The Potato - Are Potatoes indeterminate or determinate?

The potato is probably one of the most consumed vegetable around the world and is grown commercially and in most home gardens around the world.  But yet good crops can be somewhat evasive at times.  A very common question that I see being asked is why did my potatoes only produce a handful of potatoes at the bottom of the container? Or why did I get so few potatoes out of my plants?  People also wonder about hilling potatoes and if it is really necessary. In this blog I explore these and other questions as I try to make sense out of all the information out there.

The Potato

The versatility of the potato in the kitchen, the health benefits, relative ease of growing and the storage life, to name a few, have made the potato one of the most widely used vegetable around the world.  According to a Wikipedia article, List of countries by potato production,  " based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database.[1] The estimated total world production for potatoes in 2020 was 359,071,403 metric tonnes, up 1.2% from 354,812,093 tonnes in 2019.[n 1] China was the largest producer, accounting for 21.8% of world production, followed by India at 14.3%.", with Canada rating at #13 and the United states at #5 in production.

According to the USDA January, 2021 report North American Potatoes, "The 2019 potato production for the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined is 569 million cwt, up 2 percent from the 2018 estimate. The United States 2019 potato production is estimated at 424 million cwt, up 2 percent from 2019. Canada’s potato growers harvested 106 million cwt during 2019, up 3 percent from 2018. Mexico’s potato growers harvested 39 million cwt during 2019, down 1 percent from 2018.".

USDA North American Potatoes production report


Although there is a lot of potatoes produced in the world and they are easy to access at the moment, it seems kind of funny in some ways to take up valuable space to grow them in my garden.  But having them easily accessible and not having to transport them many miles to get to my table, makes sense to me.  Growing my own helps to work towards my goal of self sufficiency and resiliency but it also saves me some money.  And besides, there is nothing like a feed of fresh baby potatoes right from the garden. To learn what else I am doing to work towards my goal of self sufficiency and resiliency, be sure to check out Is a self sufficient homestead doable? Incubating chicken eggs for meat and egg laying hens and incubating turkey eggs.

Are potatoes good for you?

Over the years, each new study has a different opinion on whether potatoes are good to consume. Regardless of what is reported, we continue to consume potatoes in any number of ways whether it be plain, scalloped, fried or baked, to name a few.   After all, a simple google search on ways to prepare potatoes will result in a plethora of recipes. 

But can this level of consumption be good for you?  According to WebMD, Health Benefits of Potatoes, "Potatoes are a good source of fiber, which can help you lose weight by keeping you full longer. Fiber can help prevent heart disease by keeping cholesterol and blood sugar levels in check. Potatoes are also full of antioxidants that work to prevent diseases and vitamins that help your body function properly.".  With each variety of potato, and there are lots, it is difficult to make an all encompassing statement about the health benefits of potatoes, but The Little Potato Company in the article The Truth About Potatoes: Yes, Potatoes Are A Vegetable! did identify that "The Canadian Food Guide 2017 lists potatoes under the vegetable category and recommends 4-5 serving per day. According to Registered Dietitian, Karen Ansel, ‘USDA researchers found potatoes are loaded with Kukoamines, plant chemicals that lower blood pressure’ ( Nov 2011). These researchers tested 100 different varieties of potatoes and found that they contained over 60 different vitamins and phytochemicals, and flavonoids, which are credited with improving heart health.".

With this information in hand, I will continue to add potatoes to my diet because of their health benefits but also because, as these articles do not highlight, potatoes are a cheap food to grow.

Growing Potatoes

Depending on which school of thought you follow, you can either plant the entire potato or you can cut the potato into multiple pieces, each containing at least one "eye".  The eye of the potato is the spot on the potato from which the leafy top growth, the stolon,  will develop and from where the new potatoes will start to develop.  Personally, I do a combination of both. 

There are some gardeners that follow the thought process of cutting the potatoes a few days before planting to allow the cut surface to callus over prior to planting, but to be honest, I never think to do this.  So, for the larger seed potatoes I simply cut and plant.  For all other's I will plant the entire potato.  The thinking that some gardeners adhere too is that the more sprouts you get from a potato, the more potatoes you will get under a plant.  I suppose there is some logic to this thought process if you think that by cutting the potatoes you are essentially allowing all the eyes to sprout, each producing many pounds of potatoes, but it takes up more space to do this.  Versus planting one whole potato and getting many sprouts in one spot and using less space.  However, I have never noticed there to be a huge difference in yield by planting whole potatoes. 

Regardless of the method being used, it is a good idea if you are storing your potatoes in a cold storage to bring them them out into air temperature to "wake them up" as cold storage puts the potatoes into a state of dormancy.  Although it is not totally necessary, warming the potatoes for a week or so prior to planting or cutting will help to speed up how fast you actually see top growth in the garden.

Planting potatoes can be done in a number of ways and although each has its own benefits, it boils down to personal circumstances and preference.

