Gold Russet potatoes being harvested in the author’s Big Island garden. Photo: J.M. Buck
Spuds. Taters. Whatever you call them, the word “potato” conjures a tumble of images: comfort food on a cold night, a popular side dish with burgers, a lazy person on the couch, vodka, former Vice President Dan Quayle’s questionable spelling skills and Richard Dreyfuss’s choice of sculpture medium in his memorable 1977 performance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
For me, it conjures a fond memory of a not-so-faithful re-enactment of the last image, where, with a loony look on my face, I sculpted Devil’s Tower out of garlic mashed potatoes in a fine restaurant, much to the chagrin of the hoity-toity gold- and gem-laden patrons at the next table.
I crowned my masterpiece with a string bean and a mangled lobster claw before dissolving into an uncontrollable fit of giggles. The folks next to me signaled to the waiter and requested a different table, “Far away from them, please.” Oh yes. Potatoes are fun.
Potatoes originally hail from the rugged Andes Mountains in South America. Andean farmers cultivated potatoes over 7,000 years ago, with the hardy vegetable doing well in poor soil and elevations up to 15,000 feet.
Potatoes first arrived in Spain around 1570. Uses were limited though, as in the Spanish colonies potatoes were considered a food for the lesser classes. By 1600, potatoes had spread throughout Europe. However, it was not until the 1780s that they gained any prominence in European society.
About that time, Ireland adopted the potato as their staple crop, recognizing it for its high nutritive value and its ability to sustain a family of 10 on one acre of land. The delay in popularity was primarily due to the potato being a member of the poisonous nightshade family. Indeed, the leaves of the potato plant are quite toxic. If potatoes are left in bright light, the skin will begin to turn green. The green skin contains a substance called solanine, which is toxic as well.
Today, potatoes are a staple crop across much of the globe. The potato appears in myriad varieties, and this root vegetable is probably one of the easiest edible plants to grow.
Short of trying to grow them in hardpan clay, pure sand or thick muck, they don’t really need any special conditions. Just bury some slices or chunks of any variety of organic potato and chances are good you’ll see green leafy shoots springing from the ground within two to three weeks. You can also plant them after they start sending out buds from the eyes; most everyone has experienced sprouting potatoes in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator or on the counter.
For optimum growing, potatoes thrive in loose, rich soil mixed with greensand and compost. An acidic pH of 6.0 to 6.8 is ideal. If you wish to start your plants from seed instead of root pieces, dig furrows four inches deep and sow seeds one inch apart. Keep the ground slightly moist for about two months while the young tubers are forming, then you can cut back on the watering. Apply some fish emulsion — a good nitrogen source — once the plants emerge.
At about two-and-a-half months, you will need to start “hilling” your crop to allow additional growth room. Pile a loose mixture of soil and compost around the plants leaving about three inches of the tops exposed. Add some kelp meal for additional potassium to promote root formation. Repeat this process two or three times as the plants mature. If you see tubers emerging above the soil, be sure to cover them.
To help keep potatoes pest-free, plant nematodicidal marigolds, carrots and members of the daisy family nearby. Interspersing green beans and horseradish between plantings keeps potato beetles at bay. When the above ground foliage yellows and dies back, the potatoes are ready for harvesting.