Fun for Potato Obsessives


UntitledThat would be me!  Potatoes are just about my favorite crop.  They are famous for yielding the most food in the smallest possible space, why is one explanation for why the land-poor 19th century Irish became so dependent on them. They are very forgiving, producing early, late, everywhere in between.   And homegrown potatoes are creamy and delicious.

So, it was with pleasure that I flipped through The Complete Book of Potatoes: What Every Grower and Gardener Needs to Know by Hielke De Jong, a retired potato breeder from the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Potato Research Center; Joseph B. Sieczka, Cornell hort professor emeritus; and Walter De Jong, of the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell.

Publisher Timber Press outdid itself here.  This is a beautiful book with lots of useful photographs, including those of various potato diseases, which will occasionally trouble even the most easy-going home grower in a wet year. There are photographs of different varieties–to be expected–but there are also photographs of the potato in art and of outrageously colorful and wildly shaped cultivated potatoes from the potato's birthplace in the Andes.  Let's get some of THOSE varieties over here.

And while the growing instructions seem a little constipated in way that suggests a greater familiarity with the needs of commercial growers than happy seat-of-the-pants gardeners like me–i.e, worry about pH even though potatoes will grow in a wide range of soil types–the real delights of this book are in its panoramic consideration of the potato.

I learned all kinds of things I did not previously know, such as…

1.  If you intend to store potatoes, the skin will toughen up if you leave them in the ground for at least two weeks after the vegetation dies.  

2. Half of the world's potato crop winds up in processed foods.

3.  Wild potatoes are full of toxic glycoalkaloids that make them taste bitter.  (The glycoalkaloids have been bred down to acceptable levels in domestic potatoes, but are concentrated in the green tissue of tubers that have been exposed to light.  That's why we hill potatoes–to keep them shrouded.)

4.  In the Andes, where the potato is native, people dealt with the glycoalkaloids by eating a special clay that binds to them, or by leaving potatoes outside in freezing weather and then trampling and washing the glycoalkaloids out of them, creating a freeze-dried product called chuno.

5.  Colored potatoes contain additional nutrients, including antioxidants, so if you can do blue or red, why not?

6.  The authors make growing potatoes from actual seed, called TPS or "true potato seed"–rather than from "seed potatoes"–seem like a reasonable proposition.  Of course, you'll be getting the product of sexual reproduction in that case, so you'll have to do without the genetic uniformity of tubers.  But seed tubers are expensive!  I'd rather not spend the $30 or $40 I spend on them every year.  The only source I could find, however, for TPS is here


  1. Potatoes from seed. Interesting. Very, very interesting. Could be a very cool experiment for the older grades at school. Something to demonstrate genetics & trait inheritance …
    hmmmmm …

  2. I’ve grown potatoes from seed! From my own seed, too: they do produce little tomato-like fruits on occasion, so I found a link somewhere which told me to rot it out (let the fruit soften, put in a jar to mush/mold then hose them off) to harvest the seeds, just like tomatoes, and then grow them, just like tomatoes.

    Of course this happens during the early spring, when I have the absolute worst form of Gardener’s ADD. So I did plant them in seed trays under lights and they did come up…then I ditched them, thinking they were (wait for it) more of my tomatoes!

  3. Mmmm. Homegrown taters are amazingly better than store-bought. As a new gardener years ago, I figured, yeah fresh tomatoes taste better, fresh apples — makes sense. But until I tasted fresh potatoes, I had no idea what I had been missing. Purple, red, yellow, fingerlings –oh yum.

  4. Acceptable levels . . . well . . . not necessarily.

    Glycoalkoloids don’t just make them taste bitter. Glycoalkoloids exert their toxic effects by dissolving cell membranes creating holes in the gut lining. Holes in the gut lining can lead to leaky gut syndrome. If they enter the blood stream in enough amounts they attack the cell membranes of blood cells.

    Saponins, like glycoalkoloids, and lectins (which are also in quantities in potatoes) are implicated in the explosion in autoimmune diseases.

    Using the precautionary principle in gardening keeps out all sorts of poisons and chemicals, sometimes we do it just in case! Why not use the same precautionary principal in our diet?

