Why you should grow no-dig potatoes

Why You Should Grow No-Dig Potatoes

Digging up potatoes can be a lot of work, but there is an easier option. That option is to skip the digging and grow no-dig potatoes! While potatoes are often hilled up with soil, all they really need is a good mulch layer. Let’s dive into why this is a great option for growing potatoes.

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In 2020, I decided that I needed to grow a lot more food for my family and I—especially staple crops like potatoes. But I didn’t have a garden area ready to go for potatoes.

So what did I do?

Well, I needed to keep grass away from our backyard fence anyways. So I thought, why not just put some cardboard down over the grass, throw some topsoil on top and then add potatoes to that?

Then I could just top it all with a nice thick layer of fall leaves.

This way I could keep the grass at bay and get a bunch of potatoes for my family. Oh, and I decided I wouldn’t water this area at all.

Now you might be thinking this sounds too good to be true. But I think the results speak for themselves.

With very little work beyond the initial site prep, (which I needed to do anyways to keep the grass back,) I ended up harvesting 62.2 lbs (28.2 kg) of potatoes. We started with just 40 relatively small potatoes that I brought home in 2 small bags from a local urban farm store.

Wild Tip

The 2 types of potatoes we grew were German butterballs and Ciklamen. But this approach should work with any type of potato.

We could have gotten a lot more potatoes if we had waited to harvest. But it turns out planting a bunch of potatoes right next to a large field of grass tends to result in voles harvesting their own potatoes!

Despite this loss, we still got loads of potatoes. And all I did after the initial site prep was to add more fall leaves over them once the plants had grown out of the initial layer of mulch.

We didn’t weed or water them, and Michaela and I harvested them all using only our bare hands.

If this sounds like a great way to grow potatoes, then keep reading to learn how you can grow no-dig potatoes, too!

And while growing no-dig potatoes is an easy way to grow food for you and your family, there is an even easier option. That is to grow perennial root vegetables! These great crops come back year after year while still providing you a great harvest. Grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that covers 11 of these great root crops!

Preparing an Area for Growing No-dig Potatoes

Planting no-dig potatoes is just like planting regular potatoes

Here you can see my no-dig potatoes right before I covered them with mulch. This area looked just like the surrounding grassy area before I prepped it. Despite that lack of existing soil, the potatoes still did great.

One reason growing no-dig potatoes is a great option is that you don’t need to use your regular garden areas to grow them.

You can grow no-dig potatoes as part of your strategy to prepare an area for planting other food crops in the future.

This can be done by modifying the regular sheet-mulching approach.

Wild Tip

If the area you want to grow potatoes is already prepped and cleared of existing vegetation, then skip the weed barrier. Otherwise, just follow the steps below to get started with growing no-dig potatoes.

Start out by putting down cardboard or some other biodegradable weed barrier, such as burlap bags, over the existing grass or other non-woody vegetation.

Wild Tip

Any existing woody vegetation will need to be worked around or dug out. Sheet-mulching likely won’t be effective against those plants on its own.

Then add a layer of compost or topsoil over the weed barrier layer. This layer should be 3 to 4 inches (7.6 to 10.2 cm) thick. Just enough to get the potatoes started.

When doing this, you can make a series of rows to plant your potatoes in. Then you can easily cover them with a bit of soil or compost to help them get started. Just enough to fill in the rows.

Plant your potatoes in the rows using the same spacing you normally would.

Once the potatoes are in and covered with a thin layer of soil or compost, then add a layer of mulch over it all.

I like to use fall leaves for this, but woodchips also work, and straw is another option.

Your mulch layer can be 4 to 6 inches thick (10.2 to 15.2 cm).

Once the mulch is down, just wait for your potatoes to grow up throw the mulch!

Taking Care of Your No-dig Potatoes

grow no-dig potatoes using fall leaves

This picture was taken around 2 weeks after I had added a bunch of fall leaves to my no-dig potato patch. Each potato only had a couple small leaves poking out of the fall leaves when I first added the extra layer of mulch.

