CORVALLIS, Ore. – In the old days, folks primarily grew one of three types of potatoes in their home gardens – bakers, boilers or reds. Today, many more new and heirloom varieties are available through catalogs and specialty producers.
With all the new choices, how do you decide which ones to grow?
Oregon State University vegetable breeder Jim Myers recommends several from variety trials at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm. He points out that colored potatoes have phytonutrients, natural compounds in fruits and vegetables that promote good health. The yellow color is produced by carotenoids (pro vitamin A) and the red and purple potatoes produce anthocyanins, sometimes only in the skin, sometimes in both skin and flesh.
"Yellow-fleshed potatoes not only have a rich, buttery color, they are flavorful, creamy and moist without having to add butter or sauces," Myers said. He recommends Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, Bintje, Carola, Desiree and Red Gold (yellow flesh).
Fingerling potatoes, small in size but big in flavor, are popular in other countries and gaining favor here. Most are smooth textured, moist and tasty. A favored variety is French Fingerling. Spuds with purple flesh also are appearing in garden catalogs and garden stores and on restaurant plates. OSU recommends All Blue as performing well in Oregon.
OSU-recommended red potatoes include Red Pontiac, Norland and Red La Soda, Cranberry Red and Red Gold; recommended white potatoes are Russet Burbank, Superior, Gold Rush, Butte and Kennebec.
"Home gardeners should plant potatoes after the last frost date in your area," Myers said. "To avoid diseases like verticillium wilt, plant seed potatoes in a bed where potatoes, tomatoes or other members of the potato family have not been grown for a few years. In the major potato growing regions, a four-year rotation is used."
Potatoes do best in well-prepared, deep, sandy or sandy loam soils, or soils amended with organic material. Cut tubers into "seed pieces," with at least an eye or two, or plant seed potatoes grown especially for planting. Either should be planted four to six inches deep, about 12 inches apart, in rows about three feet apart. Fifty to 100 feet of row should feed a family of four with some for winter storage.
While not yet common, some seed companies have begun offering "true seed" potatoes, Myers said. "All potato varieties flower, and some produce small green berries with seeds just like a tomato plant produces. These can be planted instead of planting a tuber “seed” piece as is traditionally done with potatoes."
"If you want to grow true seed potatoes, treat them like tomato or eggplant and start transplants indoors about six weeks before transplanting outdoors,” Myers said. “Protect the plants from early-season frosts and use the same cultural practices you normally would for potatoes."
Potatoes should be watered regularly through the summer, from one to three inches of water per week, as needed. When plants are about eight inches tall, mound loose soil around the base of the potato plants to form a ridge about six to eight inches high and a foot or so wide along each row.
This hilling protects the tubers from sunlight and greening of the skin. The greening is chlorophyll, which is not harmful in itself but may be accompanied by a high concentration of a toxic compound called solanine. Mounding soil around growing potato vines also makes harvest easier and may prevent water loss.
Check plants periodically for tuber development. Young or new potatoes can be hand harvested as soon as they develop.