the mound well to ensure there is enough moisture to reach the potatoes beneath the soil hill. Repeat this process every time the stalks reach 6 to 8 inches in height.
The only issue with hilling is the natural erosion that occurs on windy or rainy days. Luckily, you can protect your hills to prevent soil erosion. You can add wire mesh, or similar material, to create a small fence around the potato plants.
Some people use old tires, placing them around the plants and adding another tire every time they hill the potatoes. Bricks, stones, or anything else you have on hand can be used to create a protective barrier, so get creative with your garden. Then, when it’s time to harvest, remove the items you’ve used before digging up your potatoes.
What To Use To Hill Potatoes
Soil is a popular choice when hilling potatoes since it offers the coverage and nutrients they require. For these reasons, it’s probably the most popular hilling material and the best choice for first-timers. Of course, soil isn’t the only option. Other materials have benefits dirt can’t compare with.
One option is adding a layer of straw over the initial soil layer to retain moisture, keep the soil cool, and protect any protruding potatoes from sunlight. You can add new layers of straw when the old stuff begins to rot, placing it right on top of the old layers.
Instead of discarding the grass clippings after mowing your lawn, use them to hill your potatoes, as long as they are free of herbicides or pesticides. Compost is also a fantastic option for potato hills during the growing season. It can also be mixed into the soil after you harvest the potatoes to ensure the soil is nutrient-rich and ready for next year.
Hay and peat moss are also possible options, though they aren’t the best choices. Hay can contain weed seeds, introducing new ones to the soil, though it still offers erosion protection. Peat moss absorbs moisture, so the water you add may not reach the potato plants. You may need to alter your irrigation methods to ensure your plants receive enough moisture.
Does Hilling Potatoes Increase Yield?
Hilling potatoes increases your yield in several ways. First, the plants are stronger and healthier, so they produce more potatoes that are much larger than those grown without hilling. There are also fewer weeds in the soil, so the potato plants absorb more moisture and nutrients, increasing their growth and production.
When To Stop Hilling Potatoes
There are a few ways to tell when it’s time to stop hilling potatoes. After a few hilling sessions, your mound will get quite high. Once it reaches about 8 inches, your potatoes will be well protected and have plenty of room to grow, so you don’t need to add more soil. Of course, if you notice the soil beginning to erode, reducing the hill size, you may want to build it up again.
You can also keep an eye on the plants to tell when your soil is high enough. The first indication is flowering, so if you see those white blossoms, leave the soil alone. When the plant turns yellow and starts leaning or toppling, it’s finished growing, and the potatoes are ready for harvest, so hilling offers no benefit.
Potatoes are one of the easiest plants to grow and make a fantastic addition to any meal you have in mind. Though you can plant them and forget them until the end of the year, hilling potatoes ensures a larger harvest for you to enjoy. It doesn’t take long to create those mounds, and the benefits are more than worthwhile.