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I'm trying my hand with potatoes

Jun 10, 2012 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

I planted a dozen Yukon Gold seed potatoes in the middle of each tire.

In anticipation of some extra time next fall, I built an insulated addition onto my shop this spring and added a 10x10 greenhouse on the southern wall.

When it was completed I put a dozen old tires around the bottom of the greenhouse, filled them with a mixture of sandy topsoil, and some decayed 100 percent Angus manure. (You might as well advertise Angus here, since all the fast food outlets are in on the trend)

Just a few days after the traditional planting day for potatoes on Good Friday, I planted a dozen Yukon Gold seed potatoes in the middle of each tire. Their leafy exuberance now enhances the periphery of the greenhouse, especially after the nitrogen-rich rain that fell on them over the last two weeks.

The potato is a fascinating plant. Along with its New World friend the tomato, the lowly tuber once inspired religious fanatics to decry both as food of the devil.

After all, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and tobacco were never mentioned in the bible. You might find a few references to corn in some versions but wheat, barley and rye were once synonymous with it.

In an era of religious intolerance, torture, slavery and genocide that makes our modern right-wingers look absolutely liberal in comparison, there wasn't room for anything not expressly mentioned between the first page of Genesis and the final page of Revelations.

The attitude slipped, as it often does, once a few of the learned theologians began smoking the vile weed from the Carolinas and Virginia in the early 1600s. I've always found it fascinating how intolerance can melt away if someone in charge takes a liking to something.

While corn, tomatoes and tobacco gained widespread acceptance quickly, the potato was a different animal (OK, plant)

When you think of the potato, the Irish always come to mind. Though the plant was first domesticated in the high altitude of the Andes on the west coast of South America, it has largely become associated with the nation of Ireland and our neighbor to the west, Idaho.

To put it mildly, the English hated the potato. The crown hated anything that made the existence of the wildly independent Irish any easier.

Much of Ireland is just too wet to grow cereal grains. The English were able to control the Gaelic speaking natives through controlled starvation for generations. Any uprising meant famine.

Legend has it that one of Sir Walter Raleigh's ships coming back from Virginia crashed on the Irish coast in 1588 and the potato literally floated ashore.

The dominance of the potato began in earnest by the mid-17th century. Many grains would mildew and rot on the stalk in the humid Irish climate, and wheat was nearly impossible to grow. But the potato excelled in the same conditions.

An Irishman could plant an amazingly small area of land and have enough food to feed his family for an entire year. Just a couple of acres of marginal land would feed a large family and all of their livestock for a year. Many hold this planted prosperity for the doubling of Ireland's population in just a couple of generations in the 1700s.

The English took the theme of the protestant work ethic to extremes. The idea of simply digging a shallow trench, dropping in a few chunks of potato, then covering them up and waiting a few months for your yearly food supply was clearly the work of a less than civilized culture.

After all, grain grew up and pointed to the heavens, bread required harvesting, sorting and milling before the flour could be made into loaves. Potatoes grew down, obviously the direction of the devil, and you could eat them raw or just toss them in a fire for a few minutes, add a little goat or cow's milk, and have a nutritionally balanced meal.

Lemons, limes and oranges traditionally have been given the credit for the eradication of scurvy from Europe, but the potato brought more vitamin C to the peasants of the old world than all of the citrus imported in a century.

Different varieties of potatoes grew in France and what would become Poland and Germany, but only the Lumper was used in all of Ireland. The Lumper produced the biggest yields and had the greatest variety when preparing meals, making it the ideal tuber.

This lack of genetic diversity would prove fatal to an estimated 3 million people who starved to death when the Potato Famine hit Ireland beginning in 1846.

The spores of phytophthora infestans floated through the air and turned vibrant plots to putrid, festering masses of rotted vegetation in a matter of weeks.

In its ancestral home, the Andean tribes always planted dozens of different varieties each spring. Multi-colored with differing textures, flavors and sizes the diversity of the planting guaranteed that something would be harvested in the fall regardless of disease or extreme.

These thoughts float through my mind as I water these little plants every few days. There is nothing like growing your own food.

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