31 May 2010

This Spud's for You

This entry will take a closer look at growing your own potatoes, or as the French call them: pomme de terre ("fruit of the earth"). Growing potatoes in your garden is much easier than you think as these tubers are relatively low-maintenance (as compared to other crops, like tomatoes and peppers). Just be informed: potatoes are considered part of the nightshade family of plants meaning only the fruit of the plant is edible. All other parts of the plant are highly toxic. But just like with any other crop that originates from your gardening efforts, a home-grown 'tater just tastes better than store-bought.

While there are a few thousand potato varieties globally, Michael and I focused on just 3 types this season: Red Pontiac, Yukon gold, and fingerling. Potatoes need to be grown in loose soil so that they may increase their size more easily while underground. It also makes harvesting them rather effortless. You can pull up the entire potato plant from loose soil and then push back the soil in the recess left by the plant to poke around for any potatoes that might have fallen off the intricate root system.

The red and Yukon varieties are in separate beds from each other in our the raised bed garden. The soil here is loose due to a mixture of topsoil, garden soil, and composted cow manure. The fingerlings were planted in a flower bed behind our house where they could get cooler temperatures and a mix of potting soil and red clay. You could call it an at-home science experiment, with the garden potatoes as the "control" group and the fingerlings out back the "variable" group. Granted, fingerling potatoes are naturally smaller than the Red Pontiac, but we thought it would be interesting to see just how much growth we would get from them with the red clay being so firmly packed around them.

The picture above shows our Red Pontiac potatoes as they looked during the 2nd week of May. The seven "seed potatoes" we had purchased (potatoes that had grown multiple eyes) were planted around the 3rd week of March, and they grew into these full, bushy plants.

And we have tiny, purple flowers! Last year when we attempted to plant potatoes, we never got to the flower phase. It could have been for a number of reasons. Maybe it was too hot. Maybe it was too dry. Maybe we should have put the entire potato in the ground instead of cutting a section of potato around each eye for planting. Maybe we didn't fertilize enough. Who knows? This year, we have righted those possible wrongs (except the hot part--can't exactly control the climate) and have reached the flowering phase! Why is this so important? When your plants reach the flowering stage, they have produced new potatoes. Those would be the almost-spherical red potatoes you buy at the grocery store that are good for mashing or creaming. Just don't forget to add cheese and chives.

To show you what the new potatoes look like, Michael pulled up one of the smaller plants in the bed. As you can see, the potatoes are very round and red. It came up easily with just a firm tug around the stem of the plant. With gloves on, Michael dug around the hole left for any others that might have been left behind, but there were none. All were attached to the roots, although several of them were about the size of a gum ball. Notice, the plant itself is still very green and healthy.

Here is a close-up shot of the new potatoes. The roots around them are incredibly dense for maximum moisture absorption. The size of the potatoes does not matter. They are still edible. What you should be most aware of, though, is the color of the fruit. If there are any green spots on the flesh, the potato has been exposed to sunlight and is therefore inedible. The plants naturally contain glycoalkaloids, which are toxic compounds that are present in all parts of the plant that, when eaten, can cause a variety of side effects from weakening the nervous system to causing severe headaches. Even though glycoalkaloids are in the edible tuber, they are less prevalent and will cook out. Green spots on the flesh, however, mean there is a higher concentration of the toxin and the fruit should not be consumed.

Here is a picture of our fingerling potato foliage. This was the "variable" in our science experiment, as they were planted in a mixture of potting soil and red clay. The plants grew very tall, but not as bushy as the Red Pontiac variety. As you can see, the foliage looks damaged. That is because we have a slug problem in most of the plant beds nearest our house. This particular area collects a lot of water because it does not see as much sunlight as other parts of the yard. With constant moisture come slugs, and they love to feast on foliage. We tried several ways of fending them off: Seven Dust, insecticidal soap, and slug and snail bait. I hear beer keeps them away, but I hate to waste good brew on slimy pests.

Since the foliage of the fingerlings suffered, we decided to harvest the potatoes before they reached the flowering stage. Here is what we had! They weighed somewhere just over 1 lb., and they produced an array of jewel-like colors. These, so far, have been my favorite potato to grow.

Quick recipe for fingerling potatoes:

-1 lb. of fingerlings, cut in half (smaller fingers) or quarters (larger fingers)
-olive oil
-favorite seasoning (I like Good Seasons Italian dressing packets)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange fingerlings on a cookie sheet cut-side up. Using a sheet of parchment paper under the fingerlings will help keep them from sticking. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with the seasoning. Place on rack in oven. Allow to roast, turning occasionally with a spatula, until the potatoes become golden brown and have soft centers (usually between 30 and 45 minutes). Serve warm.

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