hilling

Ten Cool Things You Might Not Know About Potatoes

As my potatoes grow and flourish and my mouth waters over these buttery delicacies, it occurred to me that many folks don’t know much about these gems, other than the fact that they LOVE to eat them.  But potatoes don’t have to be an enigma.  How much do you know about potatoes?

Let’s see!

1 — Most everyone has heard that the skins are where the nutrients hide.  For example, the flesh contains less than 20% of the potassium, a third of the vitamin C, and about 10% of the niacin.  Where’s the rest?  In the skin!  So for your healthiest meal, be sure to consume the skin.

2 — While there are a ton of different varieties, potatoes come in five basic types:  russets, yellow-skinned, white, red, blue/purple. Whew ~ that’s a lot of tater tots!

3 — What makes a “new” potato new?  Think of them as the baby crop, the first potatoes harvested in spring when you simply cannot wait to get these babies into the kitchen!  At this stage, the potato vines are still alive and the skins are near papery thin.  It’s the main way my family eats potatoes.  But if you allow the vine to die back and the potatoes to cure  underground, their skin will toughen up making them more suitable for storage.  Another difference is in the starch.  “New” potatoes are sweeter and less starchy than their more “mature” counterparts.

4 — When it comes to food prep, all potatoes are not treated equally.  Russet potatoes are fluffier when cooked, due mostly to the fact that their densely packed starch molecules expand and separate during cooking.  Wonderful for creating mashed potatoes!  Idaho potatoes work well for this purpose, too.  But if you’re in the market for a sturdy gratin-style potato, opt for “waxy” potatoes like Red Pontiac and Reddale.  Some middle-grounders are Yukon Gold and Kennebec.  These tend to be more moist than “starchy” varieties, yet fluff relatively well and hold together, too.

5 — For best storage, taters like it dark, preferably around 45° – 55°.  If you don’t have a root cellar (ideal conditions), then try a dark corner of your pantry or garage, depending on your climate.  Warmth and light can cause potatoes to sprout.  I found a basket to place inside my pantry that allows for air flow, but keeps the potatoes in the dark when the door opens and closes–which happens A LOT when you have two teenagers roaming the house.  TIP: Don’t refrigerate, as this converts some of the potato’s starch to sugar.

6 — Sweet potatoes are not true potatoes.  They ‘re root vegetables; an enlarged part of the root used by the plant to store energy.  The potatoes are tubers that form from the stem of the plant, only underground.  Who knew?

7 — Green potatoes are not green because they’re young or old. They’re green because they’ve been exposed to sunlight.  This is one of the primary reasons we “hill” potatoes.  Due to their upward growth habit, potatoes can break the soil surface and will then turn green.  And green potatoes = green face (as in sick)  The culprit? Solanine; a mildly toxic compound that occurs naturally in the night shade family (Solanaceae) of plants.  The exposure to sunlight increases the toxicity.  Don’t eat potatoes raw, either.  (Your belly will thank you!)

8 — And move over rye and wheat, potatoes can make some pretty tasty Vodka!  Did you know that you can mash the potatoes, heat them in a pressure cooker until the starches turn to sugar and then using a distillery kit, run the potato juice through (to remove any impurities), creating potato vodka?  Blind taste tests tend to rate it distinctively delicious!

9 — Potatoes are excellent producers, IF you know how to coax them into continual production.  Ever heard of the Lutovsky box?  Designed by Greg Lutovsky, it’s a system whereby you can grow 100 potatoes with one plant in the space of 4 square feet.  How?  Basically you build a raised planter bed (2 X 2) and plant your potato seed as normal.  As the potato plant grows, you build up the sides of your box, adding dirt as you do so (mimics hilling effect), and the plant will continue to grow, upward, upward, upward, increasing production. Woot! Woot!

**You’ll need to choose late-season potato varieties, those that mature 90 days or more as they will continually produce tubers.  Short-season varieties won’t work, because they produce a limited number of potatoes and then the plant dies.

10 — Some varieties of potatoes produce fruit after they flower, fruit that looks like green, cherry tomatoes. Confusing for a garden gal like me.  How did a tomato plant make its way into my potato bed?

