By KATHLEEN EVANOFF
Most people eat them. Some make carvings from their waxy flesh and still others build small cannons to shoot them far off into the distance.
Freshly washed, all-purpose Rose Gold new potatoes are shown with coarse-skinned russet potatoes. New potatoes can be any variety of immature potato harvested before the tuber has had time to develop a lot of starch. The potato is probably America’s most popular vegetable. A medium sized potato has only 160 calories and zero grams of fat.
Regardless of what you do with them, potatoes are undoubtedly the most popular vegetable in the United States.
It seems odd when you consider that this somewhat bland tuber, originating from the Andes Mountains with plant parts that contain toxic chemicals, has gained in popularity to the point that it is the most eaten vegetable in restaurants and households. Even vege-holics, people with a strong aversion to anything healthy, don't seem to mind a baked russet beside their sirloin steak or a supersized portion of the deep fried tubers with their burger.
The potato itself, without all the trappings of globs of butter, sour cream, gooey melted cheese and crumbled bacon, can compete quite well on the nutrition scale. Boo to those who claim potatoes are one of the evil ''white foods'' to be avoided at all costs because of its high glycemic value. With even more potassium than a banana, one half-cup serving provides 45 percent of the daily value for vitamin C; as well as trace amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc. By the way, that one-half cup only has 110 calories and no fat. They also have a good bit of fiber, which can aid in digestion and help you feel fuller longer.
Just like tomatoes and most other vegetables, nothing can beat the fresh, home-grown variety, and potatoes are among the easiest of all to grow. Simply put the seed tubers in the ground and stand back. We can plant seed potatoes as early as the end of April or as soon as we can work the soil in our gardens. They don't mind a few end of the season frosts and once planted, in just a couple weeks, you will begin to see the stalks emerging from the soil.
But we should start at the beginning.
When choosing seed tubers for planting, be sure to pick the healthiest looking potatoes with no soft spots, wrinkled flesh or pruney-looking areas. Although buying locally is nearly always recommended, most garden centers only carry a few varieties, such as Yukon Gold, Kennebec and a white russet. To get more variety, you may have to order from another source. Catalog orders generally arrive on our doorsteps just around planting time so the tubers don't have to sit around too long. If you do prefer to buy locally, get your seed potatoes as soon as you can after they arrive in the stores. Tubers that have been sitting in bins for two or three weeks won't have the success rate as when they were fresh.
One way to assure you won't have empty spaces in your potato row, pre-sprout your seed potatoes prior to planting them outdoors. This method, called chitting, calls for placing the tubers on a tray in a warm, sunny room for a week or two. The tubers may need misting every couple days to keep the ''eyes'' or bud sprouts moist. Those that grow weakly or not at all can be discarded. The rest can go into the ground whenever you're ready.
There are a lot of methods to plant potatoes. Large seed tubers can be cut into several sections, making sure each section has at least two bud sprouts. Smaller tubers should be planted whole.
Plant your seed potatoes at least six to eight inches deep, but the deeper you go, the more potatoes you will get. After digging a trench the length of your planting row, place your tubers about six inches apart with the bud sprouts toward the top. Cover them with three to four inches of soil. As the plants grow and send out stalks, go back and cover those stalks with another three to four inches of soil. When the plants reach ground level, continue to mound the soil around their base to keep any tubers covered that might work their way out of the ground. Potatoes that are exposed to sunlight will produce a heavier concentration of the chemical solanine, which is toxic. Evidence of this is a greenish color on the skin of the potato. If the section of green skin is small, it can easily be cut away and the rest of the tuber can be salvaged.
Potatoes are members of the nightshade family of plants, along with eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. The plant parts of the potato also contain solanium and should never be eaten. When the plants get tall, they begin to flower. A couple weeks after the flowers have faded, the potatoes, although small, can be harvested. The longer they stay in the ground, the bigger the tubers will grow, but those first, small new potatoes are a delicacy and can whet our appetites for what is to come later in the season. There are early, mid-season and late potato varieties, so if you plan well, you can be harvesting potatoes for a long time during the growing season.
In some cases, once the flowers have faded on the plants, clusters of small fruit will form that resemble tiny green tomatoes. At first you may think your potatoes and tomatoes have co-mingled to produce a new, strange vegetable, but this is not the case. The fruit of the potato plant is a seedpod and, like the rest of the plant, is toxic and should never be eaten. If you're wondering if those seeds can be used to grow potatoes, they can, but it is not likely you will have much success. The seeds must first be separated from the pod, which is not an easy process. They need to be started indoors several weeks in advance because it is the tubers that grow from those seeds that will actually be planted in the garden. These are called TPS or ''true potato seeds'' and in most cases, don't look anything like their parent plant, or even each other, when they finally mature.
For these reasons, most backyard gardeners simply buy their ''seed potatoes'' as tubers ready to go into the ground.
Growers will have the best luck with tubers marked as ''certified seed potatoes.'' While it is tempting to plant tubers from our grocery store that have sprouted, these are likely renegade sprouts that escaped the chemicals used to inhibit sprouting.
Keep in mind that potatoes are heavy feeders and love loose, organic soil. The deeper your organic amendments go, the higher your yield with potatoes. If your soil is not so great, try the mulch method the first year or so until you can get more amendments deep into your garden. With this method, you can plant in a more shallow trench, but mulch heavily with straw or leaf mold, being sure to keep those tubers completely covered. Your yield will be smaller, but you can still enjoy a nice harvest of fresh, home-grown potatoes.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.