If variety is the spice of life, then potatoes must have the spiciest life of all. Nearly everything about potatoes is variety dependent. The differences in color (skin and flesh), flavor, texture, size, baking quality, and even their starch content are all reliant upon the variation of this spiffy little spud.
A Tale of Two Tubers
There are two varieties of potatoes originating over 5,000 years ago that are considered to be the ancestors of the modern potato, (Solanum tuberosum). These two varieties were grown in the Chilean lowlands and the higher altitudes of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Unlike today’s top taters, these two original varieties were small, misshapen, and bitter in taste.
In the mid-16th century, the potato was recorded in shipping records to have moved from South America to Spain, passing through the Canary Islands. From Spain, the potato moved through the rest of Europe and arrived in the United States in the 1700’s. By the 1800’s potatoes began to be prolifically grown in the United States and Northern Europe and were a critical and sometimes sole food source for many in Ireland. However, beginning in 1845 a blight devastated the undiversified Irish potato crop and affected crops for several years after. Many died of starvation or left Ireland seeking provisions. This troubling time in history is often referred to as the Great Potato Famine or the Great Irish Famine.
While potatoes may be susceptible to hard times, they aren’t hard to grow, especially if you find a variety that works well with your climate. If you’re in an area that experiences short springs and hot summers it’s best to plant early and midseason varieties of this cool season crop three weeks prior the last expected frost date. In areas with long springs, and hot summers, it’s best to plant early and midseason varieties three weeks prior the last expected frost date or late varieties in early summer to harvest a fall crop. If your area experiences cool summers, planting midseason and late varieties three weeks prior the last expected frost date is your best bet.
You can also choose potato varieties to grow based on the color and the size you desire. There are 100+ varieties of potatoes, but they can be categorized in 7 groupings. These groupings are russet, red, white, yellow, blue/purple, fingerling, and petite.
Potatoes can grow in poorer quality soils, but having more optimum soils will equal a more optimal crop. Your soil should be well-drained and at a pH <6. Adding in organic compost before planting can be beneficial to your crop.
You can begin your potato planting with either small whole potatoes or larger potatoes cut into pieces that contain two or more eyes. Allow these pieces to dry for a day or two before planting to reduce chances of rot. Plant the small potatoes or pieces 4” deep and 12” apart in long furrows that are spaced 2’ apart. Cover potatoes or pieces with 2-3” of soil and then fill in the furrow as the sprouts start to pop up.
After planting your potatoes be sure to water properly by sufficiently soaking the soil down 3-4 inches once a week. Light watering is ineffective in growing potatoes. If your soil is somewhat sandy you may need to water more than once a week.
Weeds can easily outcompete potatoes, so be sure to weed your garden often. Do be careful not to pull up your potato’s roots as they are often close to the surface. As we discussed earlier, potatoes are susceptible to fungal diseases including blights (remember Ireland?), as well as wilt. Scab, a bacterial disease can also affect potatoes, but this causes more cosmetic damage as opposed to crop destruction. To help control fungus, water plants early in the day and use drip irrigation hoses. Keep your garden neat and tidy and rotate crops yearly. Doing this also helps control pests, such as leafhoppers and flea beetles that can invade your garden and damage your crop. Covering plants with floating row covers, sprinkling the soil around your plants with diatomaceous earth, and inviting predatory insects into the garden can also be effective in controlling pest populations.
If you find your potatoes have green skin this means your potato wasn’t planted deep enough and was exposed to sunlight. The green portions of the potato will contain a bitter, moderately poisonous alkaloid. Remember potatoes are a member of the nightshade family. These areas should NOT be eaten. However, you can trim the green areas from the potato and consume the remainder of the tuber. To help reduce the likelihood of developing green skinned potatoes (once the potatoes have broken the ground surface) progressively build a low ridge of loose soil up and around the tubers. This will keep the sun off the potatoes, as well as help with weed control and soil aeration.
Potatoes are matured and ready to harvest when the vines have died off. However, potatoes can be harvested at any time, as long as they are marble size or larger. Just look for firm, spot and disease free potatoes as you go to harvest. To remove the potatoes from the ground use a sturdy spade or shovel and dig 6” below the potatoes so as not to damage the tuber.
