Tag Archives: potatoes

Why would you grow potatoes?

“I’ve never seen anyone grow potatoes before, I just can’t figure out why you would.  They are so cheap at the store!”  – Mr. Trivia, (he says this to me about twice a week.)

There is no explaining to Mr. Trivia why I do what I do.  I’m his favorite crazy person as he is mine.  He’s one of the better neighbors I’ve ever had and entertainment wise he has to be the best.  He knows EVERYTHING about St. Louis history.  I love talking to him, but that has nothing to do with why there are 40 lbs of potatoes planted in his yard.

It occurred to me though that I should consider why I grow them.  There are a lot of options as to why.  Is it entertainment?  nutritional?  flavor?  environmental?  Why?

Entertainment wise, I LOVE IT!  Potato plants are somewhat impressive and pretty.  The flowers vary in color.  The plants put on an impressive show of foliage.  If you straw them they provide even more impact to the viewer.  They are easy to grow.  If you need something that won’t fail to encourage you, throw some on the ground.  They will grow and make you feel good about your green thumb.  Potato bugs are somewhat fascinating, don’t really do much damage, and look like fleas.

Potatoes are high in potassium, vitamin C, and B6.  The starch in potatoes is resistant to digestion and functions similarly to fiber in your intestines.  Organically grown vegetables have a higher nutritional content than vegetables from industrial agriculture.

All the micronutrients found in these roots have to be processed from the surrounding soil.  If the soil is low in Iron, Niacin, Thiamin, or Riboflavin, the gardener may not necessarily recognize that while growing.  The organic farmer will be rotating crops and adding soil amendments that will replace these nutrients and any hidden deficiencies have a better chance of being corrected.   The industrial farmer will apply the big three Potassium, Phosphorus, and Nitrogen.  If he is growing on soil that has had the same crop over and over and over again, those others will naturally be depleted and provide a potato that isn’t a healthy.  As a potato sits in storage it also looses nutrients.  If I grow a potato, I can dig it out of the ground as a living thing and eat it.  If I buy a potato, it has been in transit or sitting on a shelf and has had that time to loose nutrients.  Vitamin C is especially easy to degrade.

I love food.  I love to cook food, grow food, and eat food.  I love to touch it, chop it, process it.  I especially love to taste it.  My brother at Chism Heritage Farm grows pasture raised organic chicken.  It is succulent and that can’t even begin to describe the difference between that product and a similar product at the grocery store.  Recently, my husband brought me some fried chicken from the grocery.  I took a breast and couldn’t even finish it, it was so bland.  The difference wasn’t the way it was cooked, it was the meat itself.  The same thing happens with fruits and vegetables.  No one disputes the difference between a home grown tomato and a store tomato, why wouldn’t it apply to potatoes as well?  They are even in the same family of plants.  Home grown potatoes are just different.  Better.

Roots absorb nutrients by diffusion, mass flow, root interception, and foliar absorption.  Diffusion in particular is when a high concentration of nutrient flows across the membrane of the skin of the root because there is a lower concentration of that element inside.  Nature wants to naturally balance it out.  If there is a poisonous chemical in the soil, it would be a natural process for it to cross that membrane.  Since potatoes are roots, it will accumulate in the potato.  There are many studies showing abnormal concentrations of cadmium and other toxins in roots growing in polluted fields.  This unsettles me and I would like to know where those roots are growing so I have some expectation of what might be in my food.

I live by the Mississippi River which is more and more polluted all the time.  I would not like to contribute to that.  I drink that water.  King Corn + Big River Special Edition DVD SET goes into detail on what is going into that water already from industrial agriculture.  I’m uncomfortable with the concept that my saving money on potatoes might in some way pollute someone else’s or my own water.  It’s too easy to grow potatoes for that to be worth a few pennies.

More than half of the world’s potato fields are grown with Russet Burbank potatoes.  A contributing factor of this is McDonald’s, but people also buy them because they like them and the taste is familiar.  This effectively sets us up for problems associated with monoculture.  People remember the Irish potato famine, but now believe that technology will save us from that and it will never happen here.  Not so.  Technology may move fast enough to make a dent, but chances are that what will happen is a deluge of chemicals on our fields resulting in pollution and not necessarily saving the crop.  It all depends upon what starts killing the potatoes.  Why take the risk?  The easy solution is to grow other varieties and keep some genetic diversity in our seed stock.  If we grow lots of varieties of potatoes, we have lots of variety of flavor as well.  I’m constantly amazed that in a society that seemingly values gourmet food and cooking so much that there are whole channels dedicated to it on television, there isn’t a demand for more variety.  In the Seed Savers 2008 year book, there are 15 pages of potato varieties.  Each page has apx. 40 varieties.  That would make about 600 varieties available through them alone.  Why does the world have half of all potatoes in one variety???  That’s just crazy to me.  Half the world isn’t the same growing conditions.  Out of those 600 potatoes, there are some that are better tasting and better suited to almost everywhere!  Now I don’t have a good variety planted this year.  Before I got some of the more obscure ones, I went with some cheap ones from Rural King to get my legs underneath me for growing them.  I don’t want to waste a limited supply of seed potatoes by failing to grow them.  I have my confidence now and hope that my financial situation will improve enough for me to pick up seed potato for next year from Seed Savers.  I can’t wait to start trying different varieties and flavors!

