For years, I've planted potatoes from seed tubers, which are now getting shockingly expensive. But I paid the money because of the disease-free certification. I did save my own seed tubers a few times and felt that this was merely an opportunity to pass on disease from one season to the next. Why subject myself to the hangover?
Stupidly, I never once questioned why I wasn't growing potatoes from seed until I learned about True Potato Seed (TPS) from The Complete Book of Potatoes last week.
Commenter Laine helpfully mentioned New World Seeds and Tubers as a place that sells such seed. New World Seeds is a business co-founded by breeder Tom Wagner, who is probably most famous for his 'Green Zebra' tomato, but has also done decades of work on potatoes. I called him up to ask him about the 20 or so varieties of seed he is offering–heritage varieties as well as his own–and learned quite a lot.
Q: How did you get started as a breeder?
A: This is my 59th year of doing this. I've been producing potato seed all my life and sharing it with people. There are very few people breeding potatoes. But poor people have poor ways, I guess, so I've always thought, why buy seed potatoes? I grew up on a farm in Kansas, where there was extended family, people who'd lived through the Great Depression and World War II and got used to producing as much of their food as possible. Today, we live in uncertain times as well, and TPS is the ultimate in food security.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Right now, with our commercial varieties, which are propagated by tissue culture in laboratories, we are at a bottleneck of genetic susceptibility. If you save true potato seed, on the other hand, you are preserving the ancient diversity of the potato.
Eighty-three percent of modern potato varieties have a sterility problem. Most of them are not self-fertile like tomatoes. Many of them don't produce much in the way of flowers or fruit. After years of breeding for good flower production, I've gotten more free-blooming varieties. I've had 353 berries on a single plant. You could plant five acres of potatoes out of that single plant! If you save potato seed, you are prepaying for the future. You can put the seed away, and it will keep for 20 years.
Q: What else are you breeding for?
A: I still have potatoes in the ground now that are covered in 12 inches of snow. I'm breeding potatoes that can stand wet soil.
I've been doing pretty good also, finding strains that are late blight resistant. And I've been breeding new colors. We rely too much on white potatoes, when colored potatoes have more nutrients. My 'Skagit Valley Gold' is a yellow potato like 'Yukon Gold,' but it has 16 times the carotenoids.
Q: Seed tubers are clones, right, but there is less uniformity within seed mixtures. Your website mentions that some of the mixes are very variable and some are not, depending on whether the plant is self-fertile or not.
A: We try to maintain the old lines and look for new diversity coming out of it. With the more variable mixes, I want to encourage people to find potato clones that are adapted to their climate, varieties that have even better flavor.
Q: I learned that domestication of the potato has been about breeding down the levels of toxic glycoalkaloids. Since there is genetic variation in the potatoes you are offering, couldn't some of them have high levels?
A: Potatoes probably produce those glycoalkaloids to protect both the tubers and the foliage from insects. As a breeder trying to prevent the use of chemicals, you want some of the alkaloids in the foliage. However, we're not breeding for them in the tuber. Fortunately, they are easy to detect–they make the potato bitter. I'll taste a bit, and if I detect bitterness, the plant goes in the trash bin.
Q: You mention on the website that some of your varieties mature late. We have long days in summer in the North. Do the varieties you're going back to, from the birthplace of the potato in Peru, have different day-length requirements?
A: Yes. The parents of 'Fripapa' for example, were bred in Peru, where the day is about 12 hours long year round. In the North, it won't tuberize until the days shorten in fall, when the weather may be too cold. We're working on that disparity by crossing potatoes with day-length sensitivity to those that are day-length insensitive.
In addition, I'm trying to create indeterminant potato plants that will grow and grow and keep on setting tubers throughout the season. These plants would have root systems that could reach nutrient deposits deep in the soil and require less fertilizer.
Q: What varieties of your seed would you suggest that I order, as a home gardener?
A: 'Negate' is one of my own, a black-blue potato. 'Fiesta Gold' has good flavor and stores well. 'Juanita,' which came out of Mexico, has good blight resistance.
If you'd like to learn a little more about Tom, here is a news story from the Seattle Times.