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: