Casaubon's Book

Spudly

Probably the biggest loss to last year’s flooding in upstate New York was my potato crop. I could have dug them by the end of August, but as the saying goes “shoulda but didnta.” It was a warm summer and potatoes stay better in the ground in August here than they do in my house – unless, of course, they are under 3 feet of water.

The big loss wasn’t the potatoes I had planned to eat all winter, although that was a pity – I can buy potatoes from farms that weren’t flooded, up on higher ground. What I lost were 5 years of saved potato seed, varieties initially purchased and now adapted to my place. Over the years I’ve tested and tasted more than 30 varieties and selected 9 that were the household favorites, the most productive and the best adapted to my land.

In cold climates, potatoes are one of the most important crops anyone can grow – less chancy that most grains, easier to process and store. They grow well in almost every environment except the hottest ones – tolerating cool weather, wet weather, dry summers – nearly everything except being under 4 feet of water and consistent desert weather. They will grow on rocky, hill ground too poor for most crops (although they’ll yield better in better places). They are amenable to pot and tire culture. Some years ago as a test, I threw potato pieces on my gravel driveway, threw an inch of compost over them and lay some hay on top – and harvested quite a respectable yield.

In temperate climates, potatoes are simply a survival crop – and always have been. They were famous for most of history for being less likely to be burned in the field by invading armies and can be eaten by almost everyone. Moreover, potatoes under intensive hand cultivation can out-yield the highest yielding commercial production. They can provide a good supplemental livestock feed for many animals (although they do have to be cooked) including pigs and poultry – and yield more than most grains in most hand cultivation models.

Potatoes, like tomatoes and a few other crops, are one of those things that simply tastes radically different and more wonderful when you grow them yourself. Even if all these other things weren’t true, the reason to grow garden-fresh potatoes is that they are wonderful tasting. Potatoes come in strongly different “types” – so good potato salad potatoes and good roasting or good mashing potatoes are really quite different, so you will want to raise a number of varieties. Different soils produce different flavors as well, but the basic type – dry or waxy – doesn’t vary that much, so you will want to read descriptions and think about how you use potatoes. That’s why we grew 9 varieties ;-).

A lot of books discourage people from saving their own seed potatoes – for example, Steve Solomon in _Gardening When It Counts_ argues that saving seed potatoes isn’t worth it, that they are bound to be contaminated by disease. I haven’t found that to be true – even the year that late blight was endemic to this area, we were spared, but more importantly, we chose several of our varieties for disease resistance. Potatoes from saved seed will adapt to local conditions and produce more abundantly over time. Seed potatoes are expensive when ordered from a reliable source, and I’ve found it well worth it to save seed and seed potatoes.

The former is something almost no one does – I save potato seeds. Generally speaking, one plants potatoes from other potatoes, but some potatoes do make seed, and while the seed is always crossbred if you plant more than one variety or have more than one variety grown in your area, potato seed is an important addition of resilience – because seed potatoes last only one winter. If something prevents you from planting one year, or you lose a crop, you’ve lost everything. Saving potato seed doesn’t ensure that you’ll get what you planted before, but it can produce some interesting results, and you can do some breeding to get qualities you want if you are attentive.

Check out this site for a general overview on how to save potato seed and potato tuberlets. My saved seed is in the ground for next year. I will, however, also be ordering my favorite varieties in tubers. Green Mountain, Purple Peruvian, La Ratte and others are important to my happiness and a summer full of potato salads and new potatoes, a winter of baking and roasting potatoes.

I mourn the loss of all the adaptation and time I’d put into my potato seed, but if such a loss is going to occur, I’m grateful it came when I can replace my seed potatoes and begin again afresh. I’m also grateful for the lessons – that I should harvest tuberlets and some of the potatoes earlier, that anticipating a storm I should dig my harvest even early. The great thing about hard lessons in comparatively good times is that they save you from other, harder lessons later on.