    There are better tubers than potatoes. Just sayin’.

  5. Curmudgeon Geographer, I said they were toxic, not just bitter. But good thing they are bitter! That’s important information.

    But in plants, it’s a fine line between delicious and toxic, and many of the chemicals that make our food interesting are not great if you get too much of them.

    So I think you gotta pick your poisons. I’d rather take my chances with a huge array of fresh vegetables than eat processed anything.

  6. Well, you said the toxins made them taste bitter. Not so much more than that, the toxins do more than make them taste bitter.

    I’m not taking issue with the array of fresh veggies, nor even avoiding processed everything, just clarifying on the toxicity of potatoes. 😀

  7. I have contemplated annexing more ground primarily for potatoes. It may however require an actual basement or root cellar for storage. So far I just leave them in the ground and dig when wanted. Does this book have anything to say about that storage method?

  8. Last year I grew a bumper crop of excellent ‘taters but evidently I suck at storage – they’ve either rotted or sprouted.

  9. TPS will be available at sometime later this month, probably, pending resolution of health issues. Tom Wagner has an amazing selection.

  10. Re: “rather not spend the $30 or $40 I spend on them every year.” Sheesh. Purchase a few of each variety of potato from a fresh market or organic section of the grocery store, let them sit a few days till the eyes start to sprout a bit. Cut into sections with at least one eye and callous by letting them sit for a day before planting. Buying “seed potatoes” is unnecessary. You can grow about 20# from one potato… Try growing them in raised boxes for easy harvesting and less “wet” issues.

  11. I must be the only person who sucks at growing potatoes.

    Last year was my first year trying to grow them. I decided to put 2 in the ground, 2 in a large nursery pot as a test.

    I literally got 3 potatoes off one of the plants in the ground. Three! And they were tiny. I might have gotten 4 or 5 off the other.

    The plants in the pot fared better. I think I got 10 tubers. Still pathetic.

    I’ll try again next season, but I’m definitely not encouraged.

  12. Potatoes are one of the things I would love to grow but my vegetable garden just doesn’t have the space – all my sunny areas are in the front yard and almost all is devoted to flowers.

  13. I’m not doing blue or red potatoes again because the yield is minimal and the quality is horrible. My red and blues always have extensive worm damage. I throw out more than I get to eat.

  14. So glad to see this. I’m also a potato obsessive — perhaps because I grew up in a suburban town that was once potato farms. I think I’m more inclined to eat them: mashed, boiled, baked, raw, etc. — than to grow them. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Thanks to Garden Rant and the readership here, my website is showing a lot of traffic for potatoes from TPS (True Potato Seed).

    I have a neat listing of TPS there now but will add many more as the season progresses. My experience with potatoes is now in the 59th year of breeding potatoes with the wonderful array of potatoes that I have found or bred to set berries. Thanks to books like Dr. Deppe’s….and others;…everyone can play around with growing potatoes from TPS. Later on I will offer one pound sampler boxes of unique tuber varieties…one per.

    Tom Wagner

  16. I don’t have space to try potatoes. There were about 20 years when I would not eat potatoes in any form. Here’s why.

    One day when I was somewhere around 16, my mother told me to go out and get some potatoes, which were stored in an inoperative refrigerator. At some point, she had used spray pain in the garage, and the stench permeated into the potatoes in the apparently not-well-sealed refrigerator. The potato skins were more green than brown, and there was also the smell of mold.

    I went in and told my mother this, and she told me just to cut off the bad portions. I did what she said, but I didn’t eat them, or any potato product for about 20 years, because I’d gag just thinking about that episode.

    I eat potatoes now, especially since my husband makes better mashed potatoes than my mother ever did (same with gravy), but I don’t eat much in the way of any chips, with potato chips falling dead last. I eat one other potato dish my MiL got from a friend when my husband was young, and a small spoon of potato salad when she makes it. I’ve never really liked mayo, and non-green salads never appealed to me much. I have yet to see a sweet potato salad–I know, different family–but I’m game for sweet potatoes over white-fleshed ones any day.

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