Jumpstarting Spring: How to Greensprout Potatoes

Spring is getting off to a late start here in Vermont, and in many other parts of the country as well. As a result our customers have been asking us what they should do with their potatoes while they wait for the snow to melt and the ground to thaw. One method you can try is called greensprouting, or “chitting” potatoes, which takes advantage of the extra time available to transform your potatoes from starchy spuds into verdant transplants.

Why Greensprout?

Getting potatoes into and out of the ground quickly in the spring is really important. Cool, wet soil can lead to rot, and the longer the potato spends in the ground “waking up”, the more susceptible it is to attack by fungal diseases. One of the keys to successful organic farming is getting plants off to a healthy start when they are transplanted into the field. Transplant shock, or the adjustment to being outdoors in the big wide world, can set back schedules as well as yields, both of which affect a farm’s bottom line. The hardening-off process, of getting transplants ready to make the leap, is something people do regularly, so why put your potatoes into the ground without the same care?

I have been greensprouting or “chitting” my potatoes for years, and while it’s a little extra work, the results are totally worth it. The potatoes are ready to harvest about two weeks earlier and tolerate cool, wet spring soils much better. Plus, they can be planted later, and the time they spend sprouting inside is time they aren’t vulnerable to pests, diseases, and cold temperatures in the field. Rather than dropping seed potatoes in the row, as is traditionally done, I am really transplanting my potatoes as if they were seedlings.

Step One: Break Dormancy

The process is simple. The first step is to break the dormancy of the potatoes by keeping them warm and dark. I arrange them a few layers deep in a black crate and put them in a room that I keep at 70-75 degrees F. You could also place them on top of a seedling heat mat, on top of the fridge, or any other warm (not hot!) surface. The elevated temperature breaks the dormancy of the potatoes, and encourages them to produce multiple eyes. How long this takes can vary; some potatoes may have been stored better than others and will be slower to sprout, however you should ideally start seeing white shoots appearing in a week or two.

Step Two: Grow Out

Once the sprouts have emerged to about ¼”, the temperature should be lowered to 50-60 degrees F, and the potatoes should be exposed to natural or artificial light. I just use shop lights that I put right on top of the crates. This is the step that slows the growth of the sprouts, and allows them to undergo the really beautiful part of this process. The sprouts turn greenish purple, and the strength of the sprout attachment increases, making them less likely to get broken off during planting. However, even if the sprouts do break off, research shows that greensprouted potatoes still send up new shoots much more quickly than unsprouted potatoes. The greensprouting process also encourages seed potatoes to develop more shoots, resulting in plants that produce more tubers.

Step Three: Transplant

If you wait long enough, the sprouting potato forms true leaves. That’s the part that I really get excited about. I plant my potatoes by hand, and orient the seed potatoes with their new shoots and leaves up. If the potatoes just have sprouts and no leaves, plant them so they are just barely covered, and they will send up shoots very quickly. If they do have leaves, plant so that just the leaves are sticking out of the soil. Most growers find that they shave 10-14 days off of the potato growing season by greensprouting, and are able to plant longer-season varieties than they would normally be able to grow successfully.

Potatoes are one of my favorite vegetables. Just think — when you dig them, you are the first person ever to have held this amazing food, and that same tuber holds life for the next season’s crop. The greensprouted tubers are a sight to behold in the early days of spring, and the lush mature plants are likewise beautiful. When they are all in bloom, with their rows of different colored flowers, you couldn’t find a prettier place on earth.


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16 Responses to Jumpstarting Spring: How to Greensprout Potatoes

  1. Jen says:

    Do you cut the potatoes up first, or are you sprouting them as whole potatoes?

  2. Rachael says:

    Do you cut them up into the individual plants right before transplanting or earlier? If earlier, how much earlier? –Thanks!

    • paul says:

      I cut them up right before I plant them. I know that lots of people like to do it a few days before, so the cut side can dry out and “heal” a little, but we do too many to make that work for us. I find if you wait until the soil is warm enough, the risk of rot isn’t too bad, and I get good results. If a piece is a little on the big side, but not too big, I will plant it whole to avoid cutting it if I can.

  3. Joyce says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that you can plant chitted potatoes 2 weeks later (and still have them ready at the end of the season). I’ve been growing potatoes in raised beds in Canadian hardiness zone 5a for four years. I don’t plant then until after June 1st and have never had Colorado potato beetles – when they’re trying to lay eggs, my potatoes are still safe inside under lights, so I miss the first – and subsequent – generations.

  4. Joe Weil says:

    Cool can’t wait to see more of your crop. I’m starting potatoes the way my Daddy did, old potatoes shriveled and sprouting huge eyes… They get cut into one eye sections and left for a few weeks to grow a leathery skin.

    I’m in zone 10b, San Diego, CA. I call it a Mediterranean climate, we have very few frost hours and some years none. desert plants thrive here but we can grow most anything with correct fertilization and watering (which I combine).

    I put mine in a ditch 8″ deep, in a 18″ amended soil, and topped with one inch of compost on 3/30/14. I have one shoot showing already. When the shoots are about 4″ tall I’ll add 2 “of amended soil. When the get to where most sprouts are 3″ add 1″ of compost. When 4-5″ is exposed fill another 3 inches of amended soil, and so on adding a mound until the growth starts to flower. at this point I add my super tuber feed of 2″ of compost and organic fertilizer.
    of course I’ll pick the little gems that like to surface as they grow…
    Oh yeah, the potatoes come from the produce section of the grocery store.

    • connie jorgensen says:

      You should try some of the fun pototoes! The fingerlings are especially delicious! I have a peanut fingerling that I’ve been growing and saving for five years. :) If you buy seed potatoes from the grocery store you might end up with some gmo sort, unless you buy organic pototoes of course. Sounds like your potatoes are wonderful!

  5. John says:

    How long after planting potatoes can you expect to harvest?

    • paul says:

      It really depends on the variety and the season…. An early variety can be from 65-80 days, mid season from 80-90 days, and late seasons are 90+.
      You can dig around and rob some early potatoes a few weeks after flowering and leave the others to grow on and get to full size. I often find that the Norlands wont flower, but the quality of the plant will start to fade and look a little tired. That is my clue for them for when I start to dig around in those for some amazing new potatoes.

  6. Pingback: Finally — Potatoes in the Ground! | ISLAND MEADOW FARM

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