Cultivation techniques Seed saving and breeding Variety portrait

TPS Potatoes: Who’s Yer Daddy?

I previously posted about two potato varieties grown in 1994 from TPS (true potato seed) I collected from a potato called Blue Shetland (SSE 1184). I am fascinated by Shetland potatoes, which come from the Islands of Shetland, off the Scottish coast. They are colorful inside and out, and their rich flavor is superior as far as I’m concerned, though folks who are used to the usual insipid tasting commercial potato varieties might find the flavor “strong”. My Shetland spuds tend to be small, but the flavor makes up for the size. They also keep very well.

Hurley's Purple Gold potatoes

Hurley’s Purple Gold, the mother plant. It very closely resembles its mother, Blue Shetland.

One of my two Blue Shetland offsprings, Hurley’s Purple Gold, very closely resembles its parent, and I was fortunate enough to collect a viable seed ball from it in 1996. But, after my initial experience growing potatoes from TPS, I was a bit leary of the time and space required, at least the way I went about it the first time. However, last winter I was inspired to try it again by the videos of Tom Wagner’s TPS workshop at Bifurcated Carrots.

Tom has a genius growing method for TPS that speeds up the process, and requires very little space. I don’t have a greenhouse, so all my seedlings are started on windowsills, which makes me very picky about starting seedlings early. Initially, I was going to get some TPS from Tom but I came across the old seed from Hurley’s Purple Gold and decided to go with that.

seedlings from true potato seed

All the seeds went into a little 2″ pot; about 30 germinated; emergent seedlings were exposed to direct outdoor sunlight; and later the eight strongest seedlings were transplanted to a 4″ pot, buried up to their top leaves. The close planting keeps the seedlings leggy, which is desirable in this case. The idea is to have long stems, since the tubers form on buried stems.

This method is so cool – I could easily see and compare color variations in the seedlings very early on (I’m looking and selecting for strong color), and the individual seedlings’ vigor is also quite apparent when they are grown in such competitive conditions. You can rogue out weaklings early on, and not waste energy and space with them.

TPS seedlings in the garden bed

As you can see, I spaced them rather closely in the garden bed. In hindsight, I wish I had given them more room – after my first TPS growout many years ago, I was not expecting full sized plants in the first year. I heaped compost on the plants several times during the growing season, burying as much stem as possible. This is how the plants looked just before I cut them down.

Purple Gold potatoes

Late blight struck the gardens about the second week of September 2010, so I cut all the foliage off at ground level much sooner than I normally would have. It was somewhat tempting to leave them to see how much late blight resistance they had, but I have no more TPS from the Shetland potatoes (they rarely set seed) so I really didn’t want to risk losing them. When I cut them, there was no sign of late blight on them. All our other potatoes had had their normal end of season foliage die-back, but these were still going strong. I assume that’s because they were first year seedlings, and not because they’re all very late maturing.

Digging up the spuds

Here’s an overview of the harvest. For me, digging up seedling potatoes feels like being a young child on Christmas morning. The TPS I used was not hand pollinated, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I grew about 8 other non-Shetland potato varieties the year I got the seed ball. I was hoping for more Shetland-y spuds, with darker yellow flesh, bigger tubers and red and purple skins. Initially when I dug them up, I was a little disappointed not to get more strong yellow flesh. I couldn’t really see the flesh colors very well, because I didn’t have time to cut into them, do photos and maybe cook some up. I just knicked the skin of one each to get a rough idea, and tucked them away until I could evaluate them better.

So, finally, here’s what I got when I properly opened my presents, and I’m not disappointed any more.

Tuber portraits

#4 and Fenton

#4 left, Fenton (probable parent), right

One seedling (#4) was a monster, producing 5# of spuds, some of which weighed 10oz. We haven’t yet taste tested #4, but so far I am very impressed, and I like the really dark skin and flesh color. My guess is that the father was Fenton, an heirloom potato from Mercer ME I got from Will Bonsall via Seed Saver’s Exchange. Fenton’s one of those Congo, All-Blue, etc. blue/blue potatoes, and it’s a variety that we’ve kept over the years because it’s very rugged, productive, blooms profusely, and tastes really good – a nice baking potato. The other parental possibility would be Peruvian Purple, but I think it’s more likely Fenton.

#4 and Fenton

#5 right and parent Blossom, left

The other real stand-out was #5, which obviously was a cross with Blossom. Blossom was bred in Minnesota by Ewald Eliason with an eye for flowering, among other things, and is mentioned in Carol Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Blossom is a beautiful plant and has very good tasting all purpose pink fleshed potatoes. It’s also very rugged, another of our “old reliable” varieties. Blossom does bloom fairly strongly here, but I have never gotten a viable seed ball from it, whereas Fenton is a more reliable seed producer.