I mean, that’s bad—very bad!  While these two are part of the same plant family, they are NOT good companions.  But my fears were for not.  This little fella was normal (simply a first for me!).

So there you have it.  And if you needed one more reason to try your hand at growing these wonderful plants, homemade potato chips may be just the thing to convince you.  Forget deep fryers, we eat healthy around these parts.  How can you eat a healthy potato chip, you might ask?

How about slicing them paper-thin, coating them with a fine layer of extra-virgin olive oil (or safflower), bake them at 375°F for about 45 minutes, or until desire crispness has been reached and then dig in.  Kids adore them and you’ll feel better knowing it’s good for them. I do love win-win. 🙂

Check my Recipe section for more recipes or my How-To Grow Potatoes page if you haven’t yet figured out how to grow these wonderfully, delicious, buttery sweet potatoes.  Mmmmm…

Potato Planting Begins

Here in Central Florida, it’s time to plant the potatoes. Potatoes prefer cooler conditions, but are susceptible to frost and freezing. While neither happens often if Florida, they do happen, and we will have to cover our plants accordingly to protect them. But I digress. First things first, we need to plant them or there won’t be anything to protect!

basket of potatoes

As an organic gardener, I rotate my crops from bed to bed to stay ahead of the bugs and maintain healthy soil. We follow beans with potatoes, so we’re using our old Lima bean row this year for our new potatoes. We’re growing red potatoes, though many varieties exist. To keep things straight, I use an excel spreadsheet, though pencil and paper work fine. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be glad you did. It helps to keep your beds straight from season to season.

Before you begin, keep in mind that you will be “hilling” your beds as the plants grow.  This means that as your potato plants begin to grow leaves and attain some height, you’re going to want to draw or “pull” in more dirt around the base of the plants.  Hay mulch can also be used to serve this purpose.  The idea here is to ensure good coverage of the developing “tubers” or new potatoes as they grow.  Potatoes have an “upward” growth habit, whereby they will grow upward as the root system expands.  If they near the soil’s surface and become exposed to sunlight, they will turn green, and green potatoes are NO good.  (They’ll make you sick if you eat them.)  You can also start with a trench when planting potatoes.  Makes it easier to hill in the future, but with my garden I simply plant them “low” and hill as they grow.

my potatoes

We’re planting ours next to our peas because the two are great companions in the garden. However, tomatoes are not, so keep them apart. Tomatoes and potatoes are prone to early and late blight and can infect one another. Other good companions for potatoes include: bush bean, members of the cabbage family, carrot, celery, corn, dead nettle, flax, horseradish, marigold, petunia, onion and marigold. Other bad companions include: asparagus, cucumber, kohlrabi, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash family, sunflower, turnip and fennel.

potato holes

After we till our soil to improve aeration, we amend with compost and composted cow manure (they love the stuff).  Next, we form holes for our potato seed—about 2 inches deep.

Now it’s time for cutting our potato seed. Inspect each potato seed and look for the eyes. Eyes are the sprout nubs covering your potato. The idea here is to cut your potato seeds in half or even quarters, depending on the size of the potato and the number of “eyes.”  Each cut piece should have at least one eye, as this is where the future sprout erupts!

eyes on the potato

When planting, I like to put the cut potato piece “eye-side-up”—don’t want to make it too hard for my babies!—though I’ve learned that potatoes are prolific growers and will thrive in your compost pile without a second thought from you, without any regard to their “eye” orientation.

But just in case—keep it easy and plant “eye-side-up.”  Cover your potatoes with a mix of dirt and all-purpose organic fertilizer and water well.

Potatoes are heavy feeders so feed them every so often with a nice mix of fish emulsion, or a dose of good old-fashioned worm poop.  Potatoes are “pigs” when it comes to consuming nutrients which is why you want that cow manure and fertilizer mixed in at time of planting.

organic plant food

Another consideration is to stagger your planting. “Staggering” your planting dates means to plant only a portion of your potato seeds at one time, say a third of the row, then another third in two weeks, followed by the last third two weeks later. This ensures a constant supply of fresh potatoes. An important consideration in my home, because our “fruit cellar” (aka garden garage) is not sufficient to store potatoes long-term. Too warm. Staggering also prevents whining from the family.

