Thursday, March 1, 2012

Potato Culture

There is a wealth of information out there about potatoes, the Wikipedia entry alone is full of potato facts.  In fact, reading up on them has given me a whole new appreciation of french fries.  It's kind of amazing to think that the potato we eat today is the descendant of potatoes first cultivated between 7 and 10 thousand years ago in Peru and Bolivia.  Even more amazing is that there are over 5000 varieties of potato today 99% of which were developed from a subspecies that grew in south central Chile.  That's quite a history.  The Spanish brought the potato home with them after their conquest of South America.  From Spain and other ports of Europe the potato spread across the world and today it is eaten in nearly every nation on the planet. 

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%.

Potato plants
Why mention the Irish Potato Famine in a blog post about potato gardening? Yeah, it is a little morbid.  But it's an important example of the folly of dependance on a single cultivar, or a single staple crop even.  Genetic diversity in food crops is something to be coveted, having a multitude of available cultivars offers people protection in the event of another devastating loss like the Potato Famine.  With that in mind, if you plan to grow potatoes, make an effort to try some lesser known varieties and get familiar with potatoes all over again.  One of the major reasons Russet potatoes are so common in grocery stores is not their flavor, or nutrition, or ease of production.  Can you guess why the Russet is found everywhere?  Because it can be shipped everywhere.  Russet potatoes are one of the longest-storing varieties, they can be bounced around, stored for months, and are none the worse for wear.  I am looking forward to getting familiar with my German Butterball potatoes, and learning what traits they have to offer other than shipping stability.

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
Potatoes are grown from "seed potato" which is not a seed at all, it's a potato.  The "eyes" on a potato sprout and grow into a new plant.  You don't even need whole potatoes for this, just chop them into chunks with at least one eye on each.  Bury them in rich soil about 6-8" deep.  Keep them well-watered, with good drainage to avoid overwatering. 

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.
Potato flowers

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. 

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