  1. Planting in straw - Simply put, the seed potato is planted on the surface of the soil and then "hilling" is done by adding straw.  Gardening Know How in the article Tips For Growing Potatoes In Straw explores how this is done.  It might be fun to try some day, although I do wonder about rodent issues with this method.
Gardening Know How picture of potato grown in straw
  1. The YouTube channel, Simeon & Alex - formerly Swedish Homestead also did a very informative video on how they plant their potatoes using mulch, compost and straw with Planting Potatoes Just Became Fun [4k
  2. Trench planting - Simply put, this is a method where a trench is dug about 6 - 8" deep, the potato is planted and then covered with about 3 - 4 " of soil.  Once the potato has grown above the ground the soil is put back into the trench and then a final hilling of the potatoes is done. Gardening Know How in the article Potato Trenches And Hills – Trench And Hill Potato Planting explores this method in depth.
Gardening Know How photo of potatoes in a trench
  1. Planting in an individual hole - this is the method that I seem to use and although it is very similar to trench planting, I don't have to expend all the energy digging a trench. I simply dig a hole about 4 - 6" deep, put my potato in and cover it up.  When the potato starts growing I start mounding up the dirt around the stems.  I will do this multiple times throughout the growing season until the plants get too big to effectively do so.  I think, for me, digging the potatoes is easier because all the dirt on top is soft, but having not done a trench method of planting, I really don't know.  Harvest to Table in the article How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Potatoes explores something similar to this method.
Harvest to Table photo of potato plant
  1. Planting in a container - Simply put, this is a method where in the bottom of a container, with drain holes, a small amount of soil is placed, the seed potato is planted and then covered with soil.  As the potato grows dirt is back filled into the container to all but cover the top growth. The process is repeated as the potato grows till the container is filled.  At the end of the season, the container is simply dumped to harvest the potatoes.  Epic Gardening in the article Growing Potatoes In A Bucket: Small Space Spuds explores this method.

Indeterminate vs determinate - Why does it matter?

So if all these methods can work to grow potatoes for fresh eating or for storage over the winter months, then why do some methods appear to work better than others. Yes, the season can affect the growth of the potatoes but in most cases, it is not the method necessarily but rather it is the variety of potato that is being used with the method.

There are over "4,000 varieties of native potatoes, mostly found in the Andes. They come in many sizes and shapes. There are also over 180 wild potato species." according to the International Potato Centre in the article Potato Facts and Figures.  And according to Potatoes USA there are "200 varieties of potatoes sold throughout the United States." and in Canada I counted 192 varieties that have been registered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  My three varieties that I currently plant are insignificant in the whole scheme of things, that's for sure.

Each of these potatoes has their own growth habits that can be categorized as indeterminate or determinate and so their application in the home garden will vary.  If a person is in ground planting their potatoes in their home garden or has ample room to plant many hills, I would agree with the West Coast Seeds blog Are My Potatoes Determinate or Indeterminate? statement of "First of all, it doesn't matter: Don't worry about it.".  However, if you are planting in containers or are planting in limited space or are wanting to not have to worry about diligent hilling, then exploring whether a particular variety is indeterminate or determinate bears consideration despite West Coast Seeds statement that "The potato varieties available in Canada mostly share characteristics of both indeterminate and determinate varieties, and are considered intermediate. Our growing season is so short that the distinction is almost entirely pedantic." . 

I feel that if a person goes through the work of back filling the potatoes being grown in containers only to dump them out and be rewarded with a small number of potatoes at the bottom of the container, whether a potato is determinate or indeterminate bears further investigation. Additionally, maximizing the yield from a limited space in ground garden may factor in as well.  Simply put, I would want to get the maximum yield possible for the effort given and if determining whether a potato is determinate or indeterminate affects that outcome, then I need to explore this more.

Photo from Gardening Know How - container grown potatoes


Indeterminate vs Determinate - The difference

Commercially and home grown determinate type potatoes, like tomatoes, generally have a predetermined growth habit and are typically an earlier maturing, compact type potato.  They grow like a bush or shrub, flower and then die. Because new potatoes of determinate type varieties grow in one layer slightly above the place where the stolon emerged from the seed potato, hilling is not really necessary.  Although you will not get more potatoes by hilling the plants, hilling or mulching will cover the continually growing tuber with soil and prevent the potatoes from turning green due to light exposure.  And while not poisonous to humans, the green potato can have some affects.  But this determinate growth habitat is also the reason why people who grow potatoes in containers using these varieties will not have a full container of potatoes as they expected and why you can get small yields from large potato patches.  It is not the method, it is the potato they are using.

Commercially and home grown indeterminate type potatoes, like tomatoes, generally have a sprawling type growth habit and typically are a late season variety.  They will continue to grow until they are either mowed to remove the tops or a killing frost kills the tops.  Because these potatoes grow in multiple layers, growing potatoes from all along the stem, they will produce more potatoes if they receive regular hilling of soil against their stems.  This growth habit is what makes them a perfect candidate for growing in containers as they will produce potatoes all along the stems of the plants that are buried in the container.

