The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for January, 2015

TPS – How To Have Lots of Fun with a Few Potatoes, part 3

Monday, January 5th, 2015

I’ve not written much of late about our potatoes, but there’s a lot going on in that area. This past season (2014) I realized that my ongoing mucking about with TPS (true potato seed) potatoes has resulted in… feral potatoes!

For a couple of years there have been some odd spuds popping up in places where I knew I had not planted potatoes, but initially I thought that they were the work of absent-minded voles and chipmunks. Most of the “wanderers” closely resembled some of the Blue Shetland lines I’ve been working with – sprawly purple stemmed plants with many quarter-sized dark purple skinned tubers with varying purple, white and ivory flesh. When harvesting them, I’m very apt to miss some because they are hard to see in the black soil, and the plants are sprawly both above and below ground, so tubers can be flung far from the main stem. (Shetlands were developed in shallow soil conditions.)

Volunteers. Small potatoes, but they bake fast, and are delicious (even cold) for a quick snack, cut in half, with a bit of salt.

I have a confession to make. I’m one of those evil gardeners who allows potatoes to over-winter in the ground. Furthermore I have been doing this (partially) on purpose for many (25 or so) years, and I have been selecting varieties for over-wintering, among other traits. I know that conventional gardening wisdom is that this is a big no-no, but I don’t really care. (Let’s hope the neighbors don’t come after us with pitch-forks when late blight hits next year). I will not claim that any of our spuds have achieved LB immunity, but I’m pretty sure they’re not harboring this disease. For us, LB shows up in the tomatoes first, and is usually pretty devastating; but the TPS spuds aren’t nearly as affected.

Anyway, this past season the evidence was unmistakable. Potatoes are growing on their own from seed in our gardens! They’re not escaped clones!

Among the plants that convinced me was a volunteer who popped up a couple of feet from where a very healthy Carola (yellow flesh) plant had grown the year before. I had no clue that it was a seedling. I just thought I had missed digging up a Carola tuber, and the foliage looked like Carola. So, I welcomed it and tended it through the summer. But, when I dug them up (photos at right and below), the occasional purple blush on the skin, and purple ring in the flesh told me that most likely our own Extreme Purple had fathered this seedling from an adjacent bed. (Extreme Purple (aka #4) is a seedling of Hurley’s Purple Gold x Fenton. ) The Carola had a really strong seed-set the year before, and I harvested the fruits, but evidently missed at least one. Those seeds will be very interesting to grow out, I think. Haven’t got a name yet for this Carola x (?)Extreme Purple, but it’s keeper – a lot like Carola culinary-wise, and good vigor and tuber yields.

2014 seedling of Carola (mother), probable father Extreme Purple, below.

Another “obviously-not-a-clone” volunteer was a lovely we’ve dubbed Extreme Pleasure. This one had to duke it out in between a passion-flower vine and some rampant mirabilis multiflora, and it certainly held its own.

Extreme Pleasure, above, and its probable parent Extreme Red, below.

Fruits from one plant – Extreme Pleasure

I have never seen so many viable seed-balls on a single potato plant, see photo at left. The tuber yield was very good, culinary quality also very good. I also love the deep red flesh color.

These volunteers are very exciting, but I’ve also been intentionally growing out TPS from my Blue Shetland lines in a more normal fashion. One seedling offspring of Extreme Purple is very promising – it has the intensely dark purple flesh and skin of Extreme Purple, but with big elongated, flattened tubers, and almost scary vigor. (See below.) The first year seedling yielded over 10 pounds of spuds, and the foliage was nearly 5 feet high. We’ve been calling it Son of Extreme Purple, but probably a better name is called for…

Seedling of Extreme Purple

So, I have been pondering about how this all came about, because I mucked about for many years, totally thrilled to get even one viable seed ball. Then, suddenly, about three or four years ago, the new TPS seedlings were blooming and setting seed like crazy.

Fenton blooming

I believe that the most commonly grown potato varieties may have been bred to not set seed, or maybe that characteristic was just overlooked. For more than 20 years we have been maintaining three varieties (clones) with exceptionally good blooming characteristics: Blossom (red skin/pink flesh), Fenton (purple skin, purple and white flesh), and Ontario (white and white). All three are also reliable over-winterers. However, I only got a couple of viable seed balls in all that time from Ontario and Fenton, and nary a fruit from Blossom (which was bred for flowering).

Above, what happens after blooming with most potatoes;
below, fruit set in our Shetland seedlings.

The Shetland potatoes, as I have mentioned elsewhere, are notorious for not fruiting, so I was very lucky to get the one fruit that started all this business. I think that pollen from Fenton and Blossom may have worked some genetic magic with the Shetland seedlings. The Shetland TPS seedlings are now fruiting copiously, so much so that they are self-sowing and have gotten into the compost piles. (Potato seed actually likes a certain amount of abuse, so they are apt to survive our compost process.)

The Shetland Islands are 50 miles north of the northen tip of Scotland, at about 60 degrees N latitude, so the climate issues for growing spuds there are pretty much the same that we deal with here – cold, wet and a short frost-free season – very different than conditions in the northern Andes, the probable original home of most potatoes. So, the Shetland potatoes have had hundred and fifty years or so of acclimating to those Shetland conditions, and they were not bred for mechanical harvest, which is another reason I find them so interesting.

A potato patch in bloom