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HOW TO CHIT / SPROUT
YOUR POTATOES


Potatoes are slightly unusual because, rather than planting seeds to grow potatoes, you sow "seed potatoes" to grow potatoes. Seed potatoes look like full grown potatoes but they are smaller.

When you plant your seed potatoes under the soil they begin to sprout from little "eyes" on the surface of the seed potato. See the picture lower down on this page so that you can identify what the "eyes" on a potato look like. These sprouts grow to the surface of the soil and appear as the emerging potato plants.

WHY CHIT / SPROUT SEED POTATOES


If you sow seed potatoes directly into the ground without chitting / sprouting them, they will grow perfectly well. After a week or two the eyes will develop sprouts and these will grow towards the soil surface and appear above the soil as potato plants.

The benefit of chitting / sprouting seed potatoes before you plant them directly in the soil is that the seed potatoes can be started into growth, in warm, controlled conditions, before the weather is warm enough to plant them directly outside. This allows you to harvest potatoes a couple of weeks earlier than would normally be possible.

The greatest benefits of sprouting potatoes is most apparent in early varieties. With second early (mid season) varieties, there are definite time benefits but not as great as with earlies. However, with maincrop (late season) potatoes, the benefits are almost unnoticeable because of the long time they take to mature. We would advise sprouting early potato varieties, maybe also doing the same with second early (mid season) varieties.

We would not advise sprouting maincrop (late season) potato varieties, the benefits are not sufficient for the work involved. Another reason for this view is that this is what farmers do who produce potatoes commercially. They have years of practical experience and we take that experience seriously.

IS IT TOO LATE TO START CHITTING / SPROUTING POTATOES?


We are often asked this question in March / April time and it is normally asked about early potato varieties such as Charlotte. Chitting / sprouting potatoes is by no means essential and will only gain you a week or so whatever variety is planted. So the answer is simple, it's not too late in March or April time to plant potatoes without chitting them. Making sure they don't appear above ground level before the last frost is far more important.

SELECTING SEED POTATOES


A question we are often asked is why not plant potatoes bought from the supermarket rather than special seed potatoes? Your average potato from the supermarket will indeed grow into a potato plant when planted. However, potatoes grown for consumption are not as free from disease as seed potatoes. They are in fact much more likely to produce diseased plants compared to certified seed potatoes. So, always buy class A certified seed potatoes for the best results.

Click on the picture below to see an enlarged photo of healthy well-formed seed potatoes. If you get the chance to select individual seed potatoes then choose ones that are about the size of an egg or larger. Smaller ones are OK but ignore those which are half the size of an egg or less.

The seed potato should have several eyes (see picture below) because these are where the seed potato will sprout from. Ignore potatoes which are cut or otherwise marked, cuts can allow the entry of disease. Finally check that the seed potato is plump and hard to the touch rather than shriveled.

Picture of a typical seed potato Picture Copyright Notice

If you buy your potatoes online, choose companies that have a good history. There are several on the internet; we frequently buy ours from Jamieson Brothers in Scotland. They supply potatoes to many other retailers and have never disappointed us.

HOW TO CHIT POTATOES


Note that the terms "sprout" and "chit" mean exactly the same as far as potatoes are concerned. It is the process of encouraging seed potatoes into life earlier than would normally be possible.

To adjust the dates in this article so that they are correct for your area of the UK click here. There are significant climate differences throughout the UK and setting your town will get the dates correct for you in your area of the UK. If the dates are not set they will default to the UK average.
 

Click the picture below to enlarge it and see more clearly how to identify the eyes on a seed potato. It is from these eyes that the seed potato will sprout main stems.

Start the sprouting process off during the third week of February. The timing is not absolutely crucial but it makes the whole process easier if you get it correct. The idea is to start the sprouting process off so that the seed potatoes will produce healthy and green shoots 1½cm (¾in) long at just about the time the potatoes can be planted in the open ground. Correct timing will also ensure that the foliage emerges just after the danger of frost has passed.

This will give them a head start and at the same time the seed potato will still be large and healthy enough to allow it to easily produce strong and healthy plants.
 
Just in case you are wondering about that seed potato in the top left of the picture below, it is called Pink Fir. It naturally grows into a different shape compared to most other varieties of potato. It is a delicious variety although it does not produce such large crops compared to many other varieties.
Set the potatoes up in egg boxes or similar so that the majority of the eyes are on the upper half of the seed potato. Try and space the potatoes so that they are not touching each other. Place the loaded egg boxes in a cool (10°C / 50°F) and light position.
Light is especially important to ensure that the stems of the sprouted potatoes are green. A cool window sill is an excellent choice.
 

Depending on the variety and natural state of a seed potato it can sprout anything between 3 and 12 sprouts. When the sprouts reach about 1cm / ½in, rub off all but three or four of them. Simply use a finger to apply sideways pressure at the base of the sprout and it will come off cleanly. Restricting the sprouts to three or four will make the seed potato concentrate all its growing efforts into the remaining sprouts. 

Sprouted seed potatoes should be ready for planting outside in the fourth week of March 2015 (average for UK).

