Deb Babcock: The lowly potato

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Potatoes have roots going back 7,000 years to the mountains of the Andes in South America.

Farmers back then admired the ruggedness, nutritional value, and storage attributes of this tuber. It wasn't until the late 1500s before this vegetable made it to Europe, but it wasn't as highly prized, mainly being fed to hospital inmates. It has a long history of being the food for the underprivileged and was further shunned because of its relationship with the very poisonous nightshade family. In fact, the leaves of potatoes can be deadly poisonous, and when exposed to sunlight too long, the tuber turns green and toxic and isn't very tasty, either.

In the late 1700s, potatoes came into their own in Ireland where their nutritional value was recognized during a famine in that country. Potatoes contain most of the vitamins that humans need for sustenance, and one acre of potato crops can feed 10 people for a year. Through time, potatoes became a staple of most diets. In the U.S., we grow around 35 billion pounds of potatoes every year.

This year in my garden, I successfully harvested Yukon Gold and Fingerling potatoes, despite our quite short growing season this year.

You can plant potatoes as soon as the ground can be worked. They like a light, well-drained soil that can retain moisture but can grow in less-than-perfect soil. It's best to rotate your crop each year to a different part of your garden, coming back to the same plot no more than once every three years.

Although it is possible to plant potatoes from ones you purchase at the store, certified seed potatoes are the best since they are disease-free and have been chosen to give the best results. You can find these at our local garden centers, as well as Elk River Farm & Feed. Also be aware that many grocery store potatoes have been irradiated to preserve them, meaning that they may have been rendered unable to sprout and produce seed.

During the week or so before you plant your potatoes, allow them to be exposed to some warmth and light to induce sprouting. Then when you're ready to plant, cut the potatoes so that one or two sprouts or eyes (seeds) are on a section. Within a day, a callous will form over the cut section that prevents it from rotting once planted.

Dig a shallow trench for your potato sections, about 4 inches wide and 6 inches deep and plant around 15 inches apart for the largest potatoes. Closer together will give you smaller potatoes, which are great in soups and stews. Place it cut-side down and cover with 4 inches of soil. As sprouts emerge from the soil, add another 4 inches. And then once the stems are around 8 inches high, add another inch or so of soil so the stem is half buried. This keeps newly formed potatoes from being exposed to sunlight. Should that happen, they will turn green and become toxic.

Keep your potato plants well-watered throughout the growing season, but do not overwater or the tubers will rot. When the foliage turns yellow and wilts, stop watering and allow the potatoes to grow for another week or two before harvesting.

When harvesting, be careful to not cut into the potatoes. Use a garden fork or your fingers to find the potatoes and avoid cutting or bruising them. If it's dry out, you can let the potatoes lie on the soil surface for a few days to mature the potato skin that protects it during storage.

Store potatoes in a dark, cool (40 to 50 degrees) location and they should keep well for three to six months.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Routt. Questions? Call 879-0825.

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