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Tater Chitting: Preparing Your Seed Potatoes for Planting

By Bev Walker (SundownrMarch 28, 2012
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My great-grandparents used to sprout potatoes for spring planting using leftover potatoes stored through the winter from the previous harvest. I have always prepared my store-bought seed potatoes in the same manner. I did not know this prep was called "chitting" until recently. In researching how to properly chit potatoes, I learned that there were a few common sense considerations despite the method.

Gardening pictureChitting is easy and can provide a harvest of "new potatoes" (see Tater Terms in sidebar) much faster from early varieties. People have different ideas about how chitting is properly done from just sticking them in the ground whole, covering them with damp towels or potting soil, to cutting or rubbing out unwanted eyes from sectioned spuds.

 

What is Tater Chitting?

Chitting forces the potato out of dormancy signaling the eyes to sprout. Potatoes start to germinate at around 50ºF (10ºC). It may take the soil awhile to reach the required temperature before sprouting can begin, meanwhile, a cold and rainy spring can cause the spuds to rot. Presprouting before planting give the seed potatoes a few weeks head start and "new potatoes" can be harvested before very many bugs mature and blight develops.

Must I chit?

No, you do not have to chit your seed potatoes at all, but chitting not only offers up to a two-week earlier harvest, it allows more control over what is planted. By chitting, you will know before planting if the seed potatoes are viable and have fewer empty spots in the hills due to poor sprouting. You can also prevent crowded plant conditions caused by too many sprouts, creating competition for soil nutrients, poor production, and possible rotting.

 

Will Any Ol' Tater Do?

many potato varietiesOf the nearly 4,000 wild and domesticated varieties of potatoes, humankind has propagated for the past 10,000 years, the early and mid season cultivars benefit the most from chitting because they have a short growing season. [1]

Late, or main crop, potatoes can be chitted, but having a longer growing season (until the vines die back or first frost occurs), the early harvest advantage may not be noticeable. Fingerling potatoes are an exception to the late season potato rule of thumb, benefiting from larger tubers when chitted.

Certified seed potatoes are preferred, as they have been inspected and/or tested for disease. Select potatoes in good condition, discarding any rotten, damaged, black, or dark-green potatoes. You do not want to infect your garden soil from potentially diseased tubers.

Spuds purchased for eating from the grocery store may have been sprayed with chemicals to prevent sprouting and you do not want that in your soil either! They may also carry diseases. After chitting for a week or two, discard any unsprouted potatoes.

 

How Does One Chit?
egg carton chitting tray

Seed potatoes need to be spaced apart for good air circulation and chits allowed to form without getting tangled or accidentally knocked off. Some commercial growers may insist on special chitting trays, but for the home gardener anything that will keep the seed potatoes from rolling around can be used: egg cartons, seeding trays, small pots, gravel, boxes, crumpled newspapers, or blankets.

There is not a right or wrong method of chitting. The goal is to sprout the seed potato before planting. Backyard potato gardeners worldwide have favored methods, based on either the cultural practices, or what worked best for them after years of trial-and-error. The following are just a few methods I have witnessed or stumbled across while researching potato chitting.

potato infoPosition-Critical:
Potatoes have a top and bottom that some claim is a critical factor in chitting and planting. Positioning the spuds with the rose end up is considered necessary for successful vine growth. If chitted in the wrong position, sprouts can be removed and allowed to resprout in the proper position. (I never knew there was a top or bottom until now and always planted with the chits up, regardless the potato configuration.)

Undercover Lover:
Some prefer greensprouting by spreading a thin layer of damp potting soil, towels, or paper, across the spuds while in a warm dark environment, then move them into the light at a lower temperature to encourage stockier chits. (Some of us do not cover seed potatoes at all and they sprout just fine.)

The Rub-Out:
A theory that reducing the number of chits, by rubbing out with a thumb or cutting out with a knife, is important to control the quantity of potato vines per hill or row. (If a rubbed-out chit will resprout, this method would seem invalid.)

Chitting Consensus:
Most all who chit their potatoes tend to agree . . .

  • seed potatoes should be left unwashed
  • the chitting environment should be out of direct sunlight and between 50º-60ºF (10º-15ºC)
  • 2-6 weeks is needed to properly develop chits
  • chits should be stocky; ¾" to 1" (2cm to 2.5cm); purple to green; not long, stringy, and white

 

Cutting & Callusing

Seed potato cutting; Tule Lake 1946Cutting larger chitted potatoes can give you more "bang-for-the-buck" with additional independent starts to help control vine density per hill or row. Each cut section should have at least one good strong chit, preferably two.

Some folks feel the size of the cuttings determine the quality, or size, of the potatoes harvested (small sections yield small potatoes), and spend much time in dissecting their potatoes into precise shapes, sizes, weight, and positioning of the chits. (I know those who have discarded thick potato peels in their compost bins that produced healthy vines.)

The potato sections can be placed back under the chitting environment (cool air with indirect light) for a few more days to allow the cuts to heal-over, or callus. This is to prevent the cut areas from rotting after planting, but some may consider this, too, an unnecessary step.


The "Old Way" Still Works for Me!

Red cross sorting potatoes after the Sea Island hurricane of 1893I found it fascinating to learn of the different methods, and the reasons, that people chitted their potatoes. I assume the various chitting methods were handed down through generations and will continue through their descendants. I will, also, continue to sprout my seed potatoes as my great-grandparents taught me because anything different just does not "feel right."

Use small to medium-sized spuds from storage cut into sections with one to two chits, lay out to dry in a shady area for a few days to callus, then plant with the chits facing up. Wait impatiently for those new taters to form!


How do you chit your potatoes?



Additional Reference

Tater Terms

  • Eyes - dimples in the surface where chits sprout from

  • Heal/Bottom end (aka stalk end) - small or narrow end

  • Rose/Top end - wide end with more eyes

  • New Potatoes:
    • 1st Earlies - short season, early spring; small tubers, thin skin; chitting helpful; short storage life

    • 2nd Earlies - short season; mid spring; small tubers, thin skin; chitting helpful; short storage life

  • Old Potatoes:
    • Main Crop - long season; late spring; large tubers, thick skin; chitting not so helpful; good storage keepers

  • Spud - a small potato



Check DG's Gardenology for other gardening terms like: chitting and greensprouting.


  About Bev Walker  
Bev WalkerI was a serious organic gardener and composter 30 years ago, then my life took me in a new direction with kids and career. I am just now returning to gardening and learning new techniques, and loving every minute of it. I hope to share my experiences with you from my shady yard.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Organic? Liquidambar2 48 146 Jun 4, 2012 9:20 AM
Hooray FlaFlower 1 7 Apr 2, 2012 7:20 AM
Good info, Bev Cville_Gardener 16 57 Mar 30, 2012 1:06 PM
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