The Irish Potato Famine was a period of mass starvation and social upheaval in Ireland from 1845 to 1852. It was one of the deadliest famines in European history. For most Irish families, the potato was the main source of nutrition. The near complete failure of the potato crop was caused by the potato blight, a type of fungus that renders potatoes inedible. By the end of the famine, more than one million Irish people had died of disease and starvation and another million had become refugees. By 1860, two million more people sought refuge outside of Ireland, many immigrating to the United States. By the 1960s, Ireland’s population was half of what it had been in 1840.     

Potatoes are the world’s No. 1 non-grain food crop. The edible part of the plant is a modified underground stem called a tuber. These starchy tubers are an excellent source of vitamins B and C, potassium, carbohydrates and protein.  The skins are high in fiber. Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family that includes tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. They don’t tolerate the least bit of frost, so be patient. Although the calendar says spring has arrived, it’s still too cold. 

Unlike most crops, potatoes aren’t grown from seeds. They’re started from little chunks of the tubers themselves, called seed potatoes. The buds on the seed potatoes sprout and grow into individual plants. Seed potatoes are available at nurseries and garden centers right now. They’re guaranteed to be virus free. Don’t be tempted to use grocery store potatoes. Most have been sprayed to keep them from sprouting, but more importantly, you don’t want to risk introducing unknown viruses into your garden. Rachel and I grow most of our food crops in containers and potatoes grow exceptionally well. Almost any large container will do, but we like to use those five-gallon buckets that you can get at any hardware or big box store. Make sure your containers drain well. Drill plenty of holes in your buckets. For potatoes to develop properly, they need deep, loose, well-drained soil. Use a good potting mix with well-composted manure in your containers. Place four inches of soil in each bucket.

Cut large seed potatoes into four or five pieces with two good buds on each one. Store the newly cut pieces in a well-ventilated area for a few days so they can harden off. This will prevent them from rotting in the moist soil. If you have small seed potatoes, you can plant them whole.    

To chit or not to chit? Chitting is the process of getting your buds to sprout sooner. Some gardeners like to give their potatoes a head start. Place your seed potatoes in an old egg carton with the buds facing up. Place them near a window for a few days until they begin to sprout. These are called chits. Once the chits are an inch or so, place no more than three in each bucket. Cover with three to four inches of soil and water until the soil is moist. It’s important to keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Too much water on the tubers will make them rot. As the plant grows in the bucket, cover with soil up to the leaves. Do this every time the plant grows six inches until the bucket is nearly full. The potato plant will produce new tubers all along the length of the stem. Apply a layer of mulch to cover the last few inches. It’s important to protect the tubers from direct sunlight or they’ll turn green. Green