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Living on the Earth, June 27, 1997 New Potatoes
This week we harvested and ate our first new potatoes of the season. Oh, were
they good! These were volunteers growing from Carola and Red Norland tubers we'd
missed at last fall's harvest. Suzanne steamed and then sauteed them with a few
fresh onions, garlic scapes and herbs. The potatoes were so sweet and had a
wonderful flavor. With a salad, they made a great meal!
We enjoy growing and eating this crop more every year. Potatoes are a nearly
perfect food: nutritionally complete, low in calories, and delicious. The home
gardener can choose from dozens of varieties with different colors, flavors,
shapes and keeping qualities. And potatoes can be prepared in endless ways.
Once they are planted in fertile, well-composted soil, potatoes usually need
just two kinds of care. They appreciate having soil hoed up around them when
they are about six inches tall, and again when they are about a foot high. This
helps with weed control and provides lots of loose soil in which the potatoes
love to grow. Controlling the Colorado Potato Beetle is critically important,
too. This nearly half inch long insect has a hard shell with stripes running
down its back. The adults emerge from the soil in the spring and are
immediately attracted to the nearest potato plants. (These pests can also live
on tomatoes and other relatives of the potato, but fortunately they are rarely a
problem except on potatoes.) The female crawls around on the plants, laying
clusters of small, bright orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. The eggs
hatch out to tiny larvae which proceed to grow from being nearly invisible to
half an inch long after feasting on potato leaves. Soon, these larvae will
pupate, and before the season is over, they emerge as adults to begin the cycle
again. Obviously, controlling the female population early in the year reduces
the Colorado Potato larvae significantly and results in a much smaller second
generation. All three stages of the Colorado Potato Beetle can be found
together during much of the summer.
Although potato plants can still produce a good crop with a defoliation rate of
10 percent or more, severe infestation can result in a very disappointing
We control Colorado Potato Beetles using the "hand squish" method. We walk along
the rows, look carefully at the plants' leaves, top and underside, and squish
adults, egg masses and larvae as we go. This is a sure, effective and safe
method of control which doesn't take much time or poison our food with
pesticides, despite its messiness.
Because a good gardener can produce one bushel or about 60 pounds of potatoes
from 30 feet of garden row, and an experienced one can grow hundreds of pounds
in just 100 square feet, it shouldn't take long for a home gardener to control
these pests on one year's supply of potatoes.
For growers with a larger crop, or those who can't stand to squish these bugs,
there is a useful biological control. A bacteria called Bt (Bacillus
thuringiensis) produces a poison in the stomachs of young larvae. Sprayed on
potatoes at the proper time, it is currently a very effective, non-toxic
Most commercial potatoes, however, are grown with a variety of toxic (often
systemic) chemicals to control weeds, bugs, fungi and even to kill the plants so
the potatoes are easier to harvest. All those poisons may be the reason that
supermarket potatoes don't even come close to the sweet robust flavors of
Using all those chemicals, large commercial growers have created a surplus of
potatoes that they are begging the government to buy up at less than two cents a
To increase that surplus of cheap, pesticide-laden potatoes even more, the
company which is breeding other food crops to sell its herbicide, has created a
genetically-engineered potato which actually produces a pesticide while it
grows. Although the pesticide, Bt, is the biological one now used by organic
growers, its constant presence in potato fields will probably create resistant
insects. As a result, Bt will no longer be useful for occasional use as a safe
pest control. It may wind up in your fries and chips, however.
Here's another example of the serious problems created by an industrial approach
Go for the delicious, healthy solution. Grow your own potatoes, organically.
There's still time to plant a crop this summer.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.