A highlight of my gardening year includes growing heritage potatoes from seed, something I have never tried before. At Nanaimo’s Seedy Sunday show, my farming and ethnobotanist friend Fiona, from Metchosin Farm (www.metchosinfarm.ca), showed me photos of her potato crop last summer, and I was immediately hooked. There is so much diversity between the 5,000 varieties of potatoes that are grown worldwide, but we only get to see a standard six in our supermarkets, so it was easy to imagine that growing uniquely flavoured, textured and coloured potatoes from seed would be a thrilling prospect. So I snapped up a packet of seeds.
This fall, Fiona will be adding a potato section to her website, so folks can purchase tubers of the varieties that she is releasing, as well as tiny seeds. This is a superb opportunity to support plant genetic diversity by reintroducing varieties of potatoes from all over the world to our dinner tables and restaurants. It could be a great project for school classrooms to take on!
Fiona told me that from one seed I can expect to harvest about four pounds of potatoes, which sounds like a great deal from a food security point of view.
Currently I am observing beautiful ornamental potato plants with stunning flowers, so even if you are not interested in their food value, the plants are worth growing for the show they put on.
I seeded one packet of potato seeds in my greenhouse in spring, I planted four blocks of potato plants in May, and I will soon be harvesting many different types of potatoes in all colours, ranging from dark purple and bright yellow to a deep red skin on the outside with differing colours of flesh inside. Far from being a cause for alarm, the unusual colours denote extra nutritional value. The purple skin, the scarlet flesh and the stripes that run through the potatoes are natural pigmentation caused by compounds known as anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants which also have anti-inflammatory and possibly even anti-cancer properties.
The first release from Fiona’s Metchosin Farm’s selection: the “Orozco” potato, proudly named after a dear friend and fellow ethnobotanist, Jessica Orozco, from the Hualapai Tribe in Arizona, who was tragically killed by a random gunshot in 2018. “Oro” is Spanish for gold, and she was indeed a golden woman and a talented ethnobotanist, who was committed to traditional foods revitalization. She leaves behind her adopted son, James, so it is appropriate that the tubers grow as pairs, doubled along the roots. Their uniquely coloured fuschia-purple skin contrasts with their deep banana-yellow flesh. This potato has a rich buttery taste and beautiful smooth texture.
As you can tell, I am quite excited about supporting a potato revival on Vancouver Island, and I can’t wait to see the spectacle of all these colourful tubers when I dig up my heritage potatoes in fall.
Tips for Growing Potatoes:
Do not allow sunlight to fall on the tubers, which develop under the surface of the soil, or they will turn green and produce a chemical called solanine, which gives off a bitter taste and is toxic. Hill up around the plants to keeps the potatoes from getting sunburned, which causes them to turn green.
Maintain even moisture; the plants need one to two inches of water per week.
Dig potatoes on a dry day. Dig up gently, being careful not to puncture the tubers. Avoid cutting or bruising potato skin. For the biggest and best potatoes, harvest only after the plant’s foliage has died back.
Allow freshly dug potatoes to sit in a dry, cool place (7–15 °C) for up to two weeks. This allows their skins to cure, which will help them keep for longer. Never store potatoes in the refrigerator.
Whether you dig your own potatoes or buy them at a store, don’t wash them until right before you use them. Washing potatoes shortens their storage life.
Carolyn Herriot is author of The Zero Mile Diet, A Year Round Guide to Growing Organic Food and The Zero Mile Diet Cookbook, Seasonal Recipes for Delicious Homegrown Food (Harbour Publishing.), available at your local bookstore.