Columns / Discourse / May 20, 2009

Garden Patch: Potatoes have surprising history

Consider for a moment the humble potato. It has become such an essential food item in the Western diet that it is hard to believe the potato has had its place here only for a hundred years.

Potatoes were first cultivated in Peru some 4,500 years ago. At that time, a single valley in Peru had over 100 varieties. Potatoes were first introduced to Europe in the mid-1500s. By 1600, potatoes had spread from Spain to Belgium, Germany, Italy, England, and France. There was a time when humans depended on the potato. One example is the poor people in Ireland. The Irish farmers found out that the potato thrived very well in their country’s cool moist soil. By the 1800s, the potato was the main crop in Ireland’s poorest regions. More than three million Irish farm laborers (30% to 35% of its population) subsisted only on potatoes. However, around the year of 1845, a fungal disease caused the potato crop to fail. Because of the farmers’ great dependency on the potato, failure of the potato crops resulted in starvation and caused over a million deaths. This is known as the “Great Irish Famine.”

Today, we are not solely dependent on potatoes. Yet, the potato is still huge in the U.S. – especially as a snack food (potato chips and French fries). Nutritionally, the potato is rich in carbohydrates, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins such as Vitamin C. But to stay healthy a diet should include more than just potatoes. However, if you are ever planning to plant your own food, the potato is a proven staple you should be sure to include.

A fun way to plant potatoes:

Potatoes are one of the easiest yet most neglected crops in the vegetable garden. Most gardeners think that potatoes take a lot of space, but there are easier, space-saving ways to raise this delicious crop. Potatoes are also one of the first vegetables planted in the spring.

To plant potatoes, you need a “seed potato”. Seed potatoes are not really seeds at all. They are full-sized potatoes that are starting to produce shoots in the potato eyes. You’ve probably seen these “eyes” when you have stored potatoes in the kitchen for too long. Although the potatoes from supermarkets could potentially be your seed potatoes, these potatoes may not be disease-free, so you may be better off using certified seed potatoes to plant.

One of the methods to grow your potatoes in a limited space is to plant them in old tires. The instructions are as follows:

STEP 1 – Find some old tires.

STEP 2 – Cut your seed potatoes into halves or quarters. Each piece must have at least one or two “eyes”.

STEP 3 – Pick a sunny spot for your potatoes. Loosen the soil slightly for drainage. Put your bottom tire in place. Nail the inside bottom rim of the tire to the ground. Fill the tire with soil.

STEP 4 – Plant your potato pieces two inches deep, three to four of them in a tire. Water them well. Place the second tire on top of the bottom tire, but don’t do anything with it yet. Water your plants only when the soil dries out.

STEP 5 – When your potato plants (vines) grow to about two inches taller than the second tire, fill the tire with soil as before. Pack the soil. Water thoroughly again.

STEP 6 – Continue these steps with more tires until they reach the height you desire. Water when plants look dry.

STEP 7 – When the vines start to yellow and die, the potatoes are almost ready. Stop watering and allow the vines to turn brown and dry. At this time, you can either disassemble your tower and harvest your potatoes, or leave them as they are and harvest as desired.

Update for the Knox community Garden

In the past weeks, we have planted many vegetables including: Swiss chard, three varieties of lettuce, mesclun, potatoes, four varieties of beans, two varieties of radishes, carrots, strawberries, raspberries, parsley, cilantro, peppers, and tomatoes. You can see the garden map at our garden website: deptorg.knox.edu/garden.

You may wonder if we planted the potatoes with tires. We were actually going to plant our potatoes in tires. However, we did not get the old tires on time, so we decided to just plant some of the potatoes in the ground.

Po Ling Chan


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