But then there are some varieties of commercially and home grown potatoes that fall into the mid-season category, the intermediate category as identified by West Coast Seeds.  These potatoes carry some of the characteristics of determinate and indeterminate varieties but have not been classified into either the determinant or indeterminate variety.  The only way to know is to grow them and if the potato has a bush-like appearance, flowers and dies, they are a determinate variety.  And if they sprawl all over, continue growing until a killing frost gets them, they are an indeterminate variety.  Although the intermediate or mid season varieties will greatly benefit from hilling in the in ground garden, their success being grown in a container will vary depending on the variety.  Trial and error will be the only way to know for sure.

And because of each of these characteristics, plus the storage ability in my home, I grow a determinate variety called Red Norland, a mid season variety called Purple Viking that leans towards being indeterminate in growth habit and maturity. and an indeterminate variety called Netted Gem, an old school white potato that is similar to the Russet that is definitely later and wants to keep growing unless it freezes or I pull them out. 

With so many varieties out there, I did some research into a number of varieties and compiled this non exhaustive list of recommended varieties. I have not tried most of them and so I base this list on the recommendations of others.  Some of these I may have to try next year.

The potato patch of determinate and indeterminate varieties


Determinate Potato Varieties

These varieties will

- Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes suggested the following early varieties:

  • Alta Blush
  • Alta Rose
  • Bellanita
  • Caribe
  • Linzer Delikatess
  • Norland
  • Rode Eersteling
  • Sieglinde

- Zone 3 Vegetable Gardening suggested the following determinate (Early and Mid-Season) varieties:

  • Caribe
  • Chieftain 
  • Cranberry Red 
  • Fingerling 
  • Gold Rush 
  • Norland 
  • Onaway 
  • Reddale 
  • Red Pontiac 
  • Russet Norkotah 
  • Superior 
  • Yukon Gold 
  • Viking

- Gardening Dream suggested the following determinate varieties:

  • Caribe 
  • Norland 
  • Russet Norkotah 
  • Red Norland 
  • Ratte Potatoes 
  • Chieftain 
  • Yukon Gold 
  • Sierra Rose 
  • Sierra Gold 
  • Gold Rush 
  • Adirondack Blue 
  • Adirondack Red

Intermediate Potato Varieties

- Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes suggests the following mid season varieties:

  • Agria
  • Kennebec
  • Arizona
  • Bridget
  • Chieftain
  • Dakota Pearl
  • Gold Rush
  • Purple Viking
  • Red Gold
  • Roko
  • Sangre
  • Shepody
  • Viking

Indeterminate Potato Varieties

- Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes suggests the following late season varieties:

  • All Blue
  • AmaRosa
  • Bintie
  • French Fingerling
  • German Butterball
  • German Mountain
  • Irish Cobbler
  • Pink Fir Apple
  • Russian Blue

- Zone 3 Vegetable Gardening suggests the following indeterminate varieties:

  • All-Blue (Russian Blue) 
  • Bintje 
  • Butte 
  • Canela Russet 
  • Carola 
  • Elba 
  • German Butterball 
  • Green Mountain 
  • Kennebec 
  • Nicola 
  • Red Cloud 
  • Russet Nugget 
  • Strawberry Paw

- Gardening Dream suggested the following indeterminate varieties:

  • Russet Burbank 
  • Ranger Russet 
  • Alturas 
  • Century Russet 
  • Russet Nugget 
  • German Butterball 
  • Strawberry Paw 
  • Green Mountain 
  • Canela Russet 
  • Bintje 
  • Red Pontiac 
  • Maris Piper 
  • Lehigh 
  • German Butterball 
  • Red Maria 
  • Butte 
  • Elba 
  • Red Cloud 
  • Katahdin 
  • Desiree

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of potato varieties!!  And as expected, there is some cross over between varieties because potatoes are not typically categorized as determinate or indeterminate. The only way to know is to grow them as I have with the Purple Viking and as such would class it as indeterminate.   But what I do know for certain is that my three tried and true varieties work well for me and for the environment I have for storing them.  A couple years ago, from 100 hills of mostly indeterminate potatoes I yielded 700 pounds of potatoes.  I was happy! 

Planting indeterminate varieties in my limited space in ground garden affords me the luxury of having high yields that enables me to have potatoes throughout the winter and into early summer.  As the days to maturity affect the level of starch in the potato and therefore its longevity in storage, I use them up in the same manner they mature. These varieties produce cheap, healthy, food.

If I was container gardening and wanting to maximize my production I got out of a container on my balcony, I would want to know whether they were determinate or indeterminate.  Yes all potatoes can be grown in containers but I would not want to go through all the effort only to get a small number of potatoes at the bottom of the container. If you are interested in learning more about container gardening be sure to check out my earlier blog How to container garden.

All this said, whether you are planting a few hills, a hundred hills, a few hundred hills or just a few containers, I feel that it really boils down to what your goals are from your potatoes.  And these goals will dictate whether you plant determinate varieties, indeterminate varieties or not worry about it and just be happy with your efforts and what you get.  And by all means, be happy with your efforts!  But for me, I will continue as I have in the past planting my three varieties.  However, I may have to try a couple new varieties next year!  How about you?

I hope you enjoyed this exploration into this popular household staple.  If you did and If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site. 

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.

Additional Resources


The Potato - indeterminate vs determinate - Pinterest link