potato tops ready to remove before harvest

How To Dispose Of Potato Tops At Harvest

Properly disposing of potato tops, or foliage, at harvest is crucial for maintaining a healthy plot and minimising the risk of disease transmission. In this article, we’ll explore essential guidelines for disposing of potato tops. By following these methods you can effectively manage the tops and contribute to a thriving environment.

Ways to remove the tops from the potato drills:

Harvesting your potatoes is a lot easier if the tops are removed before you begin to dig into the soil. For small areas of potatoes the tops are removed by hand or using hand tools. For larger areas mechanical flail machines (toppers) attached to a tractor are used.

  1. Hand Removal: One straightforward way to remove the tops is by manually pulling or cutting them off using garden shears or a sharp knife. Simply grasp the top of the plant near the base and gently pull upwards to detach the foliage from the potatoes. This method is suitable for smaller-scale plantings or if you prefer a hands-on approach.
  2. Flailing or Topping Equipment: In agricultural settings, specialised flailing or topping equipment is commonly used to remove potato tops efficiently. Flail mowers or toppers are machines designed specifically for cutting and removing the foliage from the top of the potato drills. These machines have rotating blades or chains that swiftly remove the tops, leaving the potatoes exposed for easier harvesting. Using flailing or topping equipment can save time and labour if you have a large-scale potato operation.
a Grimme potato haulm topper for a tractor
A Grimme potato haulm topper for a tractor.

Regardless of the method you choose, it’s important to consider a few factors:

  • Timing: It’s best to remove the tops when they have fully died back and turned yellow or brown. This indicates that the plant has transferred most of its energy to the potatoes below. Tops which are fresh and green or dead and white are the easiest to cut through – tops which are in between these stages are tough and rope like.
  • Disease Management: If your potato plants have been affected by blight or other diseases, it’s crucial to remove the tops promptly to prevent the spread of pathogens. Proper disposal of the removed tops, as mentioned earlier, is essential in such cases.
  • Careful Handling: Take care when removing the tops to avoid damaging the potatoes. Damaged potatoes are more susceptible to rot and storage issues.
dead white potato tops vs tough potato tops
The potato tops on the right are white and fragile, and the potato tops on the left are strong, rope-like, and tough to cut.

To dispose of potato tops at harvest

The guidelines below refer to potato tops which have been pulled or removed manually in smaller-scale potato areas such as vegetable gardens or allotments.

If a mechanical potato haulm topper is used the tops will be chopped into very small pieces and spread on the soil ready to be ploughed in.

1. Composting: Composting potato tops is an excellent way to recycle organic material and enrich your compost. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

composting potato tops
Composting potato tops is a great idea.
  • Remove any large clumps of soil from the potato tops, as excess soil can hinder decomposition.
  • Chop or shred the tops into smaller pieces. This increases the surface area, allowing microorganisms to break them down more efficiently.
  • Mix the potato tops with other compostable materials like leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and other garden waste. Aim for a balanced ratio of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials.
  • Ensure the compost pile is properly aerated by turning it regularly. This allows oxygen to reach the microorganisms responsible for decomposition.
  • Monitor the moisture levels of the compost pile. It should be moist like a wrung-out sponge. Adjust moisture levels by adding water or dry materials as needed. Over time, the potato tops will decompose, contributing valuable organic matter and nutrients to your compost. Once the composting process is complete, you can use the finished compost to improve soil fertility and structure in your garden.

2. Mulching: Potato tops can be used as mulch, which provides several benefits to your soil. Follow these guidelines when using them as mulch:

Potato tops can be used as mulch, but be careful not to use blight-infected tops.
  • Lay the potato tops directly on the soil surface around your plants. Ensure the mulch extends a few inches from the base of each plant.
  • Spread a layer of potato tops about 2 to 4 inches thick. This thickness helps insulate the soil, regulate temperature, and suppress weed growth.
  • Avoid piling the potato tops against the stems of your plants, as this can create a moist environment that encourages pests and diseases.
  • As the potato tops break down, they add organic matter to the soil, improving its structure and fertility. This organic matter also acts as a sponge, helping the soil retain moisture and reducing the need for frequent watering.
  • Periodically check the mulch layer and replenish it as needed to maintain its effectiveness. Over time, the potato tops will decompose, and you can incorporate them into the soil or add fresh mulch on top.

3. Removal and Disposal: In cases where your potato plants have been affected by blight or other diseases, it is crucial to remove and dispose of the potato tops properly to prevent the spread of pathogens. Follow these steps for safe removal and disposal:

Potato tops affected by blight should be bagged and disposed of in the bin.
  • Bag up the affected potato tops, collecting them in a sturdy plastic bag.
  • Discard the bagged potato tops in the trash. This ensures that the diseased plant material is removed from your garden and prevents the spread of pathogens.
  • Avoid composting or using diseased potato tops as livestock feed, as this can potentially spread the disease.
  • Check your local regulations or recommendations for proper disposal methods of diseased plant material. Some areas may have specific guidelines to prevent the spread of plant diseases.

When it comes to disposing of potato tops after harvest, there are several options to consider. Proper handling and disposal methods are essential for preventing disease transmission. By following the guidelines above, you can effectively manage potato tops, contribute to a thriving environment, and minimise the spread of pathogens.