Gardening with Deb: Appreciation for the lowly potato
Potatoes have roots going back 7,000 years to the Andean Mountains in South America. Back then, farmers admired the ruggedness, nutritional value and storage attributes of this tuber. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that this vegetable made it over to Europe, but it wasn’t as highly prized there, mainly being fed to hospital inmates.
The potato has a long history of being the food of the underprivileged, and it was further shunned due to its relationship with the highly poisonous nightshade family. In fact, the leaves of potatoes can be deadly poisonous, and when exposed too long to sunlight, the tubers themselves turn green and toxic and aren’t very tasty, either.
In the late 1700s, potatoes came into their own in Ireland, where their nutritional value was recognized during a famine in that country. Potatoes contain most of the vitamins humans need for sustenance, and one acre of potato crops can feed 10 people for a year. Over time, potatoes became a staple of most diets. In the U.S., we grow around 35 billion pounds of potatoes every year.
This year in my garden, I successfully harvested Yukon Gold potatoes, despite our quite short growing season this year. And in past years, I’ve had fun with fingerling potatoes in a variety of colors, including some purple ones.
You can plant potatoes as soon as the ground can be worked. They prefer a light, well-drained soil that can retain moisture, but they can grow in less than perfect soil. It’s best to rotate your crop to a different part of your garden each year, coming back to the same plot no more than once every three years.
While it is possible to plant potatoes from potatoes you purchase at the store, certified seed potatoes are best, since they are disease-free and have been chosen to give the best results. You can find these at local garden centers, as well as Elk River Farm & Feed. Also be aware that many grocery store potatoes have been irradiated to preserve them, meaning they may have been rendered unable to sprout and produce seed.
During the week or so before you plant your potatoes, expose them to some warmth and light to induce sprouting. Then, when you’re ready to plant, cut the potatoes so that one or two sprouts, or eyes (seeds), are on a section. Within a day, a callous will form over the cut section that will prevent it from rotting once planted.
Dig a shallow trench for your potato sections, about four inches wide by six inches deep, and place the plants about 15 inches apart for the largest potatoes. Planting them closer together will give you smaller potatoes, which are great in soups and stews. Place the sections cut side down and cover with four inches of soil.
As sprouts emerge, add another four inches; once the stems are around eight inches high, add another inch or so of soil so the stem is half buried. This keeps newly formed potatoes from being exposed to sunlight. Should that happen, they will turn green and become toxic.
Keep your potato plants well watered throughout the growing season, but do not overwater, or the tubers will rot. When the foliage turns yellow and wilts, stop watering and allow the potatoes to grow for another week or two before harvesting.
When harvesting, be careful to not cut into the potatoes. Use a garden fork or your fingers to find the potatoes and avoid cutting or bruising them. If it’s dry out, you can let the potatoes lie on the soil surface for a couple days to mature the potato skin that protects it during storage.
Store potatoes in a dark, cool location (40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and they should keep well for three to six months.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.
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