Do Potatoes Have Free Will?


Philosophers like to argue about whether humans have “free will,” that is the ability to make choices that can at times go against the instincts that rule the rest of the natural world. I think potatoes have free will. They may cooperate with the horticultural rules of conduct most of the time, but don’t depend on it. If they decide to grow where no potato has grown before, they by heaven will do it. You can make for them the loveliest bed of organic soil that J.I. Rodale ever dreamed of, and they will repay your efforts by rolling over and rotting instead of sprouting.

I am hardly joking. You would not believe what happened on our place this year. I planted my potatoes the same way I always do, that is waited until the soil started to get warm, laid the sprouting seed potatoes in a shallow trench, covered them with only enough soil to insure that the warmth of the sun could penetrate to them and after the plants first emerge, started pulling in dirt around them to discourage weeds. I generally use whole potatoes or big halves that already have sprouts on them for quick emergence. I can afford that extravagance because we always have a surplus of potatoes from the preceding year.

This year only one third of the seed potatoes grew. The rest rotted in the soil. We had a huge rain after planting which I suppose encouraged the rotting, by why did some grow? All of them came from exactly the same source, our potato storage bin. All were treated exactly the same. Why did some rot? Because a potato is as bullheaded as a rutting ram.

Here’s the proof. About a hundred feet away from the potato patch lays our compost heap, where we throw tree leaves, pulled weeds, coffee grounds, etc.  This year “etc.” included some shriveled potatoes too small to make it to the table. Carol just tossed them carelessly on the compost pile along with other food waste. Stress the words, “tossed” and “carelessly.”

So while I was bemoaning my rotted spuds in the garden, I happened to pass the compost pile. Four of the healthiest potato plants I’ve ever see were growing there, and in partial shade yet to boot. In the days that followed, the few potato plants that had grown in the garden were lacerated by flea beetles. The “carelessly tossed” plants in the compost were unmolested. Honest. I’ve heard for a thousand years or so from organic gardeners that organically grown plants aren’t as susceptible to bug damage as chemically grown ones but it has not been true in my experience. I don’t have enough faith. Or, maybe my theory is correct: potatoes have free will and if they decide not to attract bugs they don’t.

Here’s another bit of evidence about the contrariness of potatoes. While I was making sure conditions for growth in the garden were as near to perfect as I could make them, in the section of garden that was in potatoes last year, a few derelict spuds escaped my shovel at harvest time and now in spring sent up a nice healthy plants. These potatoes had endured a winter of freezing and thawing and by all the dictates of gardening experience, should have rotted away. No sir. Potatoes have their own religion. They do as they damn well please.

P.S. I want to thank all of you who responded to my mystifications about parsnips. I was sort of trolling for information, as one of you suggested, because I want to write something about parsnips that is really not about parsnips.  (Yes, that’s more mystification but that’s all can say right now—haven’t figured it out myself yet.)  I am totally amazed and amused every week at the unique experiences, high intelligence and great good humor all of you display in your responses. I am so very lucky to have your good will and attention.


We have lots of rogue potatoes this year and we thought we had been thorough. Or maybe it was me with my smaller fork than my husband’s and not digging down far enough? I am also of the ilk, if it’s growing happily where it is, leave it and enjoy the benefit of it. Sometimes I will move them to a more convenient location though and I will probably do that with some rogue marigolds that must have reseeded themselves.

Here in Latvia people make ridges, with hand ploughs usually, some then go along the row put a hole in it and drop a potato in and that is about it. They may go along the row later with the hand plough again to tip hoe up the soil. Others plant the potatoes in the valleys of the ridges and then put the hand plough through the ridge to turn the soil over the potatoes. They don’t chit the potatoes (let the shoots emerge) they plant straight from their stock of last years potatoes. I think the ridges are possibly due to the fact that it can be quite wet ground here and I understand the Irish may have a similar method for similar reasons. We found this method of direct planting into ridges so much less effort and maybe the yield is lower but we can take that as it’s easier on the back. Once our potatoes are up above the ground sufficiently high then I am going to cover them in a layer of straw and that will keep the weeds down and save on digging later.

Sorry. P.S. My Old Order Amish neighbors cover their cut seed potatoes in sulphur. I push mine into the wood asked from the old cookstove and let them dry a day or so. I reckon you do something like that, so I’ll shut up now. Best to you. Keep it all coming for us.

At the risk of sounding too effusive… being relatively new to the site, I can’t say enough about what a wonderful group of people camp around this fire, swapping stories. What an erudite flock of people gather here! I think I wish you were all my neighbors. There’s a dearth of gentle wisdom here in SE Ohio. Taters? I have found them to be contrary but I blamed myself. Glad to hear that perhaps, just perhaps it wasn’t the vagaries of my effort, but free will! I am a hard-eyed realist, but when I tend my gardens, I am giddy with the wonders I see. (as well as dismayed by them, sometimes). Francis Bacon was right. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” But as I study at her feet, she is awfully coy and parsimonious about dispensing her will. Likely my density is to blame.
I, too have my most voluptuous ‘taters coming from the compost. But at least the others APPEAR to be flourishing. We’ll see when I try to sneak some new potatoes out from under their ‘skirts’…. All my best, Marsha

Free will for potatoes is the illusion that a potato is doing something that is outside the will of the potato g_d. It is based on the idea that the potato g_d’s will is limited.

I’ve had several experiences with rogue potatoes. Here’s just a couple.
Our dog will take anything you give her, whether it’s interesting to her or not. One year she was being annoying during a potato harvest, so I kept giving her small spuds (what I call soup potatoes). She’d take it, then come back a while later and I’d give her another. I thought nothing of it until the next year when we had potatoes growing in the flower beds. It finally dawned on me that those spuds I was giving her she was burying in the beds. It was a good thing too, that year the plants in the garden did squat. But we had a bumper crop of dog potatoes.

