Bartlett on Gardening: The Wearing o' the Green (& The Planting o' the Spud)

Top of the morning and happy St. Patrick’s Day to each of you.

Does anything say “Ireland” more than potatoes? We once hosted some Irish exchange students. One of them staved off homesickness by boiling and eating the odd pot of potatoes. She said they ate them every day at home.

In reality, the Irish potato is not Irish but an edible member of the nightshade family that is native to the Andes Mountains of South America. There potatoes have been cultivated as a dietary staple since around 3000 BC. The Spanish introduced them into Europe in the mid-16th century where they gradually spread to areas too cold for cereal crops to yield reliable harvests.

Legend has it that the privateer Frances Drake introduced the tuber into England. It is more probable that Walter Raleigh planted them on his Irish estate. The gardeners shared them with farm workers, and from there potatoes spread around the island. The harvest yields far more food per acre than grain, so this crop stabilized the food supply wherever it became popular. Nowhere was it more popular than on the Emerald Isle.

Despite their reputation, potatoes are quite nutritious. They are 80 percent water, 2 percent protein and 18 percent carbohydrate, and they are a good source of vitamins C and K as well as iron and calcium. Over the two centuries after the introduction of the potato, the population of Ireland rose from about 1.5 million to about 8.5 million. This increase is attributed to the marked decrease in child mortality as well as increased resistance to infection in a better-nourished population.

Reliance on just two high-yielding varieties led to reduced genetic variation among potatoes grown in Ireland. This left the crop highly vulnerable to disease. In 1845, Phytophthora infestans, a water mold, caused the leaves and tubers to be destroyed by blight. This set off the worst famine in 19th-century Europe, the Irish Potato Famine, which lasted through 1849. Approximately one million people died and one and a half million immigrated to the United States.

March marks the month to plant potatoes here. They need fertile, loose, well-drained soil and appreciate some extra phosphorus such as is found in bone meal. Cut your “seed” potatoes into pieces about an inch in diameter, with at least one eye per piece. Plant these two to three inches deep and 12 inches apart. Rows should be two and a half to three feet apart.

When the plants are six to eight inches tall, mound about four inches of soil around the base of each one to protect the tubers from “greening”. The green patches contain solanine and must be removed before cooking. The “hilling” process may need to be repeated three or four times during the growing season.

Small "new" potatoes may be dug 60 days after planting. The main crop is harvested in the fall. After the foliage has died back, wait two weeks before digging the tubers so that the skins are less tender. Clean dirt off the tubers and let them dry off before storing them in a dark, cool place.

​​Potatoes are a spring crop because they take such a long time to mature. I have tried growing them and found it to be an enjoyable, interesting experience to share with my


Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the the ornamental beds around her home.

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