It comes in red, white, blue and gold. It can be baked, fried, or boiled. It is served for breakfast or dinner, makes an excellent snack, and is a basic ingredient in some breads, cakes and doughnuts. It is the potato, a tuber whose versatility makes it the Gene Kelly of the vegetable world.
Potatoes were first cultivated by the Incas in Chile, and introduced by Spanish explorers to Europe. Thanks to their ease of cultivation, productivity, excellent taste and storage capability, they soon became a diet staple throughout Europe and the New World. Potatoes are still one of the most popular vegetables available and qualify as a comfort food. Potatoes also have one exceptional trait that makes it invaluable for dieters as well. They cause the body to produce CCK, a hormone that reduces hunger and makes a person feel both full and satisfied. Including a baked potato topped with an olive oil based spread in at least one meal daily reduces hunger, belly fat and bad cholesterol. Not bad for something that actually tastes good and provides nutrition as well.
From a practical standpoint, it is less expensive to buy potatoes at the grocery store than it is to grow them. However, for cooks or gardeners who want varieties not available commercially or anyone who ranks flavor above price as a priority, home-grown potatoes are essential.
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Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family, and tend to be prone to every bacterial or fungal disease that affects tomatoes and peppers. Locate the potato patch away from areas in which either the tomato or pepper has grown.
Sunshine is essential for good top growth, so be sure the potato patch receives at least six hours of sunlight daily. However, the potato enjoys cool temperatures, so a deep straw mulch over the plants will help insulate them against the intense heat of summer.
Potatoes love a loose, sandy loam that is slightly acidic. Alkaline soils, or those that contain an abundance of lime, produce mealy potatoes that are prone to scab disease. Include ample amounts of peat moss and compost into the potato bed in order to increase fertility, friability and create a low pH environment. Avoid using animal manures, however, as they may burn the fledgling roots as well as impacting on food safety.
Plant seed potatoes certified to be disease-free in early spring as early as the ground can be worked. 10 pounds of seed potatoes will fill 100 feet of planting area. Dig a trench six to eight inches deep, and four to five inches wide. Place the seed potatoes into the trench eye side up and 10 inches apart. Cover with three inches of light soil. Continue to mound soil over the plants as the potato plants grow.
Potatoes need one inch of water a week, and unlike other plants that will tolerate daily sprinklings, the potato needs all of the water applied at once. Otherwise, the tubers become malformed and knobby.
New potatoes can be harvested in July by digging under the plant gently with a trowel, taking care not to disturb the entire plant. Harvest mature potatoes after the foliage dies back in late summer or early fall.
Potatoes store easily in cool, dark areas; the traditional root cellar is a prime location. Dark is essential, because the potato tuber will turn green when exposed to light. The nightshade part of their nature then comes to the fore, making green potatoes toxic. Avoid placing potatoes (or any stored vegetable, for that matter) near apples, however, as fumes from ripening apples will cause the potatoes to sprout and reduce the shelf life of other vegetables.
The United Nations has declared 2008 the Year of the Potato, so celebrate with a row or two. Experiment with some of the more obscure varieties, such as the Fingerling, Yukon Gold or All Blue. Love those spuds!