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Potatoes
(Solanum tuberosum)


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Cultivars

Potato plant.

One could probably not survive eating nothing but potatoes, but it might be fun to try. There can scarcely be a more fundamental vegetable to grow. Gardeners often grows different varieties for baking and for boiling (as for use in salad) since the qualities that make a potato excel for one purpose differ from those wanted for the other purpose; there are, though, some pretty good multi-purpose spud types.

Because both climate suitability and--in this commercial potato-growing area--resistance to diseases are important, we need to be careful. Fortunately for us, there exists a competent home-garden potato supplier in very nearly our locale (same Area Code) From their catalogue, which has a wealth of information on potato-growing (and potato-selecting).

In their printed catalogue, they have a very nice table (we couldn't find it on the web site) that tags every potato variety they offer (40, this year, including, it seems, every old favorite kind) for, among many other things, season length, keeping qualities, heat tolerance (we're in a short season, but within that season it can indeed get hot), and yield. If we filter down by wanting early-season, excellent-keeping, heat-tolerant, high-yielding types, we quickly come down to four varieties:

This year, in fact, for reasons having nothing to do with practical vegetable gardening, we are not doing potatoes at all. But when we resume, the type of chief interest, will again be that Viking Purple, which we have previously grown with substantial success, and which kept quite well for us.

For those who often have pest or disease problems with their potatoes, there is a pretty new potato type called King Harry, of which Irish Eyes writes "leaves repel bugs, such as Colorado Potato Beetles, Flea Beetles, and Potato Leaf Hoppers. Late blight resistant." It is a white-fleshed early-season potato with a "moist, waxt texture", said to have good storage qualities. Mind, such pests, despite potato-growing being a major inductry hereabouts, have never been a big problem for us, but it's nice to know about.

Planting and Growing

Potatoes are always grown from cut-up bits of potato. In theory, one could buy a potato at the local supermarket, cut it up, plant it, and get potato plants; the theory more or less works, but is a very bad way to go about growing potatoes. The only right way is to buy "seed potato" (whole potatoes grown for use as "seed") from a thoroughly reputable (and state-certified) seed-potato supplier, preferably a specialist (there are several who deal with the home-gardening market). The greatest risk otherwise is disease, which an apparently sound potato can carry. Ideally, one prefers seed potatoes grown in certain climates, those in which the diseases to which potatoes are prone are rare; generally, that is in the north (which is why all the northern-tier states, from Maine to Idaho to Washington, are the major potato-producing states even though potatoes like warm weather).

(Sellers of certified seed potato can be found fairly easily by using a search engine and appropriate search terms, possibly including your State's name; in our region, possibly as well as nationally, one can do no better, we think, than Irish Eyes.)

Timing

Choose carefully when you intend to plant, for seed potatoes are living things, not dried seeds in a packet, and need to be delivered only shortly before planting time. The chief rule is that potato vines should not be exposed to frost--they'll usually grow back, but will always yield less. Potatoes do best when planted after the soil temperature has reliably reached at least 50° F., but the problem is that as a rule they have to be ordered well in advance--though many suppliers will hold your order (in deep-cold storage) till you want it, so you can try keeping an eye on the soil temperatures and asking for shipment just as soon as it hits that 50° ("just as soon" because your shipment will take a few days and then you need to chit the seed potatoes for a few more days). Remember, though, that seed potatoes are rather perishable in warmth, so shipments in May or later can be problems if they are not going just a short distance (yet another reason to shop locally). Your very best bet is to consult with someone at the place you order from and take what advice they give you. (And if you live in a northern-tier state, just find out when the local professional growers put their 'taters in.)


Planting Out

In our opinion, it would be fatuous of us to set forth the somewhat complicated and detailed instructions for dealing with potato-growing when an excellent and regionally oriented set is already available on line. Here is a link to the on-line potato-growing information from Irish Eyes. But that information, copious as it is, still leaves the gardener one other decision to make.

That decision is how much seed potato is wanted for the number of plants to be grown, for seed potatoes are sold by weight, not count. A conservative figure might be 8 to 10 pieces (plants) to the pound; our own experience has been that 8 pounds plants out 100 plants just about right, which is more like 12 or 13 to the pound. Since you do your own cutting-up of the seed potatoes, the count is to some extent under your control. We say "to some extent" because as a rule the larger the seed piece, the larger the crop, by count of potatoes and by weight, from that plant--but the larger the seed pieces, the smaller the coverage. If you're new to potato-growing, figure on 10 plants to the pound of seed potatoes, cut as seems right to you, then adjust your subsequent years' orders to your experience. (It is highly ill-advised to try keeping some of your own potatoes for the next year's seed: some do it, and with success, but it's like running STOP signs--sooner or later, ill fortune will blindside you.)

Of course, you also need to know how many plants you have room for. Jeavons, in his deep-bed book, set 9 inches as the spacing; recall that in a deep bed, one usually plants on sort of triangular or diamond block patterns, rather than in rows. More conventional advice, for gardeners who do not use deep-dug or raised beds, is 10 to 14 inches of spacing in rows a couple of feet apart. (That may give you a clue as to why deep-bed gardening is so much more productive for the square footage of garden.)

Another interesting idea, for those who feel pinched for space, is this feature from Irish Eyes, How to Grow 100 lbs. of Potatoes in 4 Square Feet. Some people follow the same idea, but just stack old auto tires. Whatever.

More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.


Odds and Ends

Biology

Potatoes are of the wonderful Solanaceae (or nightshade) family, as are peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes, and eggplants, among others.


History

We try not to re-invent the wheel. Here is a link to an excellent page on potato history and other potato lore.


Envoi

Tomatoes and potatoes are so close botanically that someone once (in the '70s) developed a cross--the pomato--that bore tomatoes above ground and potatoes underground. Sad to say, the quality of both was fairly poor, and the thing never caught on. But it's a tribute to ingenuity.

A fascinating review of the world of potatoes is available at The Potato Museum.


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