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GARDEN MAIDEN: The scoop on spuds

As I look out to the yet-to-be-white rows of piled straw, I dream of potato pancakes on Christmas morning, mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner and hand-cut fries to go with fish we caught this summer on one of the few days our boys will bless us with their presence for a meal over their holiday break.

Growing potatoes is an ongoing experiment for me and I get especially excited when I can safely leave spuds in the ground until December. How to plant is a spring topic, but as the seed catalogs come in the mailbox, here are some considerations for 2018 garden planning. With more than 200 varieties that do well in Illinois, it can be a life long discovery to compare tubers season to season.

SELECTION: My Irish meat and potato every meal trait longs for several varieties to cover bakers, boilers, and roasters and one of every color gold, red, white and blue. Technically, there are six types of potatoes available as certified seed potatoes: Russet, fingerling, red, white, blue, and yellow. Within each category there are early, mid- and late-season plants (indicated by days to maturity) and traits that give them culinary terms like waxy, fluffy, mealy, firm and certain varieties that might have a bit of flavor long before maturity that are selected if you prefer ‘new’ potatoes; a term for digging them long before maturity to enjoy bite size morsels of delish.

HOW MANY: Look for average yield characteristic. An average seed potato can be cut into quarters, creating four hills that produce one to 10 pounds of potatoes, depending on yield trait and soil health. General rule of thumb is each slice should have at least one eye and be two ounces or more in size. In a homesteading conference years ago, I heard 40 plants would keep a family of four fed over winter. In our house, that lasts about a month.

SPACE: Plants can be spaced as close as six inches apart (if digging as ‘new’ potatoes that don’t need much room for growth) and as far as two feet apart for russet varieties that produce uniformly large (1.2 pounds or more) tubers.

TIME: I like to select types according to maturity rate so I can get them all in the ground just after frost and have harvest time vary without added plantings. Early (60-70 days), mid-season (80 days) and late potatoes (more than 90 days), plus one variety ideal for digging anytime after 40 days or so as a ‘new’ potato.

WHICH & WHY: Russet potatoes are traditional bakers known for their rough skin and fluffy middle. They are high in starch and low in moisture, making them great for baking, boiling and frying. Stored properly, russets have the longest ‘hold’ lasting up to three months after digging.

Red and white potatoes are largely about preference. Both are lower in starch and higher in moisture making them better for casseroles and cold salads. Flavor and disease traits vary widely in this group, so like tomatoes, making space in the garden is all about personal preference.

Yellow potatoes are often a substitute for russets with a higher nutrient profile and a bit lower starch. Often named gold of some sort, these are not strong keepers like russet, so plan to consume within a few weeks of digging.

Fingerling potatoes are a group that grow long and narrow and are generally considered waxy with a thin skin, making them ideal for roasting. The purple fingerling I grow, Magic Molly, literally glistens when I whip it into mashed potatoes and is not a favorite for reheating.

Blue potatoes vary in shape but both their skin and flesh coloring in shades of blue to deep purple reflects the antioxidants that give them an edge nutritionally.

What are those green spots on my spuds? In short, a potato ‘eye’ will turn green if it matures above ground or is exposed to light during storage. The green patches are concentrated solanine, a toxic alkaloid inherent to these tubers and many nightshades as a chemical defense against pests. 

Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos produce solanine to keep from being eaten alive. That’s how tomato leaf tea works as an organic pesticide against aphids. Unfortunately, solanine is a neurotoxin to humans, too. However, a healthy body can usually excrete the small amounts without a person experiencing any symptoms of toxicity. Since this topic has been addressed at our market stand as well, I consulted the group Food Sensitivity Solutions™ to find out exactly how much can cause damage. According to their research, solanine is easily broken down and not readily absorbed by the human gut. Apparently, it takes about 90 milligrams (mg) of solanine for a 100 pound person to notice solanine intoxication. An average potato contains 1 mg of solanine and a green spot indicates 20 times that. Further, the toxicity is only skin deep. Peel any green parts of the potato down to the hull of the eye and you’ve just removed the possible harm to your nervous system. 
*The above information is provided for educational purposes only. For health concerns, consult your physician or licensed health care provider.*

Marigolds for pest control? Marigolds are well known as companions to attract pollinators and deter pests. For double duty above ground as perimeter for rodent control and beneath the surface to limit nematodes, plant French marigold (Tagetes patula). On a three- to four-month cycle, their roots work beneath the surface on damaging soil born pests like nematodes.
  • HOLLY HUGHES is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook,

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