One of the reasons for its popularity is that the potato is well-adapted to most climates; it can also be grown in a backyard garden in quantities adequate to provide for a family's sustenance; it grows easily; and is much less expensive than grain crops. The potato has been a crop to grow at home for centuries, since potatoes have particular storage requirements they didn't keep as well as cereal grains and therefore were less market-worthy and more likely to be found in individual gardens. This is part of what led to the Irish Potato Famine, the poor Irish tenant farmers fed their families on milk and the potatoes they grew on their small allocated plots. Nearly all of the potatoes grown in Ireland at that time were a variety known for large harvests, which made sense when you were short on growing space and had a family to feed, but not at all resistant to late blight. A particularly nasty year led to rampant infections of late blight taking out nearly one half of the potato crop in Ireland; and leading to the deaths of nearly a million Irish, and the emigration of more than a million others, effectively reducing the population by 20-25%.
I recommend doing further reading on Wikipedia to learn more about the history of this plant, but I think I should move on to growing information at this point.
|Potato plant in planting bag|
Potato growth happens in 5 phases: first sprouts grow from the seed potatoes and roots begin to grow as well. The second phase involves photosynthesis as the plant's leaves grow. Phase 3: stolons develop from lower leaf axils on the stem and grow downwards into the ground and on these stolons new tubers develop. Often, this phase is also when flowering occurs. Tubers will stop forming when the temperature hits 80 degrees, this is why potatoes are considered cool weather crops. The next phase involves the tubers growing larger. The final phase involves the leaves and stems dying back, the skins of the tubers hardening, and the tuber sugars converting to starches. You can harvest at this time, or during the fourth phase you can hand-harvest "new" potatoes while leaving the plant to continue growing more.
An important thing to remember about potatoes is that they are from the nightshade family and do contain small amounts of the toxin solanine. To ensure that you don't become sick from your potatoes, never eat green potatoes. Tubers will turn green when exposed to light; in the garden you can prevent this by keeping tubers that show above ground covered with dirt or a heavy mulch; once harvested store potatoes in a brown paper bag to reduce light exposure. Also, after flowering the potato plant may develop fruits on it, these are toxic and should not be eaten. For the home garden it may be best to pick all of the potato flowers when they fade to prevent accidental ingestion of the fruits by children or visitors. Potatoes are generally cured in order to allow for skin-set, and increase storage capability. Similar to winter squashes curing is done by setting them out in a warm, almost hot! place for several days.
Potatoes make a very pretty flower and could be interplanted with annual or perennial flowers easily, without it being obvious that they are food plants.
I hope this has been as helpful to you as it has to me, and look forward to getting my potatoes started and seeing how well they do.