Anyway, #5 is REALLY tasty, and I like the strong red flesh color. The seedling made over 3# of tubers, a very respectable showing, I think. All in all, I’m pretty excited about this venture, though I think I will wait another year before I grow out more TPS, so that I can be sure to give the 2011 growout of 2010’s seedlings its due.

If you’re interested in Shetland potatoes and other TPS projects, Rebsie at Daughter of the Soil has a great post about the Shetland potatoes she’s working with.

Growing fruit & nuts

Nut trees, good news/bad news

The good news is I found a really nice flush of oyster mushrooms. The bad news is they’re on a buartnut tree we planted nearly 30 years ago.

Oyster mushrooms on a nut tree

This tree was a seedling hybrid cross of a butternut with a heartnut (Juglans cinerea x J. ailantifolia), the idea being that the heartnut would contribute disease resistance and better nut characteristics – easier cracking and more abundance – to the butternut.

We have quite a few wild butternut trees all around us, but the nuts themselves are a rare find indeed. Same with hazel. The wild trees do bear nuts, I see them unripe on the trees. The thing is, there are all these professional nut gatherers (red squirrels) who have nothing better to do than snatch all the nuts the second they’re ripe and stash them away. A human doesn’t stand much of a chance at this wild harvest. And, if one should be so lucky as to find a couple of wild butternuts, well, let’s just say, they are a hard-won delicacy. The ratio of nut meat to shell (after you get the outer hull off) is about 1:4 in favor of the shell, and the shell does not open easily or cleanly. It’s hammer and pick work – a project for long winter nights around the wood stove.

So, the possibility of an improved butternut had great appeal to me. Inspired by reading Bill Mollison’s permaculture books in the 1970s, I made sure to plant and graft a few fruit and nut trees every year, no matter how tight money was. St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam NY was one of my major resources for planting material. It was founded in the 1920s by Fred Ashworth, who is probably the best known breeder of nut trees for cold climates. His work is being carried on by Bill Mackently, the present proprieter of St. Lawrence Nursery.

Whenever I think of people breeding nut trees (especially the old-fashioned way), I pause in a moment of deep respect for the fortitude involved in such an undertaking. In most cases it is a good ten years at least before one gets to literally harvest the fruit of one’s labor. In my mind, nut breeders are the epitome of patience.

The buartnut that out-grew its bark

And, not too far behind that are those of us who plant nut trees.

I planted a few of St. Lawrence’s Pierce selection of buartnut seedlings. Looking back, I wish I had been able to get grafted trees, but grafted nut trees hardy enough for us were just about impossible to find at that time. (Insert cheap advice – planting any seedling fruit or nut tree is a big gamble, and you don’t get too many chances to roll the dice again if you have a failure. If you’re planting nut trees, get grafted trees if at all possible.)

Of the first plantings, two seedlings tended to die back to the ground each year, whether from winter-kill or the disease that is afflicting the local wild butternuts, or something else, I don’t know. (I do know it wasn’t an issue of the quality of the nursery stock: when first planted they grew very well.)

One of these trees is still doing this annual die-back after 30 years, and out of curiousity, I’ve left it alone. However, one tree from the first planting of buartnuts grew like it was on steroids – a great example of hybrid vigor. The only problem was, it seemed to outgrow its own bark, causing splitting at intervals all the way around and up and down the trunk and branches. The splits were vectors for rot, and for many years the tree would lose branches and vigorously replace them. It had several good sized crops of nuts, borne at a relatively early age for nut trees. They were pretty similar to our butternuts, VERY hard work to crack with not much reward – and likely to vanish if you blink.

New buartnut, old buartnut

New buartnut, foreground; old buartnut background.

Here’s another Pierce buartnut seedling planted about 15 years or so after the first buartnut plantings. This one seems to be a much more well adjusted individual – good vigor, but not out of balance with growing hardy, solid wood and bark. It just started bearing 2 years ago, so it’s too early to evaluate it for the abundance of nuts. For nut quality, they’re a bit better than the nuts from the now dead tree, maybe 3:1 shell to meat.

nuts from the new tree

Nuts from the new tree.

Just about the same time the new tree had its first nuts, the old tree finally gave up the ghost. We haven’t gotten around to cutting it down, and now I’m glad about that.

A summer flush of oysters.

A summer flush of oyster mushrooms

The wet summer of 2009 brought out the first big flush of oyster mushrooms, and we had another this past November, which was a great treat. In the cold weather there was absolutely no insect damage. They were delicious.

Perhaps the buartnut tree on steroids made a lasting genetic contribution to our wild butternut population. I’ve been finding seedlings, scattered around our woods from squirrels’ forgotten underground caches, probably from the tree I planted, or maybe from the wild butternuts.

squirrel planted seedling

A butternut X seedling planted by squirrels amongst the tamaracks

Either way, there has likely been cross pollination here, and I’m hoping that some of the seedlings will have some resistance to the disease that is threatening to wipe out our wild butternuts. Another roll of the dice…