POTATOES: A STAPLE FOR THE HOME GARDENER
Continuing our journey through the Nightshade family, this week we will be discussing a perennial favorite: potatoes. Like the chillis described in my earlier entry potatoes are indigenous to the Americas, specifically the Inca territory now known as Peru. For millennia the pre-Inca and Inca people of this region cultivated the native potato plants, eventually creating a multitude of varieties. Like many members of the Nightshade family the foliage and fruit of potato plants are quite toxic to humans; however, the roots of the potato plant form large, bulbous structures known as tubers which serve as dense storehouses of nutrition for the plant. It is these tubers that were the staple crop for the Inca Empire and eventually much of Europe and beyond after being spread by traders in the period following the Spanish conquest of the Incas.
Unlike other common staple crops such as wheat, rice, or corn, potatoes are a perennial. This means that a single planting of potatoes can yield for two years or more when properly managed. Combined with a natural tolerance to less- than-perfect soil conditions and a broad spectrum of cultivars for many climates, it is unsurprising that potatoes have gained traction in the diets of people around the globe. In fact, in many warmer temperate or subtropical areas potatoes can be grown year-round, increasing their value as a staple crop. To grow potatoes in your home garden it is recommended that you select a variety suitable to your climate and your personal preferences, then acquire a seed potato. Seed potatoes are grown under specific conditions from true- breeding plants and often come guaranteed disease-free. That’s not to say that you can’t plant one of those grocery store Russets in your garden, but store- bought potatoes are more susceptible to disease and have an unknown genetic background. For this reason, it is generally good practice to purchase proper seed potatoes from your local garden store or online.
Potatoes prefer a loose, well-draining, and slightly acidic soil, but as previously mentioned are quite tolerant of imperfect soil conditions. They can be grown quite well either in the earth or in containers so long as each plant is afforded a generous space to spread out and root. This varies between cultivars, but a good rule is to allow 18 inch rows for plants in the ground or no more than four plants to a large container. In most regions you will want to set out your seed potatoes a couple weeks after the last frost, keeping the soil moist but not wet. Given enough sunlight and water, most varieties should begin to flower in two to three months. You can start harvesting young potatoes within a couple weeks after flowering, leaving room for the remaining potatoes to grow. Once the foliage begins to die off, the remainder can be harvested. By their perennial nature, you may choose to leave some in the soil for a future crop, perhaps even immediately given the right temperature and soil amendments. However, as your garden moves further away from the initial seed potato crop it becomes more vulnerable to pests and fungi which must be controlled. Growing potatoes for yourself can be quite simple as well as rewarding. Home- grown potatoes have a richer flavor and superior texture to those you find at the supermarket, and by growing at home you can choose from a wider selection of varieties. Given the versatility, nutritional value, and ease of growing it’s no wonder that potatoes have been, and continue to be, a perennial favorite.