Gardens North ? 2008 is the Year of the Spud

United Nations has declared 2008 the Year of the Potato and even has a site dedicated to the lowly spud at www.potato2008.org With the cost of rice, corn and wheat sky rocketing there has never been a better time to replace some of our starches with home grown potatoes.

Stompin? Tom once sang ?It?s Bud the Spud from bright red mud? in reference to the famous potatoes that grow in the red clay of PEI. Up here we have our own version of island clay ? Peace Country gumbo. My maternal grandmother moved to the Peace Country late in life and she always swore there was something special about our gumbo that made our potatoes taste delectable.

I have lived and dined on the earnings of our gumbo my entire life and while I don?t quite share my grandmother?s appreciation for our thick grey clay, I do agree that our potatoes taste incredible; especially those new ones in early summer.

Potatoes are high in protein, low in fat and rich in nutrients. Eaten with its skin a single medium sized potato provides almost half our daily requirement of vitamin C which in turn promotes iron absorption. Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamins B1, B3 and B6 and the minerals potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. Potatoes also contain folate, pantothenic acid and riboflavin and pack antioxidants in every bite. The protein content of potatoes is extremely high in comparison to other roots and tubers.

The bulk of these proteins and nutrients are located in the skins, so when we peel a potato we are peeling off all the good stuff. The healthiest ? and easiest ? method is to bake the potato (loading it up with sour cream, butter and chemically laced bacon bits will quickly cancel out any health benefits. Try low fat plain yogurt instead. As for potato chips and French fries, forget about it!). Boiling new potatoes in their skins is another alternative that tastes so good you won?t miss the butter and sour cream one bit, I promise.

Potatoes are almost always grown from tubers (fancy word for potatoes) dropped into holes and covered with three to four inches of soil. Some people cut the potatoes into pieces, ensuring that each piece has an ?eye? or a visible sprout. This method obviously gives you far more plants for your money. Others choose to plant their seed potatoes whole, claiming that this method prevents the spread of disease and results in more uniform sized potatoes and higher yields. Whichever method you ascribe to there are basically four secrets to growing great potatoes; Chit, Compost, Hill and Water.

Chit ? Chit sounds dangerously close to something akin to compost, but I assure you it?s nothing of the sort. Chitting simply means spreading out your seed potatoes in trays, bringing them into the light and giving them a chance to sprout before planting. This results in faster emergence, higher yields and less disease. Maybe someone thought this was cheating and that?s where the expression ?chitting? or ?chit? originated.

Compost ? Potatoes are heavy feeders and will appreciate having a couple healthy handfuls of compost tossed ahead of them into each hole.

Hill ? You may not find your thrill in a potato hill, but at least you won?t die. Hilling simply refers to pulling dirt from between the rows and placing it up and around the potato plant as it grows, creating small hills. Hilling prevents light from reaching any potatoes growing near the surface and turning them a toxic, bitter, green. I?m not sure how many green potatoes you would have to consume before it killed you, but if you hill your potatoes properly you will never have to find out.

Water ? Frequent watering is the final key to success, especially during mid growth. Fluctuations in watering during this time can result in cracked, hollow, potatoes and poor yields. Consistent watering will mean a root cellar so packed with spuds you won?t care how high rice, corn and wheat prices get ? you?ll have all the starches you can possibly eat and then some.

Shannon McKinnon gardens and writes in the Peace River country on a small farm outside Dawson Creek, BC. She can be reached at contact@shannonmckinnon.com