How do I love the potato-let me count the ways. Well, maybe not. Since it is probably the most versatile vegetable to come out of our gardens, there just might be too many ways to count.
Has your supermarket learned the trick of watering or misting the potatoes in their produce section? This is a common practice in some of the local stores here. It almost guarantees that your potatoes will sprout or rot or both, before you can use all of them. Potatoes need to be kept dry.
Potatoes grow best in cool weather. They can withstand some frost but hard frosts and freezes will slow down their development. They can be planted in the cold country on St. Patrick’s Day, along with peas. In more southern areas, plant them mid-February. The warm states can get a second crop going for fall with a July planting.
Either dig a trench and plant them in the bottom, then fill in the soil as the stalks grow, or plant them at least six inches deep and mound the soil around them as they grow. The mounds need to extend out over the whole root area since that is where the potatoes will form. (It is imperative that you keep the tubers covered. You will read why a little later.)
Grow your own and you won’t have to worry about the way they were handled before you bought them. They are very easy to grow. You can even plant pieces, or the whole potato, of those supermarket purchases that have sprouted.
Digging potatoes is fun. It is a treasure hunt, seeing just what and how many of those tubers will pop out of the ground as you dig. A spading fork is a better tool to use than a shovel when digging potatoes because you can sift the soil as you lift and turn the mounds.
The potato, the staple of most cooks, can make you sick if it isn’t prepared properly. If potatoes sprout, be sure to remove all of these “eyes” before you cook and eat them. All parts of the potato plant are poisonous except for the tubers-the potatoes themselves. If the tubers have green sections, the green is also poisonous and can make you sick.
Green develops in and on the potato if the potato tubers grow too near the surface or sunlight reaches them through cracked soil. The skins turn green and so does some of the potato flesh underneath. Do not eat this green area on a potato. It contains a glycoalkaloid poison, solanine, which is a nerve toxin. The leaves, stems, sprouts, and green areas of the potato plant and tuber all contain this poison. Once you cut off the green parts and cut out the eyes or sprouts from the potato tuber, the rest of the tuber is edible with no poison problems.
You can harvest potatoes from the garden after the stalks turn brown; or as small “new” potatoes while the plants are still growing; or you can leave them in the ground through the winter in the warmer areas of the country and dig as needed. You can also store them outside in a pit, which has been deeply dug and filled with straw. Place the potatoes below the freeze line in your area. If the potatoes get too cold, their starch can turn to sugar. This is also why you should not store potatoes in the refrigerator.
You can cure your potato crop by keeping them at 75 degrees for a week - out of sunlight - or don’t dig them until two weeks have passed since the plants died back. Either way gives the skins time to mature so they will keep longer in storage. Wipe the dirt off, don’t wash them, then store them in a cooler area like a basement, an unused room, or an attached garage that doesn’t freeze. The ideal temperature range is 50-60 degrees to keep them for up to 4 months.
For the best potato flavor for all of your recipes, keep your potatoes dry, cool, and away from sunlight. My absolute favorite potato is the Red Pontiac. Count the ways you love potatoes.
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By Nancy Buley, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Wholesale Tree Growers
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
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