It is hard to believe that the potato, the workhorse of most gardens, is native to the Americas. All indications are that they probably originate somewhere around ancient Peru, which is why I love Peruvian blues! Just think, in a little more than 200 years, all varieties and colors of this original upland Peruvian plant became a staple vegetable crop throughout the entire temperate world. The high starch content and food value make it a most important nutritional source. Potatoes are also one of the most productive of all vegetables when it comes to food per unit area of land.
The potato only made it to Eurasia with European contact after the 1500s. And today, it is near impossible to imagine Northern European rural cuisine without the Colcannon, Latke, and Pieroggi, and hundreds of other deeply traditional farm dishes. By the late 1700s, the potato was such a mainstay of peasant diets that the tragedy of the well-known Irish Potato Famine of 1847, began in part out of the dependence of the rural Irish on that one crop, and one variety–some say– for sustenance and subsistence.
Today, varieties abound: Every gardener has his and her favorites for boiling, frying, mashing, baking in the jacket, casseroles, cold salads, and for storage and keeping. An exciting thing about heirloom varieties are the colors, which can range from stark white and deep, buttery yellow, to pink, blue, and even purple. “Blues” are my favorite. Though popular in recent years in some specialty prepared foods like chips, home-grown Peruvian blue potatoes are still greeted with pleasant surprise by young and old at the dinner table. Kids love them! I also prefer them because they are superb keepers, and as a cook, they are about the best all around for baking, boiling, mashed, roasted, scalloped, home fried, cold in potato salad, or just about any way you like them.
As with any garden project, soil preparation and a sunny, a well-drained plot is key to growing good potatoes. The ground should be worked to a good depth to break up hard-pack, clay is not good (unless you like misshapen tubers) and stones must be removed from the garden completely. Potatoes love well drained, rich soil! Although, most good garden soils are suitable. Working in plenty of rich compost material is always advised.
When we first moved to Vermont, I recall fondly a family friend, Evelyn Tillotson. When she was in her 80’s she loved potatoes. She served them when ever we went to eat at her home. And she preferred them when she ate at our place. They were part of her daily diet, but she seemed to put them up on a pedestal as part of a triumvirate with wild mushrooms and beets, as gifts surely given to mankind by a compassionate God. The tubers had her particular reverence. From the stories she told potatoes saved many families during the Great Depression. Did you know, she once asked me, “If you had to live on just one thing you can grow, what it would be?” I had no idea. “The potato,” she said. “But you have to eat the skin because that is where the vitamins are.” Evelyn was right: in addition to the energy these carbohydrates provide, potatoes also supply considerable amounts of protein and vitamins B and C. All that is missing is vitamin A, and that we can get from milk or cheese. So, you see, mashed potatoes are not only a comfort food, but have all the things a body needs to survive. And who doesn’t like them with roasted garlic and a little butter?
Today, as I learned from Evelyn Tillotson over thirty years ago, we always set aside enough from each year’s crop for seed-potatoes the next spring, so we don’t have to buy any. This is not always possible. In fact, last summer we had a potato blight in Vermont and cannot risk planting tubers which have been infected back in the garden. So this year we plan to buy them from a reputable, local source and will start over. It does give us the extra opportunity to experiment with some different varieties, shapes and colors. Fingerlings are definitely on my list. But remember, if you are swapping or sharing seed potatoes with friends, especially in the Northeast this year, do be careful they are healthy and mold or rust free.
A couple of times, when I was desperate, I even planted left-over supermarket potatoes, cutting them into sections with at least two “eyes” or buds and allowing a day or so to callus after slicing. But market potatoes, more recently unfortunately, are often treated with a spray specifically to retard sprouting, which may explain the indifferent crops I’ve had.
Each vegetable we grow in our garden seems to bring with it particular satisfactions. Having a backyard potato patch can provide a supply food in any household for 9 months of the year as long as they are stored properly. Potatoes are an economical, chemical-safe supply of a staple, and provide a Vitamin rich, Potassium, and fiber-healthy yield in—depending on the varieties—a rainbow of colors.
And finally, thanks to Garden Mats, my body no longer takes a toll from all the work it takes to grow them. The potato patch is finally a place of contented reflection, rather than stressful mandatory labor.
Best of all, when the time is just right, we pull up a corner of our mat and roll back a section anywhere we want to……. for new potatoes! Nothing beats the excitement and the subtle, nutty-buttery taste of red new potatoes, boiled with fresh dill about nine or ten weeks into the season, or baby blues with sour cream and fresh chives. This is just about the time I start to gather wild mushrooms.
But, later, as fall settles in, when I roll back my Garden Mats after the last hard frost has covered the potato plants, I fork up the soil to discover the bounty of potatoes underneath, ready for the root cellar. It makes me feel very close to the earth, family and life. And I love to hear our daughter, Anya say: “Dad, these are huge!” “Yup,” I reply, “And if we had to live on just one thing that we can grow, do you know what it would be?”
And we both say, “The potato.”