Potato salad tastes better and is more nutritious when you leave the skins on. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: The low-down on growing potatoes

I think potatoes have been given a bum rap.

By Mary Lowther

I think potatoes have been given a bum rap. “Too high in carbs!” authorities tell us, but they’re basing their opinions on outdated studies that did not include the skins. Since half the nutrients and fibre are located in and just under the skin, those of us who are watching our diets can feel exonerated eating well-grown potatoes.

As with everything else, though, the nutrients in potatoes from the grocery section have substantially decreased since pioneer days so if we want to eat the most nutritious potatoes, we should grow them ourselves. The protein content of potatoes grown in fully amended soil can be as much as 11 per cent dry weight, comparable to human breast milk.

Boiling varieties like Yukon Gold or red-skinned potatoes with a waxy structure that are grown in a fertile soil with sufficient minerals, offer the most protein content as long as watering is stopped once the plants stop flowering, indicating that tuber formation has begun. Once the plants dry and brown, the tubers are ready to harvest. Here’s how I grow delicious, nutritious potatoes that, with a bit of cheese and a salad, make a fine meal.

Start off with seed potatoes sold specifically to plant. These potatoes have been grown in soil that has gone through a rigorous cleansing process to rid it of potato diseases, therefore they are more expensive than potatoes we buy in the grocery store. After all the work involved in growing your own potatoes, it would be a real shame not to have a decent crop so it’s worth the price. I have never had scab or other diseases on my potatoes even though the fertilizer I use has lime in it, which, we are told, increases susceptibility to scab. Perhaps it’s because I buy seed potatoes.

Chitting potatoes four to six weeks before planting out produces more potatoes so, if we plant them in mid-May as suggested for this area, we should be chitting them about now. In order to do this, just leave the uncut potatoes, one layer thick, in a bright spot not in the direct sunlight, in a cool room. They’ll start to turn green and send out shoots. Just before planting out, cut the larger chunks so that there are two or more sprouts per piece, and leave the small ones whole.

All my beds are three feet wide, mainly to accommodate the rotation of potatoes throughout the beds. The paths are 18 inches wide so I can walk between the beds comfortably with my “clodhopper feet”, as David calls them. I imagine he could get by with one-foot paths with his little hooves. I don’t know how they can hold him up.

One week before planting, dig up whatever’s growing on the bed, spread one-half inch of compost over it and let the birds have at it to see how many insect eggs they can chow down. After the week is up, sprinkle organic fertilizer at the rate of four to six quarts per hundred square feet and hoe it in with the compost. In my sandy soil I also sprinkle some grated clay over the bed before I hoe. Then hoe out a foot-wide swath along the middle of the bed and leave the soil on both sides of the bed. There’s no need to weed because when you hill up the potatoes, you’ll be killing weeds at the same time.

Gently, without breaking the sprouts, lay each seed potato one foot apart in the row and cover them lightly with some of the soil. As they grow, start pulling the soil lined up beside them over the plants, even covering the leaves a bit, gradually incorporating all of it. What I’ve started doing after this is erecting a frame to hold chicken wire to a height of about two feet so I can toss in fluffed up coir, weeds and/or sawdust which I will compost later. The frame holds the plants up and they grow longer, producing more tubers.

I douse the plants with compost tea every two to three weeks until they stop flowering, then I hold off on watering for at least two weeks before pulling them out. This allows them to develop a thicker skin so they store better and are tastier. Store them in a cool place, only a few layers deep, away from the light and treat them gently so they don’t bruise.

I leave the skins on for all my potato recipes and I think they taste better that way.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.

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