“Potatoes for dinner?  Again?”

Apparently they don’t want potatoes for dinner EVERY night.  Hmph.

In about 2 – 4 months after planting and continuous hilling, you’ll reap a lovely bounty of fresh potatoes. And trust me, there is a difference between fresh-from-the-garden-potatoes and store-bought.  They taste sweet pie and smooth as butter.  We like to roast ours with garlic and rosemary.

prepping potatoes

And remember, no matter how you prepare your potatoes, they taste better when you grow them yourself. 🙂  But do remember these babies are not frost-tolerant and must be covered should the air turn cold. You can use a frost blanket or a household sheet, but either way, make sure you cover them from in the event of frost or you’ll wake up to this ugly site.

frost bitten potato

Brrrrr. I get the chills just looking at those poor suffering beauties! So do be cautious and happy gardening!

Planting Potatoes

It’s so easy, even a 9 yr. old can handle it.  Seriously.  My son helped me today and while I took on the job of tilling the row (to keep it neat and the dirt off my walkways), he did most everything else.  You see, as organic gardeners, we rotate our crops within our existing beds.

So first things first.  Decide which row to plant our potatoes.  I use an excel spreadsheet to keep everything straight, but pencil and paper work fine, not to mention there are a host of websites out there with fancy, automated, technologically advanced “crop rotation plan” drawings! Phew, that’s a mouth-full.  Anyhoo–point is, do something to keep your beds straight from season to season.  You’ll be glad you did. 🙂

Keep in mind when forming your bed for potatoes, that you will be “hilling” them as the plant grows.  This means that as your potato plant begins to grow leaves and attain some height, you’re going to want to draw or “pull” in more dirt around the base of the plant.  Hay mulch can also be used to serve this purpose.  The idea here is to ensure good coverage of the developing “tubers” or new potatoes as they grow.  Potatoes have an “upward” growth habit, whereby they will grow upward as the root system expands.  If they near the soil’s surface and become exposed to sunlight, they will turn green and green potatoes are NO good.  (They’ll make you sick if you eat them.)  You can also start with a trench when planting potatoes.  Makes it easier to hill in the future, but with my garden I simply plant them “low” and hill as they grow. 

We’re following our peanuts and beans this season, which puts us next to carrots and beets—great companions for one another and no harm to our potatoes.  Important considerations, both.  My son and I amended our soil with compost, but cow manure is also a good choice for potatoes (they love the stuff).  Next, we form holes for our potato seed–about 2 inches deep.  Then, we analyze our potato seed (aka potatoes ready for planting) and look for the eyes.

The idea here is to cut your potato seeds in half or even quarters, depending on the size of the potato and the number of “eyes.”  Each cut piece should have at least one eye, as this is where the future sprout erupts!  When planting, I like to put the cut potato piece “eye-side-up”—don’t want to make it too hard for my babies!—though I’ve since learned, potatoes and tomatoes are prolific growers.  As it stands, these two are the most likely to sprout in my compost pile and you KNOW I didn’t toss those rotten old potatoes into the compost with any regard to their “eye” orientation!

But just in case—make it as easy as possible and plant “eye-side-up.”  Now cover your potatoes with dirt and water well (excuse my hose–still working on a more professional-style irrigation system).  The rest is up to Mother Nature!

Okay, you DO want to feed them every so often with a nice mix of fish emulsion or a dose of good old-fashioned worm poop.  Potatoes can be “pigs” when it comes to nutrients which is why you want that compost and cow manure mixed in at time of planting.  You may have noticed that I only planted half my row today and this we learned from experience.  “Staggering” your planting dates ensures a constant supply of fresh potatoes, else you lose them to storage problems and whining from the family. 

“Potatoes for dinner?  Again?”

Apparently they don’t want potatoes for dinner EVERY night.  Hmph.

In about 2 – 4 months we will have ourselves a lovely bounty of fresh potatoes and let me tell you—there IS a difference between fresh-from-the-garden-potatoes and store-bought.  They taste sweet pie and smooth as butter.  YUM.