If you haven’t planted potatoes before, check out this video about how to prepare your tubers for planting:

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    March 15, 2012

    You do have to watch for signs of disease, but seed potatoes are expensive when ordered from a reliable source, and I’ve found it well worth it to save seed.

    There’s also the point that some varieties can be hard to get hold of, and availability can vary from year to year depending on how the commercial seed potato growers have faired. So if you’ve got a variety you particularly like, it’s well worth keeping some tubers aside just in case…

  2. #2 Melissa
    March 15, 2012

    If you did not dig them at all, you might have a few volunteers. It’s a longshot, but possible…

  3. #3 Brad K.
    March 15, 2012

    Sharon,

    We have had an open winter here in northern OK. I found, the last week in January, a few overlooked potatoes. Sprouting.

    Here is hoping that you found a few successful stragglers from your own potato patch, surviving from last year.

  4. #4 Micheal
    March 15, 2012

    That could be a life-ending mistake in a survival situation, eh – right up there with having the seed spuds freeze over the winter.

    ~mike~

  5. #5 et
    March 15, 2012

    Please explain how using seed potatoes (not potato seed) can change inherited genetic traits: “the most productive and the best adapted to my land.”

    All seed potatoes are clones – that point.

  6. #6 Sharon Astyk
    March 15, 2012

    Actually, ET, I didn’t quite say they did – in the line you refer to, I was speaking of the VARIETIES best adapted to my land and most productive in my place (in the context of talking about having tested them). Later on in one paragraph I discussed both potato seed and seed potatoes, and I think it could be confusing – apologies for the inclarity. Adaptation, of course, occurs with potato seed. When I refer to “potato seed” I’m referring to actually seeds, rather than seed potatoes, which are true clones.

    Sharon

  7. #7 et
    March 15, 2012

    Tom Wagner on Growing and Saving True Potato Seeds

    http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2009/11/tom-wagner-on-growing-and-saving-true-potato-seeds-tps/

    Sorry for the loss of your potatoes!

  8. #8 Alan
    March 15, 2012

    It seems that no matter how carefully and thoroughly I harvest my spuds, I always have a few “rogues” sprout the next year, and since I always rotate my nightshades, those “rogues” always come up among something else I’ve planted. I dither about whether to dig out the “rogues” and if I finally do dig them out, they’re always very deep — which probably accounts for why I missed them the year before.

  9. #9 Noelle
    March 15, 2012

    For folks interested in trying out potatoes from true seed (TPS), breeder Tom Wagner is selling seed from a bunch of varieties here: http://newworldcrops.com/wp/2012-potato-seeds/
    Ever wanted to try out some funky diploid Peruvian potatoes? Now’s your chance!

    One advantage of TPS from a self-sufficiency perspective is that you can create your own virus-free seed tubers. The idea is to grow several TPS plants from a variety as an interbreeding “sibling” population. The tubers produced by TPS plants in this first year are likely to be relatively disease free. Then you select the potatoes that perform the best and plant them as seed tubers for 2-3 years before virus levels build up. This system maintains biodiversity and reduces the need to buy lab-propagated, certified virus-free seed tubers.

    The linked article about breeding potatoes advocates direct seeding them into the ground. While I think their point about doing early selections against blight is a good one, you’re more likely to have success the first time working with TPS by seeding them inside in pots at the same time as tomatoes. The plants, being cool-weather and high-elevation adapted, can go outside fairly quickly and need some direct sunlight. There’s two schools of thought about what to do with them at this point. Some people keep them in small pots, which stresses the plants and forces them to produce tiny microtubers. Then they plant the microtubers same as regular seed tubers. The other method is to transplant small TPS seedlings into a bigger pot, give them a few weeks to get up to a few inches tall, then plant into the garden, burying the stem with each transplant much like a tomato seedling. Transplanting alters the root structure of TPS seedlings in such a way that produces a big bushy plant much more like a tuber-grown plant.

    All of the above was gleaned from Wagner’s discussion forum TaterMaterSeeds.com. It’s been loads of fun to learn about potato breeding the past year, I recommend others give it a try. :-)