18 Kids and 42 Kinds of Potatoes – Now That’s an Earth Day Project!


Yukon Gold Potato Grow Over-winter by Traditional MethodsPerhaps you’ve already noticed we can get a little intense here at Dirt to Dinner.  Our Great Potato Grow Out for Spring 2011 is  no exception. What started out as a personal interest in growing a few of the potato varieties Carol Deppe mentions in The Resilient Gardener, has turned into a full blown research project searching for the ultimate urban gardening potato varieties staffed by no less than 18 (and still counting) smart and curious kids. And the project now involves testing at least 42 different potato varieties.

The ‘Yukon Gold’ potato shown on the left is one that was grown by traditional methods (in the ground, hilling, etc.)  except that it was grown over the winter. At harvest in April, it measured roughly 16″ from seed potato to leaf top. Because I tried to grow it through the coldest and darkest time of the year, it made an unimpressive number and weight of potato tubers. This particular plant set stolons, those little ‘umbilical cords’ that potatoes grow on the end of, along the first six inches of stem that grew up from the seed potato. But, identifying a potato variety that produces lots of potatoes vertically on a tall stem could allow thousands of urban gardeners to reduce their environmental footprint and produce more of their own food at home in small spaces.

Low Yield of Yukon Gold potatoesSo, how do you find that potato? It’s gotta taste good. It’s gotta grow well in a variety of conditions. It’s gotta be tall. And it’s gotta set stolons for a lot farther up it’s stem that the six inches that ‘Yukon Gold’ used.

That’s where Tom Wagner and New World Seeds and Tubers come in. Tom is the go-to guy if you want to try your hand at the potato varieties Carol Deppe mentions in her fascinating book. If you’re feeling adventurous, Tom will even send you an 8-pound sampler box, with anywhere from 5 to 20 different varieties of potatoes represented in those 8 pounds. That’s plenty to start your search. We even asked him to start us out with some of his tall-vined favorites.

But, if it’s really your lucky day, the generous folks at New World Seeds and Tubers will accidentally fill your order twice and then tell you to go ahead and keep the extra package! That kind of bounty begs to be shared, so I took the search to the Dirt to Dinner kids. So far 18 students have volunteered for the research project to grow out Tom’s rare and experimental potato varieties searching for the best potential vertical growers.

There’s now even a site on WePay where you can support the kids research in the next stage of the project to propagate and share with urban gardeners around the world. The Great Potato Grow Out team will be recording potato growth rates, height of stolon set, amount of potatoes produced, weight of potatoes produced and, of course, how their potatoes taste.

Got a favorite potato recipe? I’ll be collecting them to try during our Taste Test in 100 days or so!

4/23 Update –

Our WePay Earth Day project “Potatoes Grow Up” was the winner of the Earth Day donation. Thanks for your support and generosity!

Growing A New World Potato Sampler


Toro Dude Potato for SeedIt takes a special sort of person to see the beauty in a Potato Sampler box from New World Seeds and Tubers. My husband, for one, just didn’t get it. If he’s gonna look at a potato he wants to see it buttered and already on his plate. But I know beautiful when I see it and, to me, these guys all look gorgeous.

I chose the 8 pound sampler which promised 5 to 20 different varieties “from around the world, special breeding lines that are available only from us and a few classic varieties” of potatoes to try. I specifically asked for any they thought would do well growing vertically, since I wanted them for the 99 Pound Potato Challenge. I was also interested in trying some of the types Carol Deppe mentioned in her book, The Resilient Gardener.

Seed Potato SamplesWhat arrived was a broad sampling of the possibilities of potatoes, twenty-one different clones and nearly forty individual potatoes, many I had never heard of before. In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, William Woys Weaver says, “Growing heirloom potatoes presents special problems for the gardener because old varieties are not as resistant to disease as modern ones. Futhermore, potato varieties predating the advent of the blight in the 1840’s are to be found only in gene banks or in special botanical collections.”

I honestly don’t know where Tom Wagner finds all of his potatoes, but I am certainly glad that I found him. And I couldn’t wait to start getting these potatoes planted. One of the varieties specifically marked for the vertical growing project was Guisi, a potato I think is named for a Peruvian potato researcher killed tragically near one of his experimental fields.

Fripapa and H98-316 Seed potatoesI got blues, reds and golds. I got fingerlings and smooth rounds, big bulbous blobs and delicate tiny tubers. But some of them don’t even have names! This hefty spud arrived with a number hand-written on its side. A quick Google search turned up an entry from the United States Potato Genebank that looks like H96.316 is an improved variety from the International Potato Center in Peru. Who knew there even was a United States Potato Genebank?

The Fripapa shown here had a hollow center, so I set it aside to research whether or not I should plant it. A potato with a hole in its heart would never pass the Carol Deppe rogue test. She cautions readers to eliminate peculiarities as something that might indicate a disease or a growing problem. Though none of the other potatoes I have cut for planting looked unusual.

Planting potatoes in raised bedI set the potatoes 15″ apart, which gave me room to plant 16 potatoes in a 5’x5′ bed. This bed started out as a compost pile last year and grew favas through the winter. I amended it with my favorites from Happy Frog to deepen the soil level as much as anything else, since I anticipate soil fertility to be pretty good. Then I covered the seed potatoes with several inches of planting mix and watered the whole thing in. Depending on the weather, I hope to see at least some of the potatoes sprouting in the next week or two, though I understand it could take some of the varieties longer than that.