Depending on your climate there is very little you will need to do to take care of your no-dig potatoes.

That really is the point of growing no-dig potatoes—eliminating as much work as possible!

But at some point, your potatoes will grow up through the initial layer of mulch. That mulch layer is also going to settle out.

Once this happens, you will need to add another layer of mulch. This replaces the hilling up that you would normally do for your potatoes.

Add the mulch around your potato plants until just the tops of them are visible.

You will likely have a good 6 to 12 inches (15.2 to 30.5 cm) of mulch around your potatoes at this point.

Over time your no-dig potatoes will grow up through this layer and get nice and full, but you shouldn’t need to add any more mulch. And doing so won’t increase your potato harvests.

Wild Tip

You may need to add a bit more mulch around the base of your potato plants. Sometimes as the stems grow and move in the wind, they can push the mulch away from the base of the plants. Either pull the mulch back around the plants or add some new mulch to make sure the tubers at the base of the plant remain well-covered.

And that is really all it takes to grow no-dig potatoes!

Here in western Washington I was able to skip watering my potatoes at all, despite the limited soil available for the potatoes to grow in.

All that mulch really made the difference!

But in drier climates you may need to give them a top up—but always check the soil first to see if you really need to do any watering.

Otherwise, just sit back and wait till it’s time to harvest!

Some Lessons Learned from Growing No-dig Potatoes

Harvest is much easier when you grow no-dig potatoes

Growing no-dig potatoes was really a lot of fun. The picture on the left shows what the plants looked like right before being harvested in mid-July and the picture on the right is, of course, the harvest. I can’t complain with the results!

Growing no-dig potatoes is a much easier way to grow potatoes than traditional methods. And because you haven’t hilled them up with soil, harvesting them is a breeze.

Just pull the mulch back and grab your potatoes!

The biggest lesson learned from doing this was that rodents can be an issue. Though this really wasn’t because of the no-dig approach but instead the location of the potato bed.

I picked this spot because I needed to keep the grass away from the fence. But the field is also perfect habitat for voles.

Wild Tip

Next year we will keep the grass shorter and run chickens in the field. This should reduce the vole pressure.

This made us harvest our potatoes several weeks earlier than we planned. If we had waited, the voles would have damaged too many of the potatoes.

But despite that, we still got a great harvest with very little work.

That really is a great lesson to learn from growing no-dig potatoes—you can get a lot of food without a lot of effort!

We could have gotten more potatoes if we had grown them in a better spot. But this was a quick and easy way to expand our food-growing area with very little work.

And now that the potatoes are harvested and in storage, we’re left with a nice growing space for other veggies. I’m thinking about planting garlic in this bed in the fall and then creating a new bed for potatoes further down along the fence.

This is a great way to grow more food now, while also creating more growing areas for other veggies and plants!

So next time you’re growing potatoes, try growing no-dig potatoes instead. This really is a great and easy way to grow potatoes!

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Michelle says:

    Wow! Great harvest! I tried this for the first time this year with some leftover Kennebec potatoes from my parents garden. I sifted rotted spongy wood and used the finer stuff for my layer of soil and covered the potatoes with leaves. I did have a bit of a problem with the bed drying out at first but pulled back the mulch and took a sneak peek and am pleased. Not sure I’ll get as good of a harvest as yours, but I think it will be well worth the effort.

    • Daron says:

      Thank you and thanks for sharing! I really like this method for growing potatoes–lot easier to do. Thanks again and I hope you get a good harvest!

  • Chris Sturgeon says:

    Hey Daron, I’m doing a similar thing but with straw, kind of a hybrid Ruth Stout experiment. The foliage is amazing and even though there was frost damage earlier in the Summer things are looking good! Thanks for your post on Permies.com as well!

  • Greg Martin says:

    Thank you Daron…great article. I’m going to add a bunch of leaves to my potatoes right now!

  • Hello Daron, is sun exposure a issue for no dig potato planting?

    • Daron says:

      Hello! As long as you add thick mulch over the top of the potatoes you won’t have any issues with that. None of my potatoes this year showed any signs of sun exposure.

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