Potatoes are known as root vegetables that do best in cooler climates. However, it is possible to grow certain varieties of potatoes even in the tropics.
You heard that right! There are heat-tolerant varieties of potatoes that can grow in the tropics, as long as you’re in the right spot.
Potatoes do best in well-draining soil and full sun, but not heat. Having full sun without high temperatures feels like a contradiction to us here in the tropics. But, growing potatoes can be done – as long as you choose a potato variety that is heat tolerant.
About Growing Potatoes
Potatoes need full sun, but temperatures over 75 F slows down growth. Also, too much moisture will lead to potato rot, which you don’t want, either. These are two of the main factors you must consider when planting potatoes in the tropics.
With root vegetables, you need to keep in mind soil temperature not just air temperature, as that plays a big part in the growing of the tubers.
The tradition in temperate climates for planting potatoes has been to plant in the early spring when temperatures are in the high 60s (Fahrenheit).
The tubers themselves will grow aggressively until the soil temperature reaches 85F, then they will slow down.
For growing in the tropics, however, the soil temperature may be in the 70s, just for planting and well into the higher 80s in summer months. Keep this in mind when planting your potatoes.
Best Potatoes to Grow in a Tropical Climate
The heat-tolerant varieties that grow best in warm, humid climates include:
Sweet potatoes or yams.
There are over 400 varieties of sweet potatoes, almost all of which grow better in tropical climates than regular potatoes.
The easiest to grow with Hawai’s temperature, soil conditions, and weather patterns is the Onolena variety of sweet potatoes, which is a hybrid variety produced here in Hawai’i.
While other potato types might grow, you’ll find the harvest yields small potatoes without much weight to them.
All in all, grow either sweet potatoes or heat-tolerant potatoes for the best harvest in the tropics.
Thankfully, potatoes grow rapidly in the tropics, so you can expect only a matter of months (around 4 or 5 months) before you’ll see new potatoes if you’re planting from cuttings.
That short growing season is imperative, too, because you have to avoid the wet season when growing potatoes.
That means around March and April before it starts getting really warm, but there shouldn’t be too much rain, is the best time to plant potato cuttings. Of course, if you’re growing from potato seed, you can start earlier and grow indoors in pots.
You should be able to harvest your potatoes around October before the wet season begins in November.
Dealing with too much moisture
Potatoes need dry, well-draining soil to grow best. The issue with the tropics is your potatoes getting too much moisture during the wet season, which can lead to potato rot or other diseases.
Too much water or rain when your potatoes are seedlings reduces growth which leads to smaller potatoes. During the period when the tubers themselves are growing, too much water can lead to rotting or lenticels (water scabs).
There are three ways to deal with this:
1. Make sure to plant at the right time – March or April and harvest before November.
2. Make sure your soil is well-draining; add sand or wood chips to improve soil drainage. Do NOT add gravel or stones to soil where you are planting potatoes. Loose soil is best. Plant in raised beds if you can.
3. Plant at higher elevations, if possible. If you have some land at a higher elevation, this is better for planting potatoes. Generally, the drainage is better and the temperature of the soil will be less than soil at sea level, too.
No matter if you plant at an elevation or not, make sure to turn up the soil really well before planting potatoes. Turn it over, remove any large rocks you come across, and generally aerate the soil. If you find it’s very moist, now is the time to mix in additional sand, too.
So Where Are The Best Places In Hawaii To Grow Potatoes?
If you couldn’t tell already, growing potatoes in the tropics really requires a sweet spot in climate. I have seen growers with a successful potato crop down by the coast, but they have thumbs greener than green.
For the best potatoes, you’re going to want to be growing them in higher elevations like Volcano or Waimea on Hawaii Island or Makawao and Kula on Maui, just over on the drier sides of each location.
It’s not a very big area that you can easily grow potatoes in here in Hawaii, but if you live in these areas, consider yourself lucky. Hopefully, the pests won’t find you.
Planting from seed versus potato cuttings
The most common way to plant potatoes is usually to plant from cuttings. You allow a few potatoes to sprout, then cut them up, ensuring 1 or 2 ‘eyes’ are in each cutting.
You should be very careful when planting potatoes from cuttings of potatoes purchased from the grocery store. Store-bought potatoes may be great for eating, but they carry risks for using when planting.
Why? Disease. If you accidentally plant a potato cutting that has any of the many varieties of blight, rot, or cankers, you risk infecting your soil with it. That’s so much worse than just ruining a single potato harvest – you put your land at risk, too! These diseases affect more than just potatoes when they get into the soil – they can harm sweet peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes, too.
If you do choose potatoes to sprout and use as cuttings, only use potatoes from sources you trust: another homesteader or an organic farm are good choices. The advantage here is that you also know these locally grown potatoes will do great in the tropical climate.
Potatoes from cuttings are genetically identical to the parent variety, so there shouldn’t be any surprises when planting cuttings.
The alternative to growing potatoes from cuttings is growing from seed. You should order seeds well in advance, to make sure you’re ready to plant them in time. You could plant seedlings in February or early March indoors and be ready to move outside in April.
Seed potatoes have the advantage of being clear of disease, so you won’t put your soil at risk.
Choose any of the heat-resistant varieties listed above for best growth in the tropics. Time your growing to avoid the wet season and prepare your soil for optimal drainage.