Agronomic Principles of Growing Potatoes

The aim of the grower is to produce a high-yielding, quality crop that matches the needs of the intended market.

Crop Characteristics

Potatoes produce a fibrous root system. These roots are at best no more than 60cm long. Thus potatoes are shallow rooted compared to cereals for example, which can root to at least 120cm depth. As a result, potatoes are often unable to exploit nutrients and soil moisture at depth within a soil profile. 

While root growth occurs when soil temperatures are between 50 to 95˚F (10 to 35˚C), best, most active root development is at soil temperatures of between 59 and 68˚F (15 and 20˚C). 

Leaf (haulm) growth occurs at temperatures of between 44.6 to 86˚F (7 to 30˚C) , but optimal growth is at around 68 to 77˚F (20 to 25˚C). Optimum temperatures for stolon growth are similar.

effects of soil temperature on root development

The potato tuber is an enlarged portion of the stolon. The initiation of this tuber is triggered by short day lengths (photoperiods), and involves growth hormones. The colder the soil temperature, the more rapid the initiation of tubers and the greater the number of tubers formed. The optimum soil temperature for tuber initiation is 59 to 68˚F (15 to 20˚C).

Under these conditions, the potato plant will have short stolons and shoots. Longer day lengths delay tuber initiation and favor the growth of the stolon and shoot.

Low nitrogen and high sucrose levels in the plant favor the formation of more tubers. Once formed, tubers grow rapidly, reaching a maximum rate of up to 1400 kg/ha/day in temperate climates. Late varieties seem to be more sensitive to long day lengths or high temperature conditions.

Late varieties seem to be more sensitive to long day lengths or high temperature conditions.

Physiological Ageing

potato sprouts, physiological ageing
Sprouts should be less than 2cm

By planting sprouted seed, crop growth can be advanced. The magnitude of this response and its effect on increasing crop yield is related to the physiological age of the seed at planting.

Seed storage temperature is the key to controlling physiological aging. Raising storage temperature above 39˚F (4˚C) promotes the break in dormancy and the growth of sprouts.

The accumulation of the number of day degrees from this break of dormancy governs the physiological age of the tuber at planting.

Different varieties vary in the number of day degrees needed to age to a desired level prior to planting. Old aged tubers are advantageous when planting early varieties or when the growing season is short. Tubers that have been minimally aged are suited to long growing seasons where it is desirable to keep the potato growing to achieve maximum yields. When planting sprouted seed it is necessary to control sprout numbers and length (maximum 2 cm) to ensure optimum growth according to plant spacing, and to ensure minimal sprout damage when planting.

Soil Type and Management

Potatoes are grown on a range of soils varying from sands to clay loams, all with different water holding capacities. An ideal potato soil is well structured, with good drainage to allow proper root aeration, tuber development with minimal root disease infestation.

Potatoes prefer soils with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0 and low salinity. However, in practice potatoes are grown in soil pH's from 4.5 to 8.5 and this has a distinct impact on the availability of certain nutrients. Extreme soil pHs should be adjusted where it is practical to do so.

At lower pH values potatoes can suffer from aluminium and other heavy metal ion toxicity, as well as restricted P or Mo availability.

At pH values above 7.5, nutrient availability, in particular of phosphorus and the micronutrients, can be reduced, even though high total amounts of these elements may be present in the soil. Liming can ameliorate undesirable, low pH values although care must be taken to ensure that the lime is applied at least 6 months before the potatoes are to be planted. Potatoes are more prone to common scab when grown in high pH soils.

Ridging and Hilling

Potatoes are often planted in ridges or hills because this ensures a well-drained, well-aerated environment for strong crop growth.

In colder soils, ridging raises the soil temperature allowing quicker germination and early growth.

When side dressing with fertilizer, the remaking of the ridge allows the incorporation of the fertilizer into the soil around the tuber.

Ridging also maximizes coverage of the developing tuber, so as to prevent greening and ensure tubers are well shaped, more evenly sized and at lower risk of damage.

ridging and hilling potato crop
Side dressing fertilizer can be incorporated during the remaking of ridges
ridging and hilling potato crop
Ridges give good drainage and ease harvesting

Water Management

Potatoes have a high water requirement – roughly 1in/week during bulking. Thus, for high yields irrigation is usually beneficial.

Water management is essential to minimize tuber problems. Maintaining a moist soil in the ridge at tuber initiation can minimize common scab development. Later in the season, excessive water around the tuber encourages powdery scab and lenticel growth.

potato common scab, water management
Common scab
water management on potato crop, lenticel development
Overwatering encourages lenticel development
potato crop water management, tuber splitting, overwatering
Overwatering can result in tuber splitting

Fluctuations in soil moisture status within the ridge will lead to uneven tuber bulking, malformed tubers and growth cracks. Even a 10% variation in soil moisture status can be critical. For this reason, when using drip irrigation systems, the tape should be placed in the top of the ridge. 

Canopy management is also critical to maximize efficient use of water. Growers in high temperature environments need to ensure quick canopy closure to minimize water loss due to evaporation from the soil surface.