Past, Present, and Potatoes

by Isabel Vinton

Potatoes: they're the fourth most highly produced crop worldwide after wheat, corn and rice. But how much do you actually know about these tubers? Here at the Hudson Valley Seed Company, we believe in knowing our food--where it comes from, how it's grown, and how each variety is unique. And potatoes are a terrific food to get to know. Their story is full of fun facts, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect is how they've traveled the world to end up on our plates and in our backyards.

Origins: Potatoes come from the plant Solanum tuberosum, which originated in the Andes--particularly Peru--and were first cultivated by the Incans around 8000 years ago. The potato was of central importance to the Incans--so central, in fact, that the time it took to cook a potato was considered a basic unit of time. They also believed in the medicinal properties of potatoes to cure many ailments--from toothaches to broken bones to blemishes. Peruvians are still proud of their potatoes. Their devoted domestication of the crop gave rise to thousands of varieties, many of which they still grow today and which can be found nowhere else in the world.

The Travels of a Tuber: When the Incans were invaded by the Spanish in the 16th century, potatoes became one of many plant species both openly traded and forcibly stolen by the colonizers. Although they brought many varieties back to their home countries, Europeans did not fully understand the plant or share the same gusto for the starchy food that we have today. Some believed that they, like other crops in the nightshade family, were unhealthy, and there was also concern over the potato's conspicuous absence from the Bible. It was war and an isolated economy that finally drove the French to accept potatoes in the late 19th century, when Marie Antoinette used to don potato flowers in her hair. Potatoes traveled across the globe to North America in 1621 when the governor of Bermuda sent a chest of veggies to the governor at Jamestown, Virginia. They wouldn't be popularly grown until the 1700s. By the 1890s, however, potatoes were worth their weight in gold--literally! During the Alaskan Klondike gold rush, the potato was valued for its good source of Vitamin C, and it was known to be traded directly for gold.

The Tuber Today: Although historical and modern factors, some still related to colonization, have caused a dramatic decrease in potato production in Peru, Peruvian farmers still cultivate thousands of varieties, with as many as 100 grown in a single valley. The Andes will always be the birthplace of the potato, but China currently holds the title for largest producer. Potatoes have made their way all the way around the globe--and beyond! In 1995, the potato became the first crop produced in space when the astronauts on the Space Shuttle Columbia successfully cultivated five small tubers.

Captivated by these starchy stars of history? Continue their story by bringing our four unique potato varieties to your backyard.

How to Plant Potatoes:

Plant potatoes in spring when the soil has warmed and can be worked well - anytime from about 2 weeks before your last frost date until early summer, as long as there are about 90 days of the growing season left. Potatoes require full sun and plentiful water, and do best in loose, well-drained soil that is kept weed-free. They benefit from regular applications of an organic fertilizer throughout the growing season, and side dressing with a good compost as the plants grow. Here are six easy steps to homegrown potatoes:

1. Prep: Set potatoes in a room temperature environment where they will be exposed to medium light for about a week before your planting date. A day or two before planting, any potatoes larger than an egg can be cut into smaller pieces with a sharp, clean knife. Each cut segment should contain 1-2 eyes or buds, and should be no smaller than 2 inches square. After cutting, allow the potatoes to dry so that they form a thick callous over the cut surfaces, which will help to prevent them from rotting after planting.

2. Plant: Option 1--Trench. The most common growing method. Trenches should be 6-8 inches deep, and potato pieces placed eye side up at the bottom of the trench and covered with only 4 inches of soil to begin. Option 2--Bag. Many with space constraints prefer to plant potatoes in large grow bags, such as our 10 gallon Recycled Fabric Planters. Roll the top of the bag down, forming a cuff, until you've adjusted the height of the bag to about 7". Fill the bag with soil to about 4" and place your potato pieces on the surface, eye side up, then cover with another 3" of soil. A 10-gallon size bag can accommodate 3-5 evenly spaced pieces/plants. As the plants grow, unroll the bag slightly and add about 4" of soil, so that only 3-4 inches of foliage are left exposed. Keep repeating this process until the bag is full.

3. Hill: For those opting for the trench method. A few weeks after planting, fill in the rest of the trench so that only 3-4 inches of foliage are exposed. "Hill" the plants again in another 2-3 weeks by mounding soil around the base of the plants. Hilling prevents the newly forming tubers from sunburn and greening by keeping them covered, and provides more soil space for tubers to form in, thus maximizing your harvest.

4. Tend: Throughout the season, keep your potatoes weed-free and the soil evenly moist, particularly while the plants are flowering. When the foliage starts to die back and yellow, discontinue watering to allow the potatoes to begin to cure and prepare them for harvest.

5. Harvest: Potatoes should be harvested 2-3 weeks after the foliage has died back. Gently turn them up from the soil with a fork (hands are just as easy in a grow bag!).

6. Cure: If storing your potatoes, allow them to cure, unwashed, in a dry, protected area for 2-3 days before moving them to a root cellar or pantry.

Bonus fact: Did you know potatoes are great pollinator plants? Another thing you have to thank bees for! Consider planting some alongside your other non-edible pollinators like our Pollinator Petal Patch.