What I often consider a homely vegetable actually has its roots in South America. The potato was discovered at the same time the Spanish Conquistadors discovered gold. It later built a nation and then caused a tremendous disruption to that same country with the arrival of a single fungus disease. The result of its dramatic loss had an enormous impact on global migration and, ultimately, crop protection advances.
It is true that what we call an Irish potato is originally from the highlands of Bolivia and Peru in South America. So far as historians can determine, Incans grew potatoes as far back as 8,000 B.C. Spaniards brought it back to the European continent in the 1500’s where it soon spread across Europe. The French went so far as to call them “Apples of the Earth”. But no country adapted and benefited from growing potatoes as much as Ireland. Their cool moist, highland climates closely mimicked their origins in South America.
Ireland was heavily producing potatoes in the 1700’s. They provided vastly more nutrition per acre than the grains they had been growing. In just 60 years, from 1780 to 1840, the Irish population doubled, reaching 8 million people due in large part to this wonderfully, nutritious crop.
But in 1845 a fungal disease affecting potatoes, devastated the crop resulting in what we know call the Irish famine. Just three years later, over 1 million were dead from famine and over 1.5 million left the country, mostly immigrating into Canada and the United States.
If you want to grow this wonderful crop, here are some growing tips. Plant them in a garden in a location that has not had tomatoes, peppers or eggplant for a couple of years. Those vegetables mentioned are all in the same family and share pest problems.
Be sure to provide 8 hours of direct sunlight for maximum production in loose, well drained, slightly acidic soil. Work beds 12 inches high and 36 inches apart. Good, high beds will be critical to growth and harvest.
Purchase quality seed potatoes from our local garden centers and feed stores. With the seed potatoes, cut them into pieces weighing about 1.2 to 2 oz. or about the size of a good hen egg, making sure that each seed piece you use has at least one good eye.
Give these pieces 5-6 days for the cut seed potatoes to “cure” or dry over so that they will not rot in the soil. In your prepared row, plant seed pieces about 1 foot apart and 3 inches deep.
When plants are 4 inches tall, add a cup of complete fertilizer for a 30 ft. row and maintain adequate soil moisture so that moisture stress issues (from too wet or too dry conditions) do not occur.
In the ground, your crop of potatoes will grow above the seed piece. Knowing this, gardeners will need to hoe or otherwise bring the soil up to the stem to provide more room for tuber growth. Many gardeners use a heavy mulch for same purpose. Do not allow sunlight to reach your potato tubers as those areas will turn green.
Larger potatoes are ready to harvest about 3 but no later than 4 months when the tops begin to die back, and the skin becomes firm. You can harvest smaller “new” potatoes during the growing season digging back carefully with your fingers and harvesting them.
Several varieties grow well in Texas. While there are thousands of potato varieties found in South America, the following list would serve you well in our part of the world: Red flesh (Dark Red Norland, Norland, Red La Soda, and Viking), White flesh (Atlantic, Gemchip, Kennebec, and Superior), Yellowflesh (Yukon Gold) and Russet types (Century Russet, Norgold M, and Russet Norkatah).
Don’t be surprised if your potato flowers or even bears fruit. Though not very common, remember that we are just after the wonderful tubers, which provide a nearly nutritiously complete meal all by themselves.
Most folks around here swear that you must plant potatoes on Feb 14. So, you have about a couple weeks to prepare.