celebrating, and storing, the humble potato

fresh dug potatoesHOW DID A PLANT FROM THE ANDES turn itself into an international star, and the world’s most-eaten vegetable, with more than 300 million metric tons consumed a year? Celebrate the humble but adaptable potato, Solanum tuberosum, with tips on growing, harvesting, and most of all storing, in case your harvest is in need of a winter home any week now:

Yes, the potato has gone truly global; the intricate story of its journey through the centuries is probably best told by the International Potato Center.

China, and now India, are the biggest producers of potatoes today–once the claim of Europe, North America and the former Soviet Union–though I am hard-pressed to think of a Chinese dish featuring them.

storing potatoes

I COULDN’T SAY IT BETTER THAN the Farm Security Administration did to farmers and would-be farmers in the 1942 slides I borrowed from the Library of Congress (below). Potatoes, perhaps counter-intuitively, need humidity to keep well over the long haul. (Click the first thumbnail, then toggle slide to slide using the arrows by the caption.)

After experimenting in a few possible locations, I actually figured out the “right” storage spot at my place, and had my own potatoes right into spring. The hiding place, a closet in my mudroom, was as close as I could come to their ask of high humidity combined with dark and cold (ideally 40 degrees, but ranging from 38 to 45). First I had to cure them in a just slightly warmer place. Need all the potato harvest, curing and storage details?

growing potatoes

THE POTATO WOULDN’T BE the fourth-most-consumed food crop in the world (behind only wheat, corn, and rice) if it weren’t relatively easy to grow. The biggest decision is what you’re going to use to hill them up, as the process of applying more soil or mulch of some kind (I used straw, above) to the rambunctious plants as they get too tall for their own good is called. Some potato-growing basics.

sources of unusual seed potatoes:

  1. Thanks for all of the great info. We accidentally grew potatoes this year from the slightly under-processed compost we spread on our home garden. I’m hooked and looking forward to the next garden season.

    Now that the weather’s turning fall-ish, we turn to potatoes. Here’s a humble and homey dish that sits halfway between late summer and fall.


  2. One Hungry Mama says:

    I love white potatoes. Even more so now that I know they are actually quite nutritious! My Summer Fest post goes over the nutritional benefits–for us and the kids–and how we can get the most out of potatoes’ nutrients. I also share a recipe for my Potato and Chorizo Tacos. Believe it or not, they are healthy, too!

    Thanks for another great week. Can’t wait to read what everyone else has been making with potatoes!

  3. Hi Margaret!!

    First off – loved the video!! As always your post was so informative and your garden is absolutely beautiful – made me hungry just looking at it!! I keep saying that “this week” is my favorite but truth be told they all have been – I really love seeing what everyone chooses to make – great ideas and inspirations!! This week I chose to make Potato and Vegetable Cakes with Cilantro and Ginger Chutney

  4. I am really enjoying Summerfest this year. I wish I’d known about it sooner. Thank you for introducing us to some many wonderful cooking blogs. Your potager sure looks pretty and lush in the photo above, (in spite of such a dry summer) Happy last days of summer…
    xo Michaela
    And here is a potato recipe to share… not my own, but a fabulous one from Patricia Wells (even beats my Tante’s best… shh)

  5. Margaux Drake says:

    First, your photography reminds me of Gourmet Magazine (dearly missed but I guess there is a fall issue???). It’s beautiful! How do you do it?

    Second, I promised to let you know when I posted my blog about visiting your friend, Martha Stewart’s garden to pick up plant donations for the celebrity plant auction I held this spring for my non profit, The Giving Gardens. I was overwhelmed by her generosity. Thought you may think that it’s a neat story too:

    Thanks for all the great information & inspiration…always!–M

    1. Margaret says:

      @Eszter: Using straw or other mulch material is easier, and people with lots of years of experience doing it tell me it’s just as productive. I keep thinking soil would be better, but I do see to have a lot of potatoes (haven’t pulled them all yet – just what I wanted to eat).

      @Cate: Nice to see you. I love the earthy smell of root crops of all kinds, including potatoes when fresh-dug. You are so right!

      @Brenda: Spud Days sounds like MY kind of event. I’ll have mine with butter AND cheddar please, but let’s skip the tug-of-war, OK? :)

  6. Brenda says:

    What timing Margaret! My home town, Shelley, Idaho, is celebrating Spud Days this Saturday. Free baked potato giveaway – with all the toppings of course. Many potato related activities all day. The highlight is when they dig a big pit and mix instant mashed potatoes in a cement mixer and pour into the pit. Then comes the tug-of-war over the pit. Various groups battling it out for bragging rights for the next year. A great small town festival.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Nan, for your delicious-sounding potato treat. I am a potato-pancake fanatic; I’d eat them all the time if not for the extra work; used to make them lots. See you soon again, I hope.

  7. Maggie Oster says:

    Very much enjoy your website and this article. Have you tried growing German Butterball and Yellow Finn potatoes? After a lot of variety testing, these are my favorites. For fun, check out a copy of my book, The Potato Garden: A Grower’s Guide. Out-of-print, but easy to find and cheap on Amazon. It was a 1994 James Beard Nominee. Thanks for all your hard work.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Maggie, and I think I probably have that book here somewhere…since I moved upstate fulltime one project I have not tackled is really organizing my very old and very large library of garden books. Now you are providing another catalyst! I do like both the kinds you recommend; agreed. Hope to see you soon again.

  8. Michael says:

    My wife recently pulled up her decorative sweet potato vines so she could put some mums in the pots they occupied. To our surprise there was a fair sized potato in one pot. It’s a nice pinkish red color on the outside but pale white on the inside. I thought I might try to start slips from it and grow a few vines in the kitchen this winter. But my wife wonders if we can eat this kind of potato.. As it looks rather strange. Are there any inedible potato varieties?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Michael. I have read that it is technically edible but bad-tasting — and then there’s this: it was grown with lots of chemicals at the garden center before you bought it, so that alone is the reason not to take a bite.

      I have overwintered these in my basement right in their pots — I let them go dry (the soil I mean) and then when I start watering in spring they start up again. Here’s what Proven Winners (which markets various ornamental sweet potatoes) says to do in winter.

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