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.

9 Responses to “TPS Potatoes: Who’s Yer Daddy?”

  1. Tom Wagner says:

    Thanks so much for mentioning me as part of your inspiration to grow TPS. Amazing, isn’t it? The fun one can get from just a few seedlings.

    Just imagine that during my lifetime, I have sown over a million TPS and grew out favorites again and again, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands per year.

    I have used many heirloom types of potatoes but rely on breeding work to get the huge number of potato berries on many of my creations. One of my hybrids this year had 353 berries on one single plant (Skagit Magic) and the true seed put away from that one numbers well over 50,000 seed! I will certainly increase that hill of potatoes for next year.

    Keep up the good work and best of luck in your search for the perfect potato. Next year will start my 58 year of breeding potatoes, and God willing, I will continue for another 30-40 years!


  2. Mike says:

    We saved the actual seed from a few of our choice potato plants this past summer and hope to start growing out a few new varieties of our own too. My hope is that in doing so we will keep our plants vigor up over time as we use all of our own potatoes as seed potatoes for the next years crop. I enjoyed hearing abut how you grow yours and congratulations on the successes you have had.

  3. lieven says:

    I grew some of Tom’s TPS this year & can’t wait to grow them again next year: there are lots of different colours & shapes – I haven’t tasted any tater yet. Apart from that, I’ve got loads of (Sarpo Mira x Vitelotte Grande) F1 seeds (no TPS). Funny how a red x purple cross yields unexpected white skins too – 2011 will tell how well each of these unique tater babies performs.
    Personally, I also admit crossing plants for the sheer surprise adrenalin, as well as for the fun of sharing genes & stories. Feel free to choose goodies from my have lists on my website & lmk if you’re in for a trade.

  4. Ray says:

    I managed once to collect and grow a few TPS from a potato that was growing in the garden when I moved in. It produced some nice tubers.
    I’m hoping to collect more this year having four different spuds on the go – Nicola, King Edward, Cranberry Red and Pink Kiss. A neighbour has loads of Sebagos growing and I’m hoping to get some TPS from these as well.
    It makes vegetable growing a lot of fun.
    PS I enjoy your blog and like your style of gardening.

  5. Niki says:

    Wow.. what a fantastic blog! Thanks for sharing all this.. I have grown potatoes from seed in the past with very good success.. but I’m looking forward to reading and learning more about this from your blog..


  6. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Those are gorgeous. I love the almost black/blue colour of #4 and you are giving me hope about my teeny weeny TPS. Good to know about tightly spaced, leggy seedlings too because mine are on the window sill too this year. Again, this blog is an inspiration.

  7. gayle says:

    That looks like a fascinating experiment! Though I’d be so tempted to try to grow out each and every one of the seedlings. (There’s the double whammy of my grandmother’s ‘Waste not, want not’ echoing in my head and the too egalitarian view that every plant has a right to live…)
    Your potatoes are beautiful. Do they keep their color when cooked? Or are they like purple beans that revert to green when exposed to heat?
    (BTW, I seem to have lost your blog when I transferred from Bloglines to Google Reader. I’m going to fix that now!)

  8. Extreme Gardener says:

    Hi Gayle!
    Yes, it’s an ongoing battle for me in the garden – not wasting anything, which is genetically hardwired in me, vs. the ruthless plant breeder/gardener mode. These days while planting, I’m trying to force myself to give plants more space…
    The spuds keep their color when cooked, although the vividness of the flesh colors is muted compared to when you first cut into them.

  9. Wesley Hayden says:

    Been trying to find as many TPS grow diaries as possible, this is a good one!
    I’m hoping to try this out this season with some Chaposa & a freebie pack named Hedge Rose TPS (Thanks Tom, your a living legend!).
    Its all about the surprise element for me, not knowing what beautiful variation will arise from these tiny little seeds.

    Best of luck to you Leigh and everyone else giving TPS the time to grow.

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