Troubleshooting Planting the Humble Potato

| 8/8/2016 12:31:00 PM

There are always crops which keep me humble, which raise questions of timing, fertilization, and care, which do not come out as I intended. One year it was beans, another year, winter squash. My 'Russian Banana' fingerling potatoes were the crop this year.

I planted them from one year’s saved seed on March 21st. They grew gloriously, flowered during an early warm spell in mid-April, and died down by early July, which felt a bit early until I counted back to the planting date. I pulled them from the ground because I needed the bed for some fall crops. After harvest, I was struck by the small size of most of the potatoes. I had raised a crop of tiny tubers. Why?

I did some research. After being frustrated with online sources, I came across the book Advances in Potato Pest Biology and Management, which I studied avidly.

Crop Rotation Considerations for Potato Planting

Sources recommend planting only new, certified clean seed potatoes every year to avoid soil diseases, which can wipe out entire crops. This can be true — I leave gardeners to determine this for themselves — but the original potato farmers, in the Andes, did not start each year with fresh seed. How did they keep their harvests strong year after year, for hundreds of years?

According to David Thurston in Andean Potato Culture: 5,000 Years of Experience with Sustainable Agriculture, they rotated their fields, leaving them fallow for 2 or 3 years and growing other crops for several years as well, before replanting potatoes. When the Europeans arrived, they saw “wasted” fields, not being used for crops, and used this as an argument to take the land.

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