Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Growing Potatoes from Seed

Potato plants grown from seeds

Nothing to report on the cooking front around here - for the last week I have had one of the several nasty colds making the rounds this year and still feel pretty wiped out, although I am definitely starting to mend. Mr. Ferdzy, on the other hand, is just starting up with his, so he has a full week of being sick to look forward to yet.

We have ordered our seeds so that bit of gardening excitement is also over for the year. I think we will plant our onions and celery a little later than usual this year - early March instead of mid-February - so the only gardening thing we have going on at the moment is the one tray you see above, which contains potato seedlings.

This is the second year we have tried growing potatoes from seed. As I'm sure everyone reading this blog knows, potatoes are normally grown by planting chunks of potato; in other words each variety of potato is a clone. However, while many modern potato varieties are sterile, others are not and may produce seeds in a little green seed ball about the size of a marble. They look like little green tomatoes or tiny round green eggplants. The seeds inside look like tomato or eggplant seeds too, they are just much smaller.

In the fall, once the fruits have been allowed to ripen, we open them up and rinse the seeds out into a very fine (very fine!) strainer. They are allowed to dry out, but we decided to plant ours very early, just after Christmas, because we are hoping to gain a year in growing these out. When you grow potatoes directly from seed, the plants and potatoes stay fairly small. That is one of the main reasons no-one grows potatoes for food directly from seed. When our plants go dormant later this winter, we will sort through the resulting mini potatoes and select the ones that look the most promising to grow again. They will be stored in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 months as an artificial winter, then planted outside to grow for the rest of the summer. In the fall, when they die down again, they will be dug up and assessed. By this time, they should be getting close to producing the size and volume of potatoes we can expect in future years. That is also the second dormant period for these potatoes this year, so we will have gained a year in growing them.

I won't get too much into the details of starting potato seeds here. If you have some to grow out, here are some  very good instructions by Tom Wagner, breeder extraordinaire of open-pollinated  potatoes and tomatoes.

(If you want to grow potatoes from seeds in the future, select and order varieties of potatoes this spring to plant together. Research the varieties you are considering, and find out if they have any fertility, because many potatoes do not; those ones will be of no use to you. In the fall when the potato plants start to die down, collect the seed balls and proceed.)

Some potatoes forming

When I lift out the root balls, I am finding little potatoes forming on some of them. For some reason, all the potatoes forming in this batch that I have seen thus far are variations on pink skins. The mix of parents is, I would have said, pretty similar to last years, and include Alaska Sweetheart (pink skinned), Envol (beige skinned), Russian Blue, and Purple Viking (both purple skinned). Last year we got a mix of those colours in the skins of the offspring. This year it seems the Alaska Sweetheart colouring has taken over. No idea why the difference, other than who fertilized whom and who we collected berries from has clearly changed more than we realized.

When we go to select which potatoes will get planted on and observed, we will be looking for a few things. The first thing we will look for will be multiple potatoes per plant - this is an intimation that the plant will be a good producer. Two small potatoes will rate more highly than one larger one, although two larger ones will be better than two smaller ones.

Other qualities are more subjective, and until we have sufficient quantity of any one kind to eat a few, and until they have grown in the garden long enough to give an idea of their general good health (or lack thereof), a bit arbitrary. I have to admit good looks count. Last years batch included some luminous peach potatoes that were really lovely. I'm a bit annoyed to realize I took no pictures of them; however, there are a number of them planted in the garden and I hope they will survive the winter and carry on. So far there are none that look like that this year; the potatoes are surprisingly uniform.

What I am noticing this year is an amazing variation in the leaves. Some are pale and some are dark. That was expected. What was unexpected was that some have surprisingly narrow leaves and form short dense plants, and others are sprawling, very vine-like, and sending out surprising numbers of aerial roots. They will be a bit of a tangled mess to sort out once they die down. I wonder if this is a sign of a plant that would produce a lot of potatoes once planted out and hoed up (I don't think they will have the time or space to do it in our little seed tray). There is only one way to find out...

So why grow potatoes from seeds? This is how new varieties are created. They may taste excellent, they may store well, they may be very productive, they may be disease resistant. They may not be any of those things, either. The odds are very good that our new potato varieties will be mediocre at best. However, they will give us an entertaining project to follow, a good few dinners hopefully, and an opportunity to gain some knowledge about potato genetics. And you never know, we may win the potato genetics lottery and come up with something very interesting. Because they are recently grown out from seed, too, they will be freer of viruses and fungi than older varieties, which tend to accumulate problems as time goes on.

There are some potato breeders working on creating varieties of potatoes that can be grown from seeds giving offspring essentially identical to the parents, thus ensuring that the variety can be continued with minimal disease load. It's also a lot easier to transport potato seeds than seed potatoes, making them much more mobile; important in times of changing climate and political unrest.

Europeans (and North Americans) were introduced to potatoes through a very narrow selection of varieties, and have consequently a very narrow idea of what potatoes should be like, with too much reliance on potatoes from a small and impoverished genetic stock. In their original homelands of Peru and Bolivia and beyond, there are thousands of potato varieties, in multiple species.  Potato breeders are working to incorporate the strengths of these little known but often very robust potatoes into commercially viable and useful strains. In particular, potatoes are always at war with late blight, the fungus that famously caused the Irish potato famine of the 1840's, and potato growers need more resistant varieties. I'm not engaging in anything so considered or vital - I'm just growing potato seedlings for my own entertainment and edification.


Terry McGinn said...

This is a great project, and one that I've wanted to try for a long time. Unfortunately, since the want hit me my own potatoes have failed to produce any seed fruit. Maybe I'm growing the wrong types - I add new varieties each year, so here's hoping I'll hit the seed lottery in this year's potato patch.

Ferdzy said...

Hey Terry, they are a lot of fun and since they are the only thing going at the moment I admit I am molesting them a bit. Much. If you want to give me an email address, I could arrange to send you some of our leftover seed - I have a fair bit. Also, check out TaterMater - Tom Wagner's site - he sells some really interesting true potato seed strains. I'm tempted myself...