Sprouted seed potatoes ready for planting

POTATOES SPROUTED TOO EARLY


Seed companies and garden centres sell seed potatoes too early in the year. This results in the potatoes sprouting too early, often in the dark where you have stored them.

Below is a picture of one of our seed potatoes taken on March 21st. According to the vegetable calendar we should be planting the seed potatoes in the second week of April. By that time the sprouts will be too long and also they are white (they should be green / purple) because they have been stored in the dark. The picture below is a good example of this situation.

Seed potatoes sprouted too early
Image copyright notice
 

Note however, the picture shows three under developed potential sprouts.

The solution is to remove the three long sprouts by simply applying sideways pressure at the base of the sprout and it will come off cleanly. See the picture below.

Potato sprouts removed
Image copyright notice

Now start sprouting / chitting your potatoes again as described earlier on in this article. You will find that new sprouts grow, this time hopefully short and healthy.

Below is a picture of the seed potatoes which had the majority of their sprouts removed. You can see that when they were exposed to light new healthy, deep purple-green sprouts have grown just over a week later.

Re-sprouted seed potatoes
Image copyright notice

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS

Date: 4 May 2018: From: Chipela
QUESTION: I've planted small potatoes directly in the soil without sprouting, will they grow?

ANSWER: They definitely will grow. The difference between sprouting potatoes and not sprouting them is minimal. Sprouted potatoes will have maybe a week's head start on non-sprouted potatoes.

Date: 11 April 2018: From: Alan O
QUESTION: I have some Pink Fir Apple seed potatoes which has something like 10-15 sprouts on each spud. How many sprouts should I leave when planting and should I plant them horizontally or vertically?

ANSWER: Three to four sprouts is about right, rub the others off. Plant them so that the sprouts are pointing upwards - either horizontal or vertical.

Date: 09 February 2018: From: Paula
QUESTION: I bought first earlies and second earlies for my first time growing potatoes. My question is- do I chit and plant them at the same time?

ANSWER: Chit and plant them at the same time. The types "early", "second early" and "maincrop" refers to how long the potatoes take to mature, not when they should be planted / chitted.

Date 28 May 2016: From: Alisha
I tried cutting the potato in half an placing it in a cup of water to help sprout. This is my first attempt at growing potatoes, I noticed the water getting cloudy an saw that the bottom of the potato is rotting and melting off leave a foul smell and the cloudy water. Is the potato suppose to rot before the roots shoot.

ANSWER: Potatoes won't normally grow in water, they will rot if you do that. See the instructions above on how to chit potatoes. They should either be planted directly in the ground or chitted in a cool light room.

Date 15 March 2016: From: Joe Collins
Is there a recommended way of providing frost protection to potato plants?

ANSWER: Yes. If the foliage appears above ground earlier than you expect and it seems likely that there may be a frost you need to cover the foliage with something. If possible, the easiest solution is to dig up a small amount of earth on either side of the foliage and bury the foliage so that the earth just covers it. The potatoes will easily grow through an inch or two of earth within a week or two. And that covering of earth is surprisingly effective at protecting the foliage from frost.

If the foliage is too high for that, you still need to cover it to protect it from frost damage. Almost anything will provide some degree of frost protection. Straw, compost, netting, even paper weighed down by earth where it lies at the edges will do a very good job. Frost does damage potato foliage, maybe more than the average amateur might expect. Covering foliage with almost anything that doesn't crush it also does a better job than the amateur gardener might expect. Good luck!

Date 24 February 2015: From: Tony
How many seed potatoes should i chit, as you can guess i am absolutely brand new at this

ANSWER: As always, beginners always ask the most complicated questions! The answer depends on many variables. But the true answer is to chit as many seed potatoes as will produce the number of potatoes you want (space allowing of course). Different varieties produce different numbers of spuds and conditions influence how many will grow as well. On a pessimistic view you might assume 1 seed potato will produce 6 good sized potatoes. If you want 60 potatoes then you need to plant 10 seed potatoes on that basis.
I suggest just giving it a try in the space you have and see what happens. Adjust next year depending on your experience.

Date 8 January 2015: From: Jean Marshall
We live in NE England so a late start to the growing year... If I buy seed potatoes in January won't they have shoots a mile long before I can get them in the ground?

ANSWER: The simple answer to your question is yes, you will end up with shoots far to long but it does depend on how you store them.

It also depends when you buy your seed potatoes. It is not necessary to buy them in January, they can be bought in early March. The problem nowadays is that the seed companies push people to buy seed potatoes far earlier than they are really needed. The seed companies want to maximise their profits as early in the season as possible.

Inexperienced gardeners buy the seed potatoes in January and then wonder what to do with them. Experienced gardeners do the same but only because they are afraid their chosen variety will have sold out by early March! It's a win win situation for the seed companies.

If you buy in January, store the seed potatoes in a cool but frost free position. A garage or unheated room in the house are good choices. If the potatoes have sprouted significantly when you begin the chitting process simply pull off the sprouts. The potatoes will then begin to produce new sprouts very easily. Hope that helps.

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