The scientific name for the potato plant solanum tuberosum and is actually closely related to the tobacco and tomato plants.
The only edible part of the potato plant is the tuber. Potato flowers and fruit are produced because this is how the plants multiply themselves, by seed.
These potato fruit (Fig 1) may look like under ripe tomatoes but they are not edible. More precisely, they are poisonous. They contain high amounts of solanine that can make the eater very ill.
The potato plant is green, very bushy and likes to spread itself out, it has big clusters of dark green leaves. It produces fruit and flowers that range in colour quite drastically some are yellow or green, there are somevarities that produce striped fruit, one plant usually produces fruit with about 150-250 kidney shaped seeds.
Poisionous Potato Plant
The small indentations we find in a potato which we call 'Eyes' and usually cut them out before cooking and eating are external buds which when left for enough time will sprout and create new stems using the potato itself as its energy source. This is called a seed potato and can be planted to produce a new potato plant.
A lot of commerical and home growers buy these seed potatoes every year to produce there potato crops for the year. You only need a part on the seed potato to produce a plant capable of growing potatoes, so dicing the potato can multiply your crops yield
Like the rare breed animal programmes countries all over the world have ploughed money into research of the potato. The United Kingdom, The United States of America, Peru and the Netherlands are the leading lights
They also keep track of growing and consumer trends, logging and keeping samples for future reference, also into the genetics of the tuber like breeding potatoes that can withstand more extremes of weather so that they can be grow even in the most remote areas of our planet. These include breeds that can resist viruses and diseases or ones that will store better for longer, and breeds which provide the culinary qualities that certain markets demand, such as being good for chipping and processing. It is rare, of course, that all the desired qualities are found in one plant, in fact on average only one in 100,000 seedlings ever becomes registered.
Only then does a seed go into field trials and it could be at least another 3-4 years before it is seen on the commercial market. There are several thousand varieties in existence throughout the world therefore, although only a fraction of those are in regular production. Countries with seed potato research centres provide key information annually for their seed producers. In Britain there are about 700 varieties held at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland listed in the Douglas M MacDonald collection. The Potato Association of America classifies up to 4,000 varieties but the International Potato Centre in Peru (CIP) has the largest gene bank, holding 3,694 cultivars.
Although varieties such as Blue Don, Elephant, King Kidney, Perthshire Red, The Howard and Victoria, some dating as far back as the 16th century have become extinct, other more famous names are in various collections for posterity. These include Congo, a bright blue potato from pre-1900, Edgecote Purple and Champion. Other aged varieties are being revived, through the success of research and supermarket innovation. Names such as Mr Bressee, Blue Catriona and Arran Victory are returning to our shops. Home growers, buying from seed catalogues, now have an even more exciting wealth of new varieties to experiment with.
The potato grows in over 180 countries, from an altitude of sea level to 14,000 feet, under a wider range of climatic conditions than any other staple food. It matures faster too, taking from 90 to 140 days. Yet much still depends on the grower knowing his or her potato, finding the right potato for the market and then making the most of the environment - a technology on its own.
If your are lucky enough to have a garden and the time, growing your own potatoes is an incredibly rewarding experience. If you have kids it is brilliant for them as well, connecting with nature in a practical way and teaching about where their food comes from is an invaluable lesson to learn. Also freshly dug potatoes are amazing we have prepare a very short and simple guide of how to plan, cultivate, harvest and store you own potatoes at home
Preparing your plot
The best tie to plant potato crops in the Uk is between February-March, with a goal to be harvesting between May-June. But you will need to prepare the ground well in advance
It is best to pick a nice open plot of land that has at least 4 hours of sun a day, in soil that is level and has good drainage, the drainage can be helped by planting in a raised bed. To reduce the risk of disase don't use the same plot to grow potatoes for any more than two years.
Test your soil's scidity levels, test kits are available at most good garden centres and they are relatively cheap. Potatoes prefer slightly acidic soil but you can use soil that has more alkaline PH level, it may affect your eventual yield and potatoes are more likely to have skin blemishes and scabs. adding some sulphur may not sell pleasant but it will help prevent these problems in alkaline soils.
