Friday, August 7, 2009

Apples of the Earth/Pommes de Terre

I consider potatoes indispensible for a Backyard Nest Egg. They fall into the category “sure bets” because they are easy to grow and productive in small spaces using large containers or potato “towers.” Saving seed potatoes is also relatively simple, thus minimizing your purchased inputs for the next year’s crop. Potatoes don't require energy and labor intensive preservation processes such as canning or freezing. All you need is a cool, humid spot for storage (we plan to use the crawl space in our basement).

Potatoes are also a nutritious source of calories that will see you through hard times, if necessary. In his remarkable book, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, Jack Weatherford credits the introduction of potatoes from the Andes to Europe with stabilizing food production, decreasing debilitating cycles of famine, improving the overall health of the people, and increasing population.

Prior to the widespread cultivation of potatoes, Weatherford points out:
[T]he Old World depended primarily on grain crops of domesticated grasses such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats in Europe and the Near East, rice in the Far East, and millet and sorghum in Africa . . . Because [grains] grow on high stalks above the ground, they are easy prey to the destructive elements of wind, hail, heavy rain, and snow as well as to birds, insects, and animals . . . For as long as the Old World depended on grain crops, the great population and power centers remained in the warmer southern nations around the Mediterranean, where the grains flourished (p65).

In addition to being less vulnerable to the elements than grains, potatoes require less work to cultivate, produce more calories per field planted, and have a shorter growing season. Potatoes also provided northern Europeans with new source of vitamin C during winter.
(Eaten with their skins, potatoes are a significant source of vitamin C, a moderate source of iron (better absorbed because of the vitamin C), and are good sources of vitamins B1, B3 and B6, and minerals such potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.) Further, because potatoes produce fewer dental cavities than do grains, “the northern Europeans retained strong teeth until an older age, and this improved their general health” (p68).

Weatherford claims that this new source of nutrition and calories was major factor in the power shift in the 18th and 19th centuries from Spain and France toward Germany and Britain and that “finally all were eclipsed by Russia” (p70). Around 1988, when his book was published, Russia was the world’s greatest producer of potatoes, and among the greatest consumers of potatoes. Interestingly,
the largest producer of potatoes today is China, which produced in 2007 twice the tonnage of potatoes as second-ranked Russia. (The United States ranks 4th in production).

Potatoes are often associated with famine in minds of Americans, largely because of the 19th century waves of Irish immigration due to potato crop failure in that country. However, scholars generally agree that the disaster could have been averted had the Irish planted many varieties of potatoes, as do the indigenous people of the Andes, instead of relying on just a few.

If hard times are indeed upon us, (and propaganda about “green shoots” notwithstanding, I think they are), maybe we all ought to plant a few potatoes. So this year I started my first crop. Previously, I thought a lot of space was required for growing potatoes. Besides, I reasoned, you can get potatoes cheaply in the supermarket. It would make more sense to focus on things that are expensive, like cherries, or that are significantly better-tasting from a home garden, like tomatoes.

Once it occurred to me to try growing them in containers, I found many good sources of information on how to do it. The basic idea is to grow them vertically, because potatoes, (botanically speaking), are stem tissue. So, fill your container about 1/3 full of soil, plant your potatoes, and cover with two inches of soil. Once your shoots get to be about 6 inches tall, add soil, leaving just three inches of vine above the soil line. Continue this process until your container is full. (Nichols McGee and Stuckey provide complete instructions in their book The Bountiful Container.)

I started with two large pots on the deck, one planted with Red Norlands and the other German butterball potatoes. Then I waited for the blossoms that the books said would appear at time of harvest. The blossoms never came, and the vines, which had been healthy, began dying back. I did a bit more research and learned that some potatoes don’t flower.

So we decided to attempt a harvest. We dug into the container about 4 or 5 inches down, feeling for potatoes, but couldn't find any. I was a little dejected, but Rick pointed out that since the vines were dead anyway, we might as well empty the pot.

We spread out a tarp (so we could reuse the soil) and Rick dumped the contents. We were excited to see a few potatoes and began digging through the soil like it was a treasure hunt. Eventually, we harvested 5 pounds of potatoes from that one pot, as well as 8 potatoes small enough to be used as seed potatoes.

The butterball potatoes look like they’re about ready to harvest, and we have another patch of Red Norlands in the garden. We’re so thrilled with our success, we set a goal of growing and storing enough potatoes next year to see us through the winter. (It turns out that, like tomatoes, home-grown potatoes are much more delicious than any I’ve ever bought in a supermarket.)

The Bountiful Container has instructions for growing potatoes in 20 gallon cans. But I think we’re going to try potato towers next year.
This article claims 100 pounds of potatoes can be grown in a tower with a four square foot base! Rick and I don’t need that many potatoes; but that level of production would be pretty cool. I’d give some away to family and friends, and haul some away to the food bank. The rest I’d store, with some sprigs of sage. Tanya Denckla reports, in The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food, that some aromatic herbs, such as sage, English lavender, spearmint and rosemary inhibit potato sprouting.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to harvesting this year’s German butterballs and the second batch of Red Norlands. And dreaming of tasty potato dishes this winter. Creamy ham, leek, and potato soup . . . Potatoes roasted with olive oil and rosemary . . . Mashed potatoes piled atop Shepherd’s pie and browned crispy on top, hot and fluffy below… Mmmm…

No comments: