Monday, February 27, 2017

Potatoes in your Garden

With spring right around the corner I am getting that itch to be outside. Unfortunately minus -20 doesn't exactly mean gardening weather. What it does mean is that I don't want to leave the house, which means another blog post!

Last year I was lucky enough to take a class on urban agriculture. The brunt of this class was how to have a successful garden and this inspired me to get back into gardening. It really made me think, is it that easy to screw up a garden that there is a whole class on it? Looking back at some of my previous attempts at a garden, yes, yes there is. It's not that all aspects of gardening are that difficult, I've always had some kind of success but sometimes it was.... well.... better than others. Gardening can be as simple or difficult as you make it, but then why do we so often set ourselves up for failure? Whether it is overshooting with to much, to far away, a poor location, or just no clue what we are actually doing it suddenly can get pretty overwhelming. From personal experience my biggest mistake was always over committing. Did I ever really want to spend half an hour a night weeding a garden? No not terribly, so I had to learn to set myself up for success. 
Success for me wasn't measured by quantity but rather quality, something to be able to be proud of. Setting yourself up for success can be easy, you just need to plan ahead. Knowing you are never going to walk out to a garden, so instead putting planters on your porch or windowsill. Making sure you have rain barrels set up because you know running a hose for no reason will make you feel guilty. Starting your plants inside so they have a head start and you aren't harvesting into December. There are a ton of tricks to having a successful garden but one of the most important is picking the right varieties. Varieties really stand out to me because if I am putting all that work in I want to 1. start myself off at an advantage and 2. know my end produce will be as tasty as I had hoped!
It seems like one of the main staples in any garden is potatoes. So do potato varieties really make a difference? The answer in short is yes. Different varieties have different properties: color, consistency, disease resistance, frost/heat tolerance, tuber size, and the list goes on. Every since I was little my family would grow potatoes. Once I got a little older I started to recognize there were differences in the varieties my grandmother would plant. She planted 4 different varieties, alternating each year based on whether they measured up to the others. Some were soft and almost buttery while others were more grainy. Some produced like crazy while other hardly had any tubers under the plant. Others were bright purple and some were yellow in color, all of these things stood out in my mind and now help me to decide what I put in my own garden. Here is a crash course on potatoes and some easy tricks to growing them successfully in your garden.

     Potato 101

  • Why should you grow potatoes?
They are a reliable vegetable and most importantly they are good for you. Potatoes have a bad rap for being unhealthy but the truth is it is what you put on them that is unhealthy. They are actually a good source of iron, protein, and potassium and can be a healthy starch in the average diet.

  • Baking vs. Boiling potatoes, what's the difference?
There is more of a difference than one being wrapped in tin foil and one being in a bag at your local grocery store. It is actually all based on their dry matter content. Dry matter is the density or starch content of the potatoes. High dry matter varieties are better for chips, frying, or baking because they absorb less water allowing them to maintain their shape and texture. An example is the Yukon gold potatoes that are common in grocery stores. Low dry matter potatoes are better suited to boiling or soups. The HO2000 variety is lower DM and well suited to boiling.

  • Know your end goal 
Make sure when selecting varieties you know your end goals. Setting realistic expectations is one way to ensure success and that you will grow them again next year. Each vartiety will have a different growing season, storage life, ideal use, and other properties so it is helpful to have an idea what you are looking for before you start. I find it helpful to plant more than one variety as well that way you can try different types and see how you like them.

  • Planting
Choose somewhere with full sun and that you can easily water. You can either grow them in a garden or in a contain/patio bag. If you choose to grow them in a container try to go with a shallower rooted variety where possible. Make sure where every you plant them they have room to grow. They have a tendency to like soils with a slightly lower pH, about 5.5-6.5 is ideal. A pH above 6 can cause scabbing which isn't a huge concern but it is something to be aware of. A variety such as Russet tend to be more scab resistant which is a good option in high pH soils. Try to avoid soils that are high in clay as it is hard for the plants to grow and can often cause misshapen tubers. As long as a piece of potato has an eye, it will grow. It is best to buy certified seed potatoes to help avoid seedling diseases. Plant your tubers once they start to sprout and when you are sure they will not freeze (generally not before may long). 

  • Tending the plants
Once the plants are up they are pretty low maintenance. It is important to even just glace at them to avoid issues with insects or disease but for the most part they do not require to much special care. When the plants are starting to establish it is a good practice to water them. Once established you do not need to water regularly until closer to flowering. Once the plants are quiet large, around the budding stage it is a good practice to water them again, this helps with tuber development. If you are like me and struggle to remember to water your potatoes then I generally just avoid it unless there are potted. If you there to much dry to wet, dry to wet cycles in the growing season it can cause hollow heart in the tubers, Just prior to flower (budding) you can hill the potatoes, essentially mounding dirt around the base so that the tubers don't get sunburn. If tubers are exposed to the sun they can turn green. If they turn green from high levels of chlorphyll and can accumulate solanine which tastes peppery and can be toxic, so it is better to just avoid it. 

  • Harvest
Harvest can be done once the plants are in flower (for immediate use) and once seed balls start to form (for longer storage). If there is a killing frost in the forecast it's probably best to get them out of the ground regardless. When harvesting it is best to avoid throwing the potatoes as they can bruise quiet easily. When prepping them for storage simply wipe of as much dirt as you can, they store better if they are not washed. Washing them can cause them to rot in storage. If you have an excess at harvest keep your local food bank in mind for donations!

  • Storing
The length of time you can store potatoes depends on the variety and the maturity at harvest. Store in a dark cool place.

Reliable Resources are often tricky to come by. Here are some great resources out there for selecting the right variety and growing information. Some I find particularly useful and interesting are the Edmonton Potato Growers Ltd website, Potato Growers of Alberta website, and if anyone gets the chance the University of Saskatchewan class Plant Science 201 is probably one of the best classes I was able to take. There is also information on the CFIA and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada.

"Every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort." - Dolly Parton

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