The Practical Potato

Garden Life
Tips from Sarah the Gardener
The good old potato is a staple ingredient that can be found in most kitchens. Its versatility is one of the factors that make it so popular. From the comfort offered by a dish of mashed potatoes to the satisfying crunch of hot chips, its flexibility makes it a reliable go-to in the store cupboard.

It is believed that potatoes were first domesticated in Southern Peru at least 10,000 years ago. Today there are around 4,000 varieties grown around the world but genetic testing is able to show that they can all be traced back to one single origin.

The English word potato comes from the Spanish patatas which is an adaptation of the South American word for the tuber. The colloquial name spud appears to have evolved from the tool used to dig a hole, to the hole itself and then to the potato. The first recorded use of the word spud to mean potato was in New Zealand around 1845.

The introduction of the potato to the rest of the world began with the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. It was first received with suspicion but soon became accepted and embraced by the Spaniards even included in military rations to prevent scurvy. It didn’t become commonplace in the European diet though for a few more centuries as it was met with distrust. After a push from royal quarters for health and economic reasons, potatoes soon became a food source that was relied upon.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of genetic diversity within the potato crops grown in Europe, they were susceptible to devastating disease, and late blight swept through Ireland, causing repeated crop failure, famine and the death of a million people and the migration of half a million Irish to America. Their arrival in America was only preceded by the potato itself by a couple of decades, but it soon became popular there. The potato has had its moments of glory - at one stage, it was actually worth its weight in gold and was also successfully grown on board the space shuttle!

The Incas believed that potatoes had great health giving properties and attributed the prevention of rheumatism and the soothing of toothaches to just carrying a potato on you. They also used it to heal broken bones, ease aching muscles and other curative effects. Of course, potatoes are good for you, but they need to be eaten as part of a diet to contribute to one’s daily nutritional needs not just put in a pocket.

Potato crop

Even though it is 80% water, potatoes actually contain almost every single nutrient a human needs to survive, making it a great staple food in the diet. A baked potato contains large portions of the daily recommended amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium, and fibre. Around 20% of the nutrients are in or close to the potato skin, so to get the most out of a spud it is best not to peel it.

Potatoes are either ‘waxy’ or ‘starchy’ and that can come down to their variety or their age. Young potatoes tend to be waxy and have more moisture, higher sugar levels and less starch. When cooked, they hold their shape well so are best used for boiling and roasting. Older spuds and starchier varieties have less moisture, more starch and tend to fall apart when cooked, making them great for mashing, baking, and frying. While you can get varieties described as all-purpose, if you have a particular dish in mind, it is a good idea to get the right kind of potato for the recipe.

Potatoes can last a long time in storage. Commercially, by creating the right conditions, they can last up to a year. For the home gardener, they can be stored in a cool dark place with good airflow for several months. When storing home grown potatoes, only blemish-free spuds will keep long term. Mature starchy potato varieties are ideal for long term storage and if you leave them in the ground for several weeks after the foliage has died down, it allows the skins to cure and improves their longevity. Don’t be tempted to wash your potatoes until you are ready to use them as this can increase the risk of rot. Storing them in plastic will also cause rotting. Avoid storing potatoes in the fridge as temperatures below 4ᵒC can revert the starches to sugar and alter the taste, texture, and cooking qualities.

Growing potatoes couldn’t be easier. They grow in a wide range of climatic conditions, don’t need a great deal of fertiliser and are often used to help break up new ground. Be warned though that they do not tolerate frost which can destroy the leaves and even cause long term harm to the tubers beneath the ground.

A plant can be grown from a potato, or even a part of the potato, so long as it includes an ‘eye’ from which to sprout. It can help to ‘chit’ the seed potatoes a month before you need to plant them by putting them in a dry spot out of direct sunlight to allow them to sprout. Then plant them 10cm deep and 25cm apart in a sunny, well drained part of the garden. As the plant grows, bury the leaves with soil until you have a mound that is about 30cm high. This helps protect the young growth from frost and the growing potatoes from contact with the sun. Depending on the variety, you should see a harvest between 80 to 130 days.

It is important to note that the potato, a member of the nightshade family with the genus Solanum, produces the toxic glycoalkaloid solanine. Ordinarily, it is in negligible amounts in the potato itself and cause no harm to humans. However, if the potato is exposed to sunlight it can turn green as a result of a build up of the solanine and green potatoes are not safe to eat. Some varieties will produce a small green fruit after flowering that has similarities to a tomato. This is highly toxic and should not be eaten. Potatoes are related to tomatoes, peppers and eggplant and so their position in the garden needs to be considered when planning crop rotation to avoid the build up of disease in the soil.

Potato flower