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.