Organic Gardening: The joys of the humble potato
Potatoes are not necessarily the first thing beginning gardeners think to plant. They don’t have the same appeal as a garden-grown tomato or salad greens, perhaps because they’re storage crops where there’s no premium on freshness. They’re also usually pretty cheap at the grocery store.
But I always grow them, in part because I like the connection they give me to one of our most important food crops and also because they’re fascinating plants that yield an abundance of food at the end of the season.
Originally grown in South America–where they’ve been grown for 10,000 years by some estimates and where there are thousands of varieties in cultivation–the tubers first came to Europe in the 16th century. Potatoes were perhaps first grown in France as ornamentals–they have beautiful purple, white or bluish flowers–but they quickly became an important staple and fueled a population boom in Europe. The French also gave them the charming name “pomme de terre” or earth apple. Today they are the world’s forth most important food crop after corn, wheat and rice, supplying calories along with important nutrients like potassium.
Growing potatoes gives you a worm’s eye view of what makes this plant so special. It also allows the gardener to branch out from the spuds on offer at the local grocer. Among the different varieties that I’ve grown, French fingerling and German buterball are among my favorites. However, it must be said that the russet burbank McDonald’s uses to make their French fries is actually pretty good. Gardeners can also try growing blue, purple and red varieties.
Seed potatoes can often be purchased at a garden centers in April or early May or by mail-order from High Mowing, Johnny’s or another reputable seed source. You could also use organic ones from a grocery, but seed potatoes have the advantage of being inspected for disease, which is not a minor consideration for a widely cultivated crop that’s susceptible to a number of pests.
Since they grow underground, you will need to either bury your seed potatoes or cover them in straw. I have done a combination of the two, planting a seed potato or a piece of one every 18 inches at the bottom of a 6-to 12-inch trench. If they are very large, I sometimes cut them in half and allow them to scab up overnight. As the plants vine’s grow, fill in the trench and then when the ground is level, use a hard rake to “hill them up” until a mound of dirt is covering the base of vines up to about twelve inches or so. Finally, put straw-mulch on top of the hills if you’re so inclined.
Not all of this is necessary, but the more of the vine that’s covered, the more space there is underground for producing spuds. The straw mulch also helps to keep moisture in the ground and there have been years where I haven’t needed to water my potato crop at all. However, keep an eye out for the appearance flowers on the vines in early to mid-summer. This means that the plant is setting tubers and it’s during this period when the crop needs the most water.
Of all the pests and insects that beset the plant, the most common and annoying is the Colorado potato beetle (CPB). Although there are doubtless all sorts of things that can be sprayed on these to try and kill them, I’ve traditionally resorted to a technique known as “hand squishing”. For those who find this overly disagreeable, another easy method is putting a bit of dish-soap and water in a 5-gallon bucket and shaking the vines directly into it. Most of the CPBs will fall off and die in the solution and their population can be kept at a manageable level.
A few weeks after the vines die-back, it’s time to harvest. Some people do pull their spuds earlier in the year–this is easy to do if you grow solely under a heavy application of straw mulch–to get the thinned skinned “new potatoes” that are on the gourmet end of the spectrum. However, those left in the ground for a few weeks after the vines die back will keep better and this allows the plant to produce the maximal number of tubers.
And honestly, digging spuds is my favorite job of the year. It takes some effort to pull them out of the ground with a digging fork, but every potato is a bit of buried treasure. Start digging about twelve inches away from the vine and work inward, digging as deep as possible to avoid “forking” any. Eat damaged potatoes first and any that have been exposed to the sun should either be thrown out or have their green sections cut off because these can make you sick.
Potatoes are best stored in a low humidity root cellar, although they will usually keep for several months in the fridge before eyeing out. The amount of food even a single seed potato produces can be pretty amazing. This, after all, is why the plant has been so important. Yet, for this gardener, it’s the process as much as the food that makes potatoes so interesting and its subterranean mysteries are one of the things that makes me excited to get back to the garden every year.
Brian Allnutt is a freelance writer and organic gardener in Metro Detroit. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.