Saturday, August 22, 2015

This spud's for you

"Irish" potatoes are one of the easiest crops to grow in the backyard garden. Basically, you stick a seed potato into the ground, cover it with dirt, cover it with more dirt as the plant emerges, and mulch. The few weeds that emerge are easily dispensed. Then when the plants die, you dig up the potatoes, cure them in a shed or garage for a few days, then store for winter use. Those you nick during harvest may be eaten right away.

Sometimes there are problems. You may need to pick off potato beetles. (When I lived in the country, these beetles were an annual problem; here in the city, I rarely see them.) Wire worms can damage the tubers. One year I tried planting potatoes in a conventional bed under straw; voles ate the seed potatoes. Another year, I used sheets of crumpled newspaper for mulch, and the crop tasted funny. But in general, they are a sure thing, year after year. And considering that the potato is on the "Dirty Dozen" list, growing your own makes even more sense.

Solanum tuberossum has gotten a bad rap in the past several decades. It's not the potatoes that are bad for you; it's the way they are processed. The French fries and hash browns you eat in restaurants most likely are treated with sulfites, frozen, breaded, and fried in questionable oils. Potatoes themselves are great sources of potassium and vitamin C, and are loaded with phytonutrients. They tend to have a high glycemic value, but according to Jo Robinson (in Eating on the Wild Side), cooking potatoes, then chilling them for 24 hours greatly reduces this problem, as does serving them with fat (hello, butter and sour cream!)

Contrary to the common nomenclature, potatoes are not from Ireland; they are native to South America, although they bear little resemblance to their ancestors. I have not been referring to these potatoes as "white" because, despite what is generally available in the grocery store, potatoes come in many colors. And like most vegetables, the more colorful the flesh, the more nutritious the potato. I've been growing Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue, which are red/blue throughout and retain the color after cooking. This year I added a white, Carola (I also like Eva), so now I can make red, white, and blue potato salad. How patriotic!

Growing potatoes in raised beds has worked for me. I plant 2 pounds of seed potatoes in each 4'x 4' bed, one "seed" per square foot; harvests this year are running 20-30 pounds per bed. We added a tier to the beds this year, making them deeper, which I think has boosted the yields (but we have also had plenty of rain). The only downside to potatoes in raised beds, it is really awkward to dig them as it is impossible to get a garden fork underneath. Instead, I use my hands and a trowel, and am unsure if I got the deeper ones. (I engaged my granddaughter's help in harvesting one bed, but frankly, it is easier without her using the bed frame as a balance beam while leaning on me for support.)

The experts recommend purchasing fresh seed each year, to avoid disease in your crop. Recently, I have read about some intrepid gardeners who save tubers for replanting, which works for a while. So far, my crop is consumed before spring. Since I grew more this year, though, if some last the winter and/or start to sprout, I may give this option a test run. Or not - I would be sad if I faced the winter without my own homegrown potatoes.

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