Also, never be surprised when you have plants come up in the pig pen. They are also a welcome mishap.


A delightful old 90 year old Englishman who was my neighbour (and homebrew buddy and fireside philosopher) for a couple of decades and who sadly passed away recently, delivered two wonderful olde English (he was from Staffordshire) phrases to me. The first was “sit ye and mardle a while” which literally means to sit by a pond and chat with a mate/friend/etc about the day’s happenings or daily happenings (sadly so infrequently done today in any setting) and the other was concerning gardening (and I am sure your English correspondents will correct my imprecise memory here) ” if it was ne’r stolen nor lost then it will ne’r do well” alluding to the fact mentioned by all so far that if you deliberately plant something out it will take it’s own time or make it’s own mind up about doing the ‘right’ thing by you whereas if a rogue potato or tomato appears they are always incredibly healthy and yummy.

My personal philosophy is that is if a healthy and useable (please note – not just edible!) plant that appears where it should not be why eradicate it? I leave them be, make sure they are harvested properly next time and I try not to leave any orphans behind for the next germination. Got to admit that is next to impossible though!

Keep on writing and enlightening us all please. I know you get as much out of us as we do from you but it is getting to be an endless chain now isn’t it??! Probably was the original intent I suspect.

All good.



In addition to the volunteers revisiting last years bed, I am amazed at what grows in our compost piles. Now someone just explain why our garlic hates last year’s potato bed? The garlic is half the size of our other garlic bed.

As an experiment this year, we planted about 9 seed potatoes in a pile consisting of three layers: upside-down sod from where we are making new beds, some mostly composted chicken manure/bedding, and another layer of upside-down sod. We put the seed potatoes under the top sod layer, where four corners of sod meet. Those potatoes, which I almost forgot about, are the best looking potatoes in the garden. We’ll have to wait and see whether they’ll actually be able to produce potatoes!

karen Scheunemann June 7, 2012 at 6:11 am

I feel like as I go down the row of potatoes squishing eggs, the plants at the end of the row tilt their leaves (the ones that have potato bug eggs on them), so I can see them better. That’s either free will, or I am doing way too much egg squishing.

Flea beetles found my potato patch. A little DE and hilling for the first time ended that feast. However clearing weeds and intrusive raspberries from the blueberry patch I found several familiar shaped leaves poking up through the soil. These were heirloom potatoes I had from a local seed saving get together a few years back.Two years before the blight hit the northeast. We’ll see what I get in the fall.

Forgot all about the loose leaf lettuce that Seed Savers sent out last year that I had left gone to seed, that is till I realized the chickens were chowing down on something in the orchard. While I lust for the taste of a fresh salad………..

And volunteer tomatoes sprouting all over, they endured better then the carefully cool and dry seed shelf.

You have potatoes everywhere you look but where you want them. In our garden, it is garlic showing their will. They, as your feral potatoes, are healthier and more advanced than our carefully coddled purposely planted ones. The will to live is strong and a good dose of benign neglect seems to help them along.

You can always replant the row with parsnips!! Enjoy!

Gene, we’re the lucky ones. I always enjoy your writing. I feel like I’m having a cup of coffee with a dear friend when I’m reading your work. Blessings to you and to Carol.

I am of the opinion that anything alive (or quiescent but with the potential for growth, like seed potatoes and other seeds) has free will. And I’m not too sure about some of the “non-living” items, like computers, cars and copy machines. I long ago noticed that the copy machines I worked with in the nursing office always waited until you had either a major project or a high-priority time-sensitive project to get sick. My mom called it “the innate perversity of inanimate objects.” Sounds like your potatoes are perverse, Gene!

    Joel, may I steal your mom’s material? Very wise. And fun to say! I’ve been riding a Mac since 1986 for a living, in print and ad ‘goober.’ Never fails. The more I need a project to go smoothly, once in awhile the machinery balks, and I have to, once again, be my own IS department. This applies well to autos, you name it!

Two of the three veggie farms I’ve interned on had volunteer potatoes sprouting up all over the place. One because they had planted potatoes everywhere throughout the years as a method of helping to control their symphylan problem and the other, well . . . just generally from past plantings. That’s one of the things I love about potatoes–their intention to grow wherever they damn well please. It doesn’t hurt that they’re one of my very favorite crops, so I never have a problem with them coming up where they aren’t supposed to. Just more eating.

That is funny, though, that a bunch of your normally planted ones rotted. The last couple years here on the north Oregon coast, I’ve seen the farm I interned at last year ritually plant potatoes on St. Patricks Day. Those potatoes drowned in rain for the next month but come up hardy and healthy despite that. Perhaps some fungus got into your potato storage bin?

Probably just free will.

As for the volunteers, keep in mind that you only are going to notice those that came up–there may have been far more that rotted, beyond the percentage of those your purposefully planted. Though, in my experience of how these things work, probably not. I think potatoes are stubborn, too, and are as likely to grow and yield better where they’re not put by a human than where they are. Can’t much blame them for it, either. I don’t like to be told what to do any more than a potato does.

We’re lucky to have you, too, Gene.

Totally agree that potatoes have free will. They are eclipsed, however, by rutabagas, which grow larger than my head, re-sprout by sheer force of will on the strength of one ignored root, and again grow more rutabagas the size of my head. I think they try harder because they’re not nearly as loved as their distant cousin, the potato. Except by our cows.

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