Boiled, baked, fried or roasted, potatoes have been one of the world’s most important food crops for centuries.
Originating in South America, they were introduced into Europe in the 1500s where they quickly became a staple in the diet of many cultures.
Spuds came to Australia with the First Fleet and were a favourite backyard crop until WWII.
A starchy tuber, potatoes are not actually high in kilojoules.
The reason they are seen as bad for weight control is because they’re often served deep fried as chips, or with fatty toppings such as butter, cheese and sour cream.
Cut out the fat and frying and potatoes become a healthy, high-fibre food. Rich in vitamin C, they’re also a good source of vitamin B and minerals like potassium and iron.
Described as waxy, all-rounder or floury, pick a variety to grow based on how you like to cook them.
Waxy varieties have less starch and a higher moisture content, so retain their shape when cooked, while floury spuds are great for baking or mashing.
A versatile veg
Easy to grow, harvest and use, spuds also give you a lot of bang for your buck with one plant producing a multitude of potatoes.
A common variety spud sends out a shoot from each eye on a seed potato, and eachone of these shoots can produce five to 10 spuds.
Another bonus is that you don’t need a lot of space to grow them and can even use a large planter.
In winter seed potatoes are available to buy at nurseries and are guaranteed to be disease-free.
Chit, or sprout, seed potatoes for planting by putting them in a cool, light spot with good ventilation and wait for shoots to develop.
TIP Not all potatoes grow well in every climate, so ask your local nursery which varieties thrive in your area
In the garden
The ideal location to grow potatoes is a spot that grew beans or peas the year before.
Avoid planting spuds in the same spot year after year, as this increases the risk of disease.
PREPARE THE SOIL with added organic matter, digging 25mm of well-rotted manure or compost into the top 300mm layer and adding a sprinkling of fertiliser pellets.
DIG TRENCHES 250mm wide and deep, and about 600mm apart.
PLANT SEED POTATOES in the trenches with the shoots pointing up and cover with 100mm of soil. Keep covering shoots with soil as they appear and water them. This is called hilling up and is usually done about two or three times during the growing season.
CHECK THE CROP after about three months by digging up a plant. If the tuber skins are thin and rub off easily, the crop isn’t fully mature. Leave the tubers in the ground for a week or two more to toughen the skins. This helps protect them from scuffing and bruising during harvest and prolongs storage life.
HARVEST POTATOES in the morning while it’s still cool but don’t leave tubers exposed to the light for more than a few hours or you risk them developing green patches. Green potatoes can cause food poisoning so must be discarded. To dig potatoes out of the ground, put your garden fork at the edge of the foliage to avoid stabbing them. Lift the entire root system, one plant at a time, to minimise bruising, skinning or cutting the tubers.
TIP Spuds are generally ready to harvest when the white potato flowers bloom, just scrape back a little soil to double check.
Planting in a bag
If you have limited outdoor space, use garden bags to grow spuds. Roll a plastic bag halfway down and fill with potting mix.
Position three seed potatoes, cover with mix and water in well. As the shoots emerge, unroll the bag and add more mix.
Unroll the bag completely when the shoots are 150 to 300mm tall and add mix until full, covering with a layer of straw. Harvest the potatoes when the foliage yellows or dies back.
TIP Buy plastic grow bags with handles and drainage holes for about $10 each from nurseries.
Pests and disease
Spuds can suffer from a range of problems, so choose resistant varieties and only grow from disease-free seed potatoes. Enrich the soil with organic material such as compost to reduce the risk of soil-borne diseases.
Small bumps on the skin that turn brown and powdery are a sign of this common tuber disease. Most are superficial and can be rubbed off. It’s usually a problem in dry soil, so add organic matter and water well to increase moisture levels.
A type of beetle larvae that burrow into tubers, making tunnels that provide entry points for fungal diseases. Spray with an insecticide such as Dipel before planting and harvest early to reduce the amount of potential damage to the potatoes.
Potato leaf roll
This virus stunts plants and reduces yields, causing the younger leaves to yellow and roll inwards. To avoid, plant certified disease-free seed potatoes, and control any aphids immediately as they can spread the problem.