Map of Potato Varieties PlantedThe trick is, how do you keep track of which potatoes are which varieties when you are growing 16 plants of nine different varieties in one raised bed? To start with I got a stack of the really big plant markers from Common Ground so I can actually find them when I want to know who is who. I noted on the row marker how many plants of that variety are in the bed. For example, the ‘Guisi’ marker says (4) because the four plants closest to the marker should all be ‘Guisi’s’. I also drew myself a quick map, just in case something happens to the giant plant markers. Now I can refer back to this when the plants come up and remind myself that there should be two ‘Satinas’ and four ‘Guisi’s’ but only one of the ‘Skagit Lock’ and ‘Red Thumb’ plants.

Now, if I could grow a sour cream plant, I’d be all set!

Winter Potatoes

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Potatoes in Grow Bag

Tail End of Potato Season

I’m growing potatoes through the winter as an experiment. They don’t look too bad in the bags in the back garden. Though the planting in the front garden got hit by a little frost and was looking pretty ragged before it hit me that I should just hill them deeper and protect them with soil until it warms a bit.

I think if I timed it right, I could have potatoes growing year round. It’s only December and January that are tricky. If I had them ready for the plants to start dying back by December anyway, the potatoes in the ground would be safe here. The ground doesn’t freeze even if we do get a little frost. Then I could get new seed potatoes in the ground in January and could easily cover the sprouts for a few weeks after they were up to keep the frost off, letting them grow up after Valentine’s Day or so.

If each planting took ~100 days between seed potatoes and potato salad, I could plant January through September. Of course, it’s tough to get seed after March or so. I would need to store the seed or save my own for the April through September plantings. And some seed potatoes, though I honestly don’t know which varieties, need to rest before they will sprout, so I can’t just immediately reuse the potatoes I’d be harvesting. I’d have to set aside seed staggered three or four months before I wanted to plant it. (I’m gonna need a spreadsheet here in a minute.)

Seed Balls forming on Potato Plants

True Seed for Potatoes

I have some Desiree seed potatoes I bought for the fall planting that I haven’t used yet and they are barely starting to sprout now that it’s January. So, saving through that part of the year clearly could work. And I might try growing some potatoes from actual seed. This plant from the 2010 summer garden bloomed and formed seed balls. I know the seed may not breed true for the variety, but it could give us a variety that we like or maybe even one that would adapt to the conditions here over the years. Several gardening authors have information available on how to do those sorts of experiments. Though I can already tell from the current potatoes growing in the front garden that we’ve got at least one variety out there that has weathered the frost better than the others. Maybe it will make seeds and give us some material to start with that already shows an advantage for my year-round potato planting scheme.

Leeks, Sweet Potatoes and When is Spring?

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I started some sweet potatoes in Ball jars on the window sill to grow slips for planting later this spring. I used three sweet potatoes from the cupboard but I can’t tell you which varieties they are yet. I don’t imagine there are very many varieties in local commercial production so it should be easy to narrow down. I’ll ask around and see what I can figure out.

I also quickly started some leek seeds for the Dirt to Dinner kids to plant now that I have finally grasped the difference between summer leeks and winter leeks. I am using Sherwood Leeks from last year’s Seeds of Change seed donation for the summer planting. I hope they sprout. They were packed for 2007 so I planted about a third more seed than I actually wanted in case germination is spotty. I’ve read that onion seeds don’t keep well and these have been through less than ideal storage conditions since they arrived.

The big news here is that the Principe Borghese tomato seeds I planted on Christmas are sprouting! When I saw the first sprout I popped one of the few remaining dried tomatoes from last year’s crop into my mouth just so I could taste them again. I can already hear the dehydrator whirring. ;-)

The Cincinnati Market radishes are also sprouting nicely in a sheltered bed in the garden. I grew up in Cincinnati, so as soon as I saw them in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog I knew I had to grow them. I hope they taste good. I guess I can always pickle them if we don’t like them raw in salads. I would probably devour small disks of cardboard if they were pickled well.

Today was also the day for the first of the All Red and Red Gold potatoes to start heading into the soil. I think the problem with last year’s All Blue crop was that the plants didn’t have enough room. We only gave them roughly a square foot each because we were using a deep bed for planting. But this spacing produced lots of very small blue potatoes, which tells me the plants were too crowded horizontally in spite of the extra space we gave them along the vertical.

The reds are getting three square feet a piece–eventually. Right now there are Sugar Daddy snap peas planted in between the potato rows. Hopefully this won’t crowd them. The peas should be grown and out of the way by the time the potato plants need the space and the soil hilling gets deeper. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

The Thankful Garden

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I’m amazed at all the things still going strong in the Dirt to Dinner garden at this time of year. In the Midwest, where I grew up, all I had in my garden in late November was frost.

If you’d like to see all the ingredients we have available this year for a Thanksgiving feast, I made a VoiceThread to share them with you.

If you just want the short-list of what is growing, it goes something like this: Ancho peppers, artichokes, arugula, asparagus, basil, beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, chives, chicory, collards, ginger, gourds, Hungarian peppers, kale, Komatsu, luffa, mustard, onions, parsley, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, tomatoes, turnips, sage, shelling peas, snap peas, snow peas, spinach, strawberries and a lone watermelon.