How To Avoid Hilling Potatoes

Potatoes by Couleur
Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Potatoes are an easy vegetable to grow, but many gardeners do not have the time or resources to hill them. Thankfully, there are many ways to grow potatoes without this labour intensive chore.

Potatoes are hilled to protect the tubers, choke out weeds, and produce more potatoes. To grow potatoes without hilling them, you can grow them under a straw mulch or black plastic, in a deep trench, or by flaming them.

Let’s look at how potatoes grow and how you can encourage this growth without hilling them.


No-Hill Options for Potatoes

There are several ways to grow potatoes without hilling them. Whichever no-hill option you choose, it should protect the tubers, keep down weeds, and encourage tuber development. The best options are:

  1. Growing potatoes under a straw mulch
  2. Black Plastic Mulch
  3. Deep trench potatoes
  4. Flaming

When you leave a potato in the back of your kitchen cupboard, it will quickly begin to sprout eyes. If you plant this potato in the ground, these eyes become the stems of the plant that grow above ground. This plant develops leaves and flowers above ground and roots down below. Alongside the roots, the potato plant develops stolons. Stolons are stems that grow near the soil surface and bud into a new plant, i.e into a potato.

Potatoes & Strawberries

Stolons are also called runners. Strawberries also send out stolons like a potato plant. But instead of potatoes, they grow a new strawberry plant.

Because potatoes develop from stolons near the surface of the soil, potatoes need to be protected from frost and sunlight. Frost can damage potatoes in the late spring or early fall. In the spring, a frost will likely kill off the plant itself, so covering the plant will protect most of the leaves from damage. In the fall, any large tubers that are exposed will be damaged by the frost, so it is important to make sure all tubers are sufficiently covered.

The stolons grow off of the stems of the plant, keep the stems covered will help them send out more runners. Note that once the potatoes have developed, all the plant’s energy goes into growing them and it will not produce any more tubers.

Sunlight is also bad for tubers. Potatoes left in the sun will often turn green and produce a toxin called solanine (which is why you should never eat the green part of a potato). Keeping the tubers covered will prevent this from happening.

It is also important to stop weeds that might grow with the roots and tubers. Potato tubers are easily choked out by competing weeds, so keeping the weeds choked out will help the plants produce more tubers.

1. Growing Potatoes Under A Straw Mulch

Growing potatoes under straw instead of soil is very common practice and it works very well. You are technically still hilling the potatoes (you are just using straw instead of dirt), but it is much easier to do and far less time consuming. It is also a lot easier at harvest time, since you just move the straw aside and pick up the potatoes.

Many growers say they have very poor yields when growing potatoes with straw, and some gardeners say they have the same or even better. It all depends on your garden. Our potatoes seem to grow very well with a straw mulch.

There are a couple of different methods you can use when mulching potatoes with straw. In our garden, we plant the potatoes in the ground about 5cm (2inches) deep, and cover them with about 8cm (3inches) of straw. Throughout the summer, we will add straw twice more, putting down about 15cm (6inches) each time.

If you want a maintenance free potato plot, simply lay the potato seeds on top of the soil at planting time and cover them with 30cm to 45cm of straw. You might have to pull the occasional weed, but your potatoes will be fairly self-sufficient until harvest, when you roll back the straw and pick up the tubers.

Potatoes by terri_bateman
Image by terri_bateman

Straw VS hay

Straw is the dried stalks left over from grain harvesting. Hay is grass and legumes that have been cut and dried for animal feed.

Some growers say that hay works as well as straw, but I would not recommend using it. Hay contains all the seeds from the grasses and legumes, and these seeds will contaminate your garden. Even if you are lucky and the seeds don’t germinate the first year, you will be cursing and weeding out the invaders the following spring.

2. Black Plastic Mulch

We have gone into detail about growing potatoes under black plastic in our other article, here.

3. Deep Trench Potatoes

Another option that eliminates hilling is planting your potatoes in a deep trench. Seed potatoes are typically planted about 8cm (3inches) deep. In this method, you want to dig a trench that is 18cm to 20cm deep. Place your seed potatoes in the bottom of the trench, and fill the trench back up, leaving a slight mound on top.

Potatoes planted at this depth will take longer to emerge, but the plants will be deep enough that they will not require hilling. Unfortunately, planting the potatoes in a deep trench does not help with weed suppression, so you will probably have to do some weeding throughout the growing season. Alternatively, you can do a combination of deep trench planting for tuber development with a light straw mulch for weed control.

4. Flaming

Flaming involves using a propane powered torch to burn off the potato plants after they emerge. This is a more alternative method that is not applicable for every situation. However, it does have some benefits.

Flaming should be done when the plants are 15cm to 30cm high. Any taller than this, and you risk killing off the plant. Flaming does not help with stem growth, or protecting the tubers from the elements, but it is a very effective form of weed control.

Also flaming potatoes is very effective for eliminating potato beetles, or any other bug infestations you might be dealing with.

Colorado potato beetle by Tymur Khakimov from Pixabay
Image by Tymur Khakimov from Pixabay

Conclusion

Potatoes are a great food crop to grow and they are an important part of food sustainability. Most people do not grow potatoes because they have limited soil that they cannot spare for hills, or they do not have enough time in the summer to hill them. Hopefully, some of these options we’ve talked about will enable you to grow even a small patch of this delicious tuber.

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About the Author Harry Thompson

Involved in home renovations throughout his life, Harry is an expert in everything to do with home and garden DIY. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking and tending to his garden.