When you have selected and tested your plot, start by de-weeding and thoroughly agitating the soil with a good dig. Removing any large stones and mixing in some compost in the top layer of soil. We would also recommend some fertilizeer preferably some high in potash.
Preparing your potatoes
Preparing your ‘seeders’ is simple and requires almost no effort, the best way is a couple of weeks before you plan to plant, put some potatoes into egg boxes and leaving them somewhere warm and in the sun (The kitchen windowsill is perfect) for about 10-14 days, allowing them to sprout, in the trade this is known as ‘Chitting’. Whilst this isn’t strictly necessary for the early main crop or main crop potatoes, it is almost essential for earlies and second earlies.
Allow them to sprout, the little sprouts that come out of the potato are called ‘chits’, because they are in the egg boxes you will notices that the chits will just come out of one end, this is called the rose end. Before planting rub off all but about 3-4 of the chits, if you don’t you will end up with lots of potatoes but they will be very small. Plant them at a depth of about 10cm/4 inches with the rose end pointing up and cover with soil.
In the 40s it became very popular to cut up the seeders as long as each piece has 3-4 chits on it will have you seeding go a lot further, and you will still get a decent yield from each one.
Caring for your plant
Protecting your plants once they have been planted comes in a few different parts, once they begin emerge they must be re-covered with soil leaving just the stem and leave exposed. Leaving the tubers exposed can cause them to produce chlorofyl and turn green, the stems should reach about 25cm in height.
You need to also protect your plants from the frost so covering them with a either a small poly tunnel found in all good garden centres, or for a more cost effective method use plastic bag from the supermarket
Your plants will need watering especially during the period where the tubers are developing unless of course there is plenty of rainfall
Harvesting and storage
Obviously when it comes to harvesting it totally depends on when your plants were planted and what you want from them there is a rough crop gude at the bottom of this page that is good guide for reference.
Also there is a table for some of the popular potatoes in the uk for when to plant and harvest and a brief guide of what cooking techbiques each potato is best suited to.
For new potatoes havest the first earlies around the ten week mark or when the plants have started to flower.
For main crop, anywhere between the 15-20 week mark or at least 2 weeks after the leaves and stems have started to wither, tyo allow the skins to set. They tend to bigger potatoes with a slightly tougher skin perfect for roasts chips and baked potatoes.
After harvesting leave the tubers on the surface of the soil to dry out. Once dry they need to be stored in a beathable container either crates or hessian bags are best, DO NOT STORE IN PLASTIC BAGS they are likely to sweat and rot.
POTATO VARIETIES RESISTANT TO PEST AND DISEASE
Whichever potato variety you choose, always, always buy certified, virus free potatoes. Be wary of planting potatoes which are sold in supermarkets and food shops. You will in effect be planting potatoes which are not certified virus / disease free and you stand a chance spreading disease into your garden and this will stay there for several years. We advise that you only use certified seed potatoes.
Potato varieties which are known to be resistant to specific pests and disease are listed below. Note that no potato variety is 100% resistant to any pest or disease but the ones listed below increase your chances of success significantly.
The main difference between the crop types we have found is the size and the skin. Earlies and second earlies tend to have a very delicate skin that you can almost rub off with your fingers at harvest, the early main and main crop tend to have a thicker more durable skin. so plant and harvest according to what you want to use the potatoes for.
Potatoes are classified by the length of time they take to mature although this can be affected by the weather and the climate. First earlies, also called new potatoes, are planted in early spring for harvesting, after some 100—110 days, in early summer. Second earlies, as the name implies, are planted in late spring and harvested, after 110—120 days, from mid to late summer as late new potatoes. Maincrop potatoes are planted in the spring but not harvested for at least 125—140 days in late summer. These are the potatoes which go into long-term storage for sale in the next season, whilst earlies go straight into the shops.
When a young potato is dug up it has fragile, flaky skin. As it matures the skin sets and after a certain length of time will no longer flake and the flesh becomes much more starchy. Maincrop potatoes have to be kept in the ground maturing as long as possible to produce skins which are thick enough to survive in long-term storage. You will now find that you can buy a young, new Maris Piper for instance, which is small and flaky, at the same time as you can buy the large, firm maincrop Maris Piper, since each may be grown in different areas by different producers.