Monday, June 1, 2015

Growing Potatoes

All over the world the humble potato is a staple of the human diet. I'm sure you know it's history but a quick re-cap might be fun. Peru and Bolivia can boast as being home of the potato. All cultivars in the world be they red, white, purple or yellow all trace back to a single ancestor in the Andes region of South America. About 400 years ago the potato began to be spread back to the old world by explorers and colonizing armies. Since the potato will adapt itself to many different climates you can find potatoes growing the world over in many unique colours and shapes. From Banana Fingerling to Purple Prince, they rule supreme among vegetables and are in fact the fourth most consumed food behind maize, wheat and rice. Potatoes are an important food for many humans. Especially those of us in cooler climates with slightly acidic soils such as North America and Europe. One of the other things that made potatoes so popular is the easy of storing seed. Our pioneer ancestors could simply keep some smaller potatoes in the root cellar and then use them for seed the following year. Given the rise in potato diseases in the 21st century, almost all potatoes grown in Canada are now from certified disease free stocks. We don't often see it, but there are areas of the country where it's illegal to bring in any outside potatoes in order to keep the local growers stocks disease free. Pemberton, BC is one such valley, and that's where Grandma Janet's family potato farm is still growing potatoes.

Here in Canada there are many potato varieties available for growing in our climate but you might be asking yourself "Why bother?" After all, potatoes are cheap to buy in the store and available all year round. They're arguably one of the cheapest food in the store if you're buying russets in a 10lb bag. Really, I think the cheapest foods price wise are bananas, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, rice and beans. And they're the staples in lots of peoples diets along with bread.

Here in the Annapolis Valley many people say it's not worth growing potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers or apples because they're all grown commercially right here and so they're uncommonly cheap. And that's true. But what you're missing out on is the selection. I've written about the endless apple varieties available in the world and how commercially we only have access to maybe 20. Probably less in your grocery store. Potatoes along with other produce and especially apples and tomatoes are grown commercially with 3 criteria in mind:

uniformity of size and shape
transportability (doesn't bruise easily)
good storage qualities

As a consumer I'm sure you'd agree that my top reasons for buying something are flavour and nutrition. And neither of those is the priority of the people growing my food. Consequentially we miss out of the glorious varieties of colours, shapes, flavours and textures of tomatoes, apples, lettuce, you name it! This is where growing your own can really come into play. Sure, let someone grow lettuce for you but take the time and grow your own tomatoes. You'll get such a better choice of varieties and can peak them at peak flavour and ripeness. Oh they're so good!

But I digress. Back to Potatoes!

Potatoes come in 3 basic textures. Those that are smooth when cooked (some people call them waxy), those that are dry and fluffy, and those that are between the two, often called dual-purpose. Examples would be most new potatoes are of the smooth varieties. They keep their shape when cooking so they're great for stews and are higher in moisture content and lower in starch which makes them very dense.  A russet potato would be a good example of a fluffy variety. Fluffy potatoes are your typical baked potato and are also used for fries, wedges,  and mashed potatoes. They break up easily when cooked and also hold more sauce. They're low in moisture and high in starch which also makes them generally better keepers. And there are the middle of the road multi-purpose potatoes which can be used for either purpose. Yukon Gold is a variety that falls into the dual-purpose category. They're waxy but still roast well. My point is that each variety has different flavours and textures and if you find one you really like, why not grow it in your garden? Gourmet varieties of potatoes can be very expensive so they are definitely worth growing yourself, plus the flavours when freshly dug are quite delicious. Even the old standby Russet is more flavourful right out of the garden. What better way to entertain your friends than a 'pick your own supper' party?

This year we're growing Green Mountain, Purple Chief, Russet Burbank, Eramosa and another variety I forget the name of. We've a mix of early and late season with some designed to be our main crop for selling and others for our personal storage. We have enough room in our garden to be able to grow several different types and they're planted in rows to make them easier to care for as far as weeding goes. If we should chance to get a late blight, and it's always a good possibility here in Nova Scotia, having the room between rows allows for better air circulation to dry off the leaves after it rains and also for us to walk up should it be necessary to spray them with a copper sulphate solution called a Bordeaux mix.  Yes, it's certified organic. It's the same type of spray traditionally used on grapes to prevent fungal diseases. Blight spores live in the soil and are also airborne so if there's an outbreak of blight, lots of people will get it. It's one of the reasons we rotate our crops each year, to help lessen and avoid diseases of our plants within our garden.

So, what's the best way to plant potatoes? Here's how we plant ours:

1. Dig a trench. The deeper the better in good soil but really any depth of trench will work.

2. Plant the seed potatoes 12 inches or 1 foot apart all along the row.

3. Cover the seed potatoes with soil that's at least 6 inches deep and water them deeply once a week if it doesn't rain. Potatoes require about 2 inches of rain a week in the main growing season in our slightly sandy soil. Your soil may be different.

4. As the plants grow, mound or hill more soil against their roots. Mulch and well rotted manure also make good materials to side dress your potatoes with and help to keep down the weeds. Potato plants produce their tubers (the potatoes you eat) along the stems of the plant. That's one of the reasons you continue to pile soil up along the plants when they're growing. It helps to keep the tubers from turning green and gives more stem area under ground to produce more potatoes for you to eat. It's called hilling when you rake soil up to partially cover the plants and leave their tops exposed.

Nothing much to show, just rows of turned earth.
5. Harvest. Potatoes are ready to harvest as early or new potatoes when the plants are flowering for one week and as main crop potatoes once the tops die down. When we're ready to harvest we use a fork to dig out the potatoes and then leave them on top of the soil for a day so that the skins set, or toughen up. It helps the potatoes last longer in storage. Before placing them in storage we carefully check them for bruises and holes where someone has accidentally skewered them the fork (it happens a lot). We eat the imperfect ones first, usually as a giant bowl of potato salad made according to Grandma Janet's special family recipe. Yum! When we're digging up early potatoes we just dig them out, wash them off and boil them until tender. There's something special about the first potatoes and peas out of the summer garden.I can't wait until they pop their heads up out of the ground in a few weeks. Until then there's not much to see.

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