The Potato and its Care
The Solanum tuberosum
The average person eats 73lbs of this perennial nightshade every year. In 2010, 324 million tonnes were produced, making it the fourth largest crop in the world, following Corn, Wheat and Rice.
This crop, the Solanum tuberosum, is more commonly known as The Potato.
Potatoes are a perennial plant that grow approximately 24" high. They produce flowers of various colours, depending on the variety. Under the ground, they produce the tubers that we call potatoes.
1/3 of the world's potato crop is harvested in India and China, making them the largest producers of potatoes in the world.
A medium sized baking potato boasts 45% of your daily value of Vitamin C, more potassium than bananas, 10% of your daily value of Vitamin B6 and trace amounts of many other vitamins. Potatoes also contain antioxidants. Potato skin is rich in fibre, however, the good news for people who don't like potato skin, is that only 20% of the nutrients are in the skin. Did I mention that a medium sized, plain baked potato only contains 110 calories, no fat and no cholesterol?
Potatoes are easy to grow and a great part of a healthy diet. Baked, mashed, boiled, scalloped, or occasionally as French Fries, they are the ideal accompaniment to almost any meal.
In the garden, potatoes can be grown underground, or laid on sod and covered with a thick layer of straw or hay. Both options have their pros and cons.
Planting potatoes underground is the most common procedure. A hole is dug with a round mouthed shovel, and a potato is dropped into it. The potato plant will emerge within a week after planting, and grow the duration of the season. Then the plant will be dug up with a fork and the potato tubers will be harvested. This is a fairly labour intensive method, but gives the higher yield and often better quality potatoes.
The mulch method is to lay the potatoes onto the top of the garden soil (or even onto sod). They can be laid in rows, or broadcast randomly. They should then be covered with several inches of mulch. If many potatoes are being planted, a large round bale of old hay or straw is ideal. It can simply be rolled out over the seed potatoes. The potatoes are left to grow, then, once the plants die back, the mulch is lifted and the potatoes are harvested. This method is usually less work, as long as the mulch is laid thick enough in the first place. Potato bug infestations are also usually minimal, or non-existent with this method. The theory is that the bugs don’t like to walk on unstable material, such as the straw, so they don’t bother the plants. There are several drawbacks to this method however. One is that you will risk getting green potatoes if the mulch isn’t thick enough, and light can seep through to the growing potatoes. Any green spots will have to be cut off before cooking which adds time to preparation and results in potato wastage. Underground bugs and rodents are also likely to nibble on the potatoes. It has been said that the yield is lower with this method too.
It is also possible to plant a single potato in a large pot, then harvest several potatoes at the end of the summer. This obviously isn’t an option for producing a sizable crop though.
The Seed Potato
Seed potatoes are basically just potatoes that have grown ‘eyes’. Ideally, certified seed from a feed store or garden center should be chosen for your garden. These potatoes should be disease free, and one specific variety and should produce better results in the garden. However, there is nothing wrong with going ahead and planting those few potatoes that got left behind in the bottom of the grocery store bag and are now a little soft and full of eyes.
Only one eye is required to grow a plant, so if you’d like to stretch your seed potatoes, you can cut them into chunks, allowing a couple of eyes per chunk. Allow the potatoes to air dry for at least a few minutes between cutting and planting.
I personally space seed potatoes 12-14” apart when I plant them. I plant some underground, and some under mulch, because both methods have their benefits.
If you are concerned about potato scab, don’t plant potatoes on ground that has been recently limed, or fertilized with manure as these nutrients will encourage scab formation.
Watch for Bugs!
Watch for the arrival of potato bugs. If it’s your first time planting, or if you’ve moved your potato planting to a new location, you might avoid bugs your first year, but sooner or later they’re going to show up. The ideal way to get rid of them is to simply catch and kill the adults as soon as you see them. If you get right at it at the start of the season before they breed too much, you won’t have much trouble. Besides the adults, you may also find larvae (which look like slugs) and small, shiny orange/yellow eggs on the bottom of leaves. There are also sprays available, but unless you are planting a huge potato crop, hand picking is the ideal way to get rid of the bugs. It is also chemical free, so there is no risk of pesticides contaminating your crop.
Potatoes can be harvested as early as two weeks after the plants blossom. A five tine hayfork is ideal for digging them up. If you nick any potatoes with the fork, put them aside to use first as they won’t keep very long. If you are wanting to store potatoes for the winter, don’t dig them until later in the year. To see if they are ready for storage, dig up a few and rub them together. If the skin rubs off, they aren’t ready.
Potatoes are an easy crop anyone can grow. Have fun, and know you’ll soon be able to enjoy cooking up fresh potatoes from your own garden.