Once harvested, potatoes can be stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location. Do NOT store in the refrigerator as this converts the starch in the potato to sugar. This results in an abnormal sweet taste, and when cooked, the sugar caramelizes, producing brown potatoes and a peculiar flavor. If your potatoes sprout during storage, they are still quite edible. Trim the sprouted area off and enjoy the remainder of the potato as long as it is still firm and unwrinkled.
The nutrition and cooking qualities involved in potatoes, as you may have guessed, are variety dependent. The key component that’s largely variety dependent is starch content. The edible portion of the potato arises from what is known as a stem tuber. This isn’t the same as a root vegetable, as tubers form at the base of the root and store starch to support new growth.
Potatoes that are considered starchy, such as Russets, have high starch content and are considered to be fluffy and good for baking. Whereas the Reds are considered to be waxy and lower in starch, resulting in a potato that’s good for boiling and making salads. The all-purpose, medium starch content potatoes, such as Yukon Golds, nestle nicely in between the starchy and waxy. They can be considered the jack-of-all-trades in the potato world and can be used for just about anything.
The other thing about starch is that it can come in the resistant variety, at least when it comes to potatoes. Resistant starch (RS) isn’t digested by the small intestines but passes on to the large intestines where it’s fermented and feeds our beneficial gut bacteria. As seems to be the theme of this article, there is variety, even in the types of RS. One type of RS, known as RS3 occurs when potatoes are cooked and then cooled. This variety of RS seems particularly good at feeding and keeping our gut bacteria happy and harmonious.
Goodness of the Garden
For the potatoes in general, a medium sized (173 grams) potato still donning its skin, will offer 161 calories, 0 grams of fat, 4 grams of protein, and 37 grams of carbohydrates (4 grams of which is dietary fiber). Included in that potato package is a great source of Vitamins C and B-6 and potassium. Also included is a good source of Vitamins B-3 (Niacin) and B-9 (Folate), and copper, non-heme iron, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus. Potatoes offer Vitamins K-1, B-1 (Thiamin), B-2 (Riboflavin), B-5 (Pantothenic Acid), and calcium, selenium, and zinc, as well.
Something else potatoes offer is a phenolic amide called kukoamines. Kukoamines, which can also be found in the Chinese medicinal plant called Lycium Chinese, are shown to reduce blood pressure and treat sleeping sickness. This useful compound can also inhibit fat accumulation and reduce inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress. It seems to be very useful in combatting nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and increases in glucose levels and insulin load.
Now you know all potatoes can do for you, it’s time to see all the things you can do with potatoes. These impressive starches are great as a simple baked potato topped with a little grass-fed butter, or as hash browns to accompany any hearty breakfast. Potatoes are extremely versatile and can be cooked in a variety of ways including being mashed, fried, roasted, or made into salads. However, my favorite thing to create out of them is Potato Soup.
Perfect Potato Soup
6 cups potatoes, peeled and cubed
¼ cup white or yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups homemade broth
1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese, cut into chunks
6 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
In a large soup pot combine broth, potatoes, onion, carrots, and celery
Bring to boil
Reduce heat to medium
Boil for 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender
Smash a few potatoes to release their starch for thickening
Reduce to low heat
Add cream cheese
Heat, stirring frequently, until cream cheese melts
Season with salt and pepper
Add shredded cheese and bacon
Ladle into bowls and enjoy! Soup’s on!
If I had to feed the world and could only do it with one crop, potatoes would be my choice. These terrific little tubers indeed encompass variety, nutrition, versatility, and endless possibility. They are hearty in growth, as well as sustenance, and make cooking and gardening absolutely delightful. So choose your variety, whatever that may be, and plant a little spice in your life!
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Li, G., et al. May 8, 2017. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. Kukoamine A attenuates insulin resistance and fatty liver through downregulation of Srebp-1c. V: 89. Pages: 536-543. doi: 10.1016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28254666
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Tong, C. 2009. Regents of the University of Minnesota. The University of Minnesota Extension. Growing potatoes in Minnesota home gardens. https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/vegetables/growing-potatoes-in-minnesota-home-gardens/
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