Learn all there is to know about planting seed potatoes, warding off potato pests, gently harvesting your spuds and storing these rare heirloom potato varieties.
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom potato varieties was taken from chapter 29, “Potatoes.”
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To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom potato varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Potato Varieties
Above: Several varieties of heirloom potatoes. On the left, Conestoga. The three large rose-colored potatoes: Bliss’ Triumph. The pale pink potatoes: Garnet Chile. The long, narrow potatoes are Austrian Kipfelkrumpl. The greenish example in the center is intended to show a potato exposed to sunlight; such potatoes are poisonous and should never be eaten.
Growing heirloom potatoes presents special problems for the gardener because the old varieties are not as resistant to disease as modern ones. Furthermore, potato varieties predating the advent of the blight in the 1840s are to be found only in gene banks or in special botanical collections. Nineteenth-century varieties developed in the 1850s and 1860s from Mexican or South American stock represent the oldest sorts presently available to heirloom gardeners. The best known of these is Garnet Chile, which produced many of the leading American potato varieties of the period.
Prior to the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s, some of the most popular potatoes in my region of the country were Mercer and Foxite. New Englanders preferred Winnebagoes and Blue Jackets. In the Carolines, it was Pink-Eye and an old variety called Brimstone (also the name of a sweet potato), the latter dating from the early eighteenth century. Each region had its favorites due to soil and climate, and this regionalization is still critical when planning an heirloom potato garden.
When potatoes are propagated through cuttings, each succeeding generation is a genetic clone of its parents, carrying down with it all of the inherited strengths and weaknesses of the variety. Diseases are also passed down, and over the years some heirloom varieties have accumulated so many viruses and other maladies that they are almost impossible to grow successfully without resorting to massive doses of sprays and fungicides. Recently, a new and highly expensive technology called tissue culture has been developed to “debug” old, ailing heirlooms in the laboratory, reducing the potatoes to marble-sized tubers. When planted, these tiny potatoes produce vines that yield potatoes of proper size and true to variety. At present, this treatment is only feasible for seed banks and similar institutional collections. However, perhaps within the next twenty years, it will allow gardeners to grow some of the pre-1850 varieties that once enjoyed great popularity.
Foremost among these would be the Mercer potato, which was sorely missed by farmers in the Middle States well into the 1860s and 1870s. This was a flat, kidney-shaped potato with a slight pinkish cast to the tapered end. It bore early and stored well. Its original name was the Neshannock, often mistakenly called the Chenango. As Charles Hovey’s Magazine of Horticulture (1844, 310) pointed out, this variety emerged about 1809 from a seed ball in a garden on Neshannock Creek in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Neshannock Creek is a branch of the Chenango River, and all of these geographical names have gotten muddled together in the history of this potato. The Pennsylvania German agricultural monthly Ceres (1839, 55) elaborated on the background of the potato’s originator, one John Gilky, an immigrant from Ireland. In fact, Gilky created several subvarieties, including the Red Mercer (also known as Donaneil’s Beauty, Mormon, and Olympia) and the Black Mercer, a smooth purple-skinned spring potato with white flesh. This triumvirate of Mercers was profoundly important to the development of later nineteenth-century varieties because the Mercers were viewed as models by which other varieties should be judged. Potato breeders never recreated a blight-proof Mercer, but they did manage to develop a number of varieties that effectively replaced it.
German botanist Edward Pöppig (1798–1868) traveled to Chile and Peru in 1827 in search of the “original” wild potato, which indeed he discovered. His Reise in Chile, Peru und auf dem Amazon, published in 1835 and 1836, not only is engaging to read even today, with its minute descriptions of the various potato preparations made by Peruvians (giving the Indian names as well), but historically Pöppig sparked a scholarly interest in native potato varieties from Mexico and South America. Garnet Chile owed its creation in part to his recognition that there was a practical side to experimenting with potatoes from their genetic homeland.
The massive failure of the potato crops in Europe and their historical repercussions of famine and human displacement are well known. The reasons for this disaster are also well understood and provide one of the strongest possible arguments for preserving genetic diversity in all living things, unheeded as this call may be. The potatoes grown in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries all descended from a small handful of introductions that were closely related. Through constant inbreeding, new varieties were created, yet genetically they were all nearly identical. When the blight struck, none of these old types were resistant to it, so the disease spread quickly and lethally.
The genetic aspects as we now understand them were not fully appreciated in the nineteenth century, but horticulturists did realize that the plants were inbred and therefore unable to resist disease. As the Florist and Horticultural Journal (1854, 163–66) editorialized on the degeneracy of the potato and the “disease of 1846,” raising potatoes from tubers was unnatural because it bypassed the seed stage, thus perpetuating weaknesses and rendering them more “fixed and unchangeable.” This realization brought about the Great Revival, as it was called, when old, deteriorating potato varieties were crossed with hardier wild varieties from Mexico and South America. This experimentation in the 1850s and 1860s resulted in many of the most popular heirloom potatoes of the nineteenth century. Early Rose stands out as one of the most famous and commercially important. It is still a good potato by any culinary standard, and every time I plant it, I think about its fascinating history. The other potatoes in this section were also chosen on historical merits. But the final test was in the garden. There is absolutely nothing more simple yet pleasantly satisfying than a freshly dug potato cooked to perfection. Potatoes brought out of storage cannot compare.
How to Prepare Seed Potatoes
Potatoes are generally divided into early, midseason, and late varieties. Historically, many households planted one of each in order to keep potatoes in crop over a long period. I raise sixteen varieties of heirloom potatoes and mostly ignore their seasonality because I have more than enough potatoes for my own needs all the time. Other gardeners may create their own criteria. Much depends on questions of storage, for without proper storage it is pointless to consider raising potatoes on a regular basis.
Regardless of the variety, all potatoes are planted essentially the same way. Seed potatoes kept back from the previous year’s harvest are cut into pieces, each with an “eye” as shown in the old woodcut. These eyes produce shoots that develop into plants. There is no real advantage to planting a whole potato instead of an eye. The only exception is in ground with very poor soil. In moderately rich ground, potatoes should be cut in half or quartered, otherwise cut them into eyes. I tried planting whole potatoes one year just to get rid of an overabundance of seed potatoes. With some varieties, the resulting crop produced fewer potatoes than those planted from eyes. Since seed potatoes are edible (unless they are green), find a use for the extra ones in the kitchen.
Planting Seed Potatoes
I dig deep trenches, perhaps 14 inches deep, in rows 32 inches apart. The cuttings are planted about 13 inches apart, even for small varieties. If the variety produces many tubers, then space the cuttings 16 inches apart. Crowding only reduces harvest yields. Early varieties are planted in March in my part of the country. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, Saint Margaret’s Day (March 17) was always considered the “official” day to begin planting potatoes, although of late, strange weather has often upset this schedule. In any case, I am usually ahead of the farmers because I plant in raised beds, which thaw and dry out sooner than open fields. The remaining varieties that I grow are normally planted by mid-April regardless of whether they are mid-or late-season varieties. They bloom at different times and crop at different times anyway.
Once the plants break surface and reach a height of about one foot, I bring in a truckload of mushroom soil (rotted horse manure in which mushrooms have been grown) and mound it at least two-thirds of the way up the stems. I usually do this twice during the growing season to ensure that the tubers are well buried. The mushroom soil creates a loose growing medium around the base of the plants that pays for itself in several ways. Potatoes form perfectly shaped tubers in it, they are not difficult to dig, and the mushroom soil helps renew the ground with humus once the potatoes are finished. I rotate regularly, as all gardeners should, because potatoes leave problems behind.
Common Potato Diseases
The most universal problem is scab. Scab is a barklike growth on the skin of potatoes caused by fungus. It does not poison the potatoes and can be removed from eating potatoes simply by paring it away with the skin. But it remains in the ground at least three years and will infect other root vegetables such as carrots and beets. The best method for killing it is by exposing seed potatoes to sunlight. The Pennsylvania Dutch used to spread all the seed potatoes on the floor of their barns for a few weeks so that the sunlight would turn them green. Planting later in the season also helps control scab. I eliminate any seed potatoes that show signs of scab, taking great care not to handle healthy potatoes until I have washed my hands with alcohol. Human hands will spread scab from one potato to the next.
Harvesting potatoes is backbreaking work. I know of one seed saver who digs several tons of heirloom potatoes with her bare hands so that the potatoes will not be damaged. She receives top-of-the-line prices for her picture-perfect tubers, but her hands look like driftwood. I use a pitchfork, wear gloves, and dig gently. Certain potato lovers usually show up to hover on the sidelines with words of encouragement and the keen expectation that I will accidentally impale a few treasured…