Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pondering the Potato

An unsung hero of the vegetable world is the potato. Often berated as a carb carrying fiend, the potato is really a source of great culinary delights and nutrition. Not to mention, it's got a fascinating history. Project Grow (PG) interviewed Royer Held (RH) about his passion for the potato, and his upcoming class on growing potatoes in the garden. Read this first part of the interview where we talk about the potatoes he grows and the spark that got him to grow his first tuber.

PG: I was aware of your interest in heirloom tomatoes and peppers, but not potatoes and sweet potatoes. What sparked your interest in this group?

RH: I first started growing my own potatoes about twenty years ago. I was eager to try some of the varieties offered by a mail order business that had close to 100 different kinds. I ended up growing a number of fingerlings and some other varieties that sounded interesting.

I grew them off and on, but my interest took off twelve years ago when my daughter went to Bolivia as an exchange student. She came back talking about all the different kinds of potatoes that were available in Bolivia. She said some tasted like bananas, and some were orange. I started looking for a way that I could try some.

About eight years ago I found that the USDA Seed Bank had hundreds of Bolivian potato varieties in their collection. I submitted an application and received ten different varieties that I've been growing ever since.

PG: What appeals to you about potatoes and sweet potatoes? Do you like both crops for the same or for different reasons?

RH: Both potatoes and sweet potatoes are highly nutritious and easily grown in your garden. If you grow them yourself, you have access to hundreds if not thousands of varieties you can't get in the grocery store. Potatoes are easier to grow and better suited to Michigan's cooler summers.

Ever since I received the Bolivian potato seed I have been growing Bolivian potatoes in my garden. I would have to say that I have a fondness for them that is somewhat irrational. Since each potato you grow from seed is unique, each time you raise a potato from seed (as opposed to from a tuber or seed potato) you get a new variety. I have been growing potatoes from seed ever since I got the first batch of seed from the USDA. At this point, I don't know how many different varieties I currently have. Each year I collect seed from plants that produce fruit, so theoretically I could produce 1,000's of new potato varieties if I had enough space to grow them.

I got inspired to try sweet potatoes reading about them in the Sandhill Preservation Catalogproduced by Glen Drowns. Glen grows sweet potatoes in Iowa. I figured if it can be done in Iowa, we should be able to do it here. If you choose early season sweet potatoes you can get a decent crop. It's fun to try an assortment because they have different flavors and textures, just like potatoes.

PG: What's special about heirloom potatoes?

RH: Variety is the spice of life. Commercial growers are not growing heirloom potato varieties in large quantities. Since potato varieties must be grown from tubers each year this makes it hard to keep them going. Will Bonsal who is the curator of the potato collection maintained by Seed Savers Exchange is having a tough time keeping all of the potatoes in his collection from going extinct. Home gardeners should step up and take on this responsibility because they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the preservation of these varieties.

Hungry for more information? Check back for the next installment where we talk with Royer about the varieties he grows, and some specifics about growing potatoes and sweet potatoes. Better yet, register for his class, and take the Project Grow Potato Pledge and get yourself growing!

Potato Seeds, Seed Potatoes, and Sweet Potato Slips
Saturday, April 10th
10am - 11:30am
Leslie Science and Nature Center
1831 Traver Road
Ann Arbor, MI

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