So, my neighbor can’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing because cost is the overriding factor in his brain.  Potatoes are cheap, but they are also ridiculously cheap to grow.  50 lbs of potatoes was $12 and three bales of straw was $9.  If I only get 70lbs of potatoes out they are $0.30 a pound.  If I get out the high end possible (which won’t happen) of 400 pounds, they are $0.05 per pound.   I’ve spent a whole hour or so working on them.  They don’t need weeded because of the straw.  They will taste amazing.  I can get them as baby potatoes or big potatoes.  All in all I think I end up a winner on cost.  When you add in all my other reasons, I really feel ahead and I’ve had some really nice relaxing entertainment while doing it.

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Sweet Potato Slips Part II

So you have these potatoes sitting in water with shoots sticking out of them, what do you do now?  Sorry I didn’t post this sooner for those playing along.
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Carefully twist them off the potato.  You should get a tiny bit of the tuber at the base of the stem.  Stick the stems in a jar, bowl or cup with water in it.  In two days come back and check the roots.  When they are about an inch long, take them to the garden and plant them.  It’s that easy.  The time is in growing the shoots on the potatoes.
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Sweet Potato Slips Part 1

Potato Upkeep

About a month ago I planted potatoes.  The weather has been very mild so they are ready for the next step.

When the potatoes are 9-12 inches high, they are ready for a good thick layer of mulch.  I use straw, it’s easy and inexpensive in this area.  My brother uses horse manure and sawdust.

Loosen up the bail and pile it on until about 3 inches show out the top.  This is why I like using rows instead of a hexagonal layout, it’s just easier for me.  These two rows took seven bails of straw.

Here you can see one bed that is finished and one that isn’t.  The cats across the street love this so I just check it occasionally to make sure they haven’t thrown it everywhere and straighten it up if they have.

Here they are both completed.  They make the rest of the garden look pretty puny at this point.  The corn is only 6 ” high and most of the plants are still in the greenhouse waiting to get some size to them before going out into the garden.  We are slowly working our way across the garden adding in compost and manure.  This ground is so full of building debris, even that isn’t going to help as much as it should, it’s pretty weak ground still.  Next year it should be beautiful though.

Every time the potatoes get about a foot higher than the mulch, add more until they start flowering.  After they start to flower, they can be left to grow until they start to die back.

See also:  Potato Planting Time

Plant Your Potatoes, It’s St. Patrick’s Day!

Family tradition says to put the potatoes in the ground on St. Patrick’s day.  I always aim for that week, so Thursday the potatoes went into the ground.  I got a great deal on a sack of potatoes at Rural King this year.  I’m planting Red Pontiac, nothing too far out sadly.  But I like them and they grow well for me.  Maybe in the future I will get some heirloom to grow, but not this year.

Due to crazy kidling stuff, we got behind on the digging and borrowed a tiller to get caught up.  It’s a terrible nuisance.  It won’t run consistently, but we loaned it to our mechanic and hopefully it will come back in better working order.  We have the best mechanics on our block that anyone could hope for.

A note on tilling.  I very much am a fan of double dig followed by mulching.  It cuts down on the amount of labor you will spend on your garden later in the year.
Another reason is the superior results.  On the left you can see a bed that was cut solely with the tiller.  Lots of weeds, lots of clods of dirt to work around, and not very deep.  On the right is a bed my husband tilled that I had double dug.  It is beautiful.  Since this is new land it’s low on organic matter and probably nutrients.  After these pictures, we put a 3-5 inch layer of compost down and a 1-2 inch layer of composted horse manure, then tilled them both again.  The one on the right is now a dream and the one on the left will do for this year.

For the potatoes, we tilled the soil and laid out the potatoes on it every 6″.  The beds are 4 feet wide, so I put the potatoes in two rows, one foot in from each side.  I find this makes it much easier to mulch as they grow.  By the end of the growing season this will be a pretty impressive pile of straw and potatoe leaves, last year it came up to my chest.

As you can see, I laid out whole potatoes.  Many people recommend cutting them into pieces and letting them cure before you put them out.  I don’t have that kind of space or time and I was planning to plant 40-50 lbs of potatoes.  I’m not sure how to accomplish that sort of curing without one of those bun carts like bread companies use.

After you lay out the potatoes, put on a layer about 6 ” thick of compost.  This is the free compost from our city park.  Sometimes you have to pick a little trash out, but it’s never very much, mostly plastic water bottles and sometimes wires.  So, fill out the bed with the compost and move onto the manure.  This batch came from just across the river at a riding academy.  Free off of Craigslist.  We lay the manure on 2-3 ” thick over the whole thing.  Dr. Ron’s 1000 cats think this is the best thing we’ve done so far.  When I look at the window at night there are always cats laying around in this bed now.    We don’t mix this up, we don’t dig holes for the potatoes or a trench, we just make it as simple as we can, there is a ton more gardening to do and we need to conserve our energy.

Lastly, we put on straw mulch.  Right now we don’t have it on thick enough yet.  There is a knack to getting the right amount of straw mulch on a bed.  You don’t want to completely smother everything, but you need enough to keep the weeds down.  I can see the compost through the straw so I know there isn’t enough on.  We were battling incoming rain though and needed to get as much done as possible.  I will go out soon and add some more straw.

We also got mesclun mix planted and green onions.  I wanted to get my onion sets in too, but the rain started and we didn’t make it.  The leeks I planted are up though and most of the other flats are planted for this week.  I also put in some gladiolus and a few other bulbs to pretty up the place.  It occured to me last year I get too focused on the vegetables and neglect filling the niches with flowers.  They certainly make the place more enjoyable.

See also:  Potato Upkeep