Friday, April 9, 2010

Royer Held on saving potato seeds and seed potatoes

Seeds are a gardeners pleasure, and saving seeds from year to year an invaluable skill. Here in the third part of our discussion with Royer Held we talk about saving potato seeds as well as some of his recommended reading about potatoes. Read about how he got started growing his own and a few tricks of the trade in preparation for his class - Potato Seeds, Seed Potatoes, and Sweet Potato Slips - this Saturday, April 10th. And then take the Project Grow Potato Pledge!

PG: Do you save your own potato seed or seed potatoes or slips? How do you do that?

RH: Potatoes produce fruit that looks like small green tomatoes. Most people don't realize that this happens because the fruit is well hidden on the plants. If you know to look for it, you will find it. I pick the fruit when it is ripe and extract the seed. The seed is about the size of a pin head and it is in a slimy gel. I spread it on paper to dry and package it up like tomato seed for storage.

I have always ordered sweet potato slips and have never bothered to try to produce my own for planting out. I have had sweet potatoes produce slips, but they have done that in the dead of winter when I can't make use of them. I have not tried all of the sweet potato varieties that will grow in Michigan, so I'm still looking over the catalogs for new ones to try.

PG: What's the most important thing to remember when saving seed potatoes?

RH: Keep an eye on them. Don't let them dry out and don't let them rot. Also, don't allow them to freeze. My solution has been to keep them in my fireplace. The fireplace damper lets in just enough cool air to keep temperatures low but above freezing. This isn't ideal, but it works for me.

PG: How long do seed potatoes keep?

RH: Seed potatoes are only good for the following season unless you do tissue culture, which is something growers are doing but is not something a home grower would typically try.

PG: Are there some varieties that are better for saving than others? Some varieties that are more difficult but worth the effort?

RH: I haven't noticed any difference in shelf life for different potato varieties.

PG: What's different about saving seed potatoes than other kinds of seeds?

RH: When you save seeds the seed will remain viable for many years if it is properly processed and stored. Seed potatoes will only make it to the next planting season. They are perishable.

PG: Any recommended reading or a favorite reference?

RH: Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire goes into great detail about the potato and how it is grown in the US. The book is alot of fun in general. It inspired me to contact the USDA regarding Bolivian potato seed.

There is a wealth of information on the internet. My favorite website is that of PROINPA, an organization located in Cochabamba, Bolivia dedicated to the promotion of Andean crop varieties. The website is in Spanish, but that just makes it more exotic. Their pdf featuring photographs of 100 potato varieties indigenous to Bolivia is a gem.

Irish Eyes is a great website for potatoes, and Sandhill Preservation website can't be beat for sweet potatoes.

PG: Does the class talk mainly about heirloom varieties of potatoes and sweet potatoes or all varieties?

RH: The class deals with growing potatoes and sweet potatoes in general, but I do make the point that there are a considerable range of varieties that can be grown and illustrate the point with photos. I also talk about my experience with Bolivian potatoes, which are perhaps the most venerable of the heirlooms.

PG: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you want to be sure to mention?

RH: Bolivian potatoes have been selected to cook quickly, because they are grown at a high elevation where water boils at a lower temperature. They only need to boil for five minutes at our lower elevation. Whoever would have thought there would be Energy Star potatoes?

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

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