New Potatoes

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, June 27, 1997

This week, we harvested and ate our first new potatoes of the season. Oh, were they good! These were volunteers growing from Carola and Red Norland tubers we'd missed at last fall's harvest. Suzanne steamed and then sauteed them with a few fresh onions, garlic scapes and herbs. The potatoes were so sweet and had a wonderful flavor. With a salad, they made a great meal!

We enjoy growing and eating this crop more every year. Potatoes are a nearly perfect food: nutritionally complete, low in calories, and delicious. The home gardener can choose from dozens of varieties with different colors, flavors, shapes and keeping qualities. And potatoes can be prepared in endless ways.

Once they are planted in fertile, well-composted soil, potatoes usually need just two kinds of care. They appreciate having soil hoed up around them when they are about six inches tall, and again when they are about a foot high. This helps with weed control and provides lots of loose soil in which the potatoes love to grow. Controlling the Colorado Potato Beetle is critically important, too. This nearly half inch long insect has a hard shell with stripes running down its back. The adults emerge from the soil in the spring and are immediately attracted to the nearest potato plants. (These pests can also live on tomatoes and other relatives of the potato, but fortunately they are rarely a problem except on potatoes.) The female crawls around on the plants, laying clusters of small, bright orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. The eggs hatch out to tiny larvae which proceed to grow from being nearly invisible to half an inch long after feasting on potato leaves. Soon, these larvae will pupate, and before the season is over, they emerge as adults to begin the cycle again. Obviously, controlling the female population early in the year reduces the Colorado Potato larvae significantly and results in a much smaller second generation. All three stages of the Colorado Potato Beetle can be found together during much of the summer.

Although potato plants can still produce a good crop with a defoliation rate of 10 percent or more, severe infestation can result in a very disappointing harvest.

We control Colorado Potato Beetles using the "hand squish" method. We walk along the rows, look carefully at the plants' leaves, top and underside, and squish adults, egg masses and larvae as we go. This is a sure, effective and safe method of control which doesn't take much time or poison our food with pesticides, despite its messiness.

Because a good gardener can produce one bushel or about 60 pounds of potatoes from 30 feet of garden row, and an experienced one can grow hundreds of pounds in just 100 square feet, it shouldn't take long for a home gardener to control these pests on one year's supply of potatoes.

For growers with a larger crop, or those who can't stand to squish these bugs, there is a useful biological control. A bacteria called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) produces a poison in the stomachs of young larvae. Sprayed on potatoes at the proper time, it is currently a very effective, non-toxic control.

Most commercial potatoes, however, are grown with a variety of toxic (often systemic) chemicals to control weeds, bugs, fungi and even to kill the plants so the potatoes are easier to harvest. All those poisons may be the reason that supermarket potatoes don't even come close to the sweet robust flavors of home-grown varieties.

Using all those chemicals, large commercial growers have created a surplus of potatoes that they are begging the government to buy up at less than two cents a pound.

To increase that surplus of cheap, pesticide-laden potatoes even more, the company which is breeding other food crops to sell its herbicide, has created a genetically-engineered potato which actually produces a pesticide while it grows. Although the pesticide, Bt, is the biological one now used by organic growers, its constant presence in potato fields will probably create resistant insects. As a result, Bt will no longer be useful for occasional use as a safe pest control. It may wind up in your fries and chips, however.

Here's another example of the serious problems created by an industrial approach to agriculture.

Go for the delicious, healthy solution. Grow your own potatoes, organically. There's still time to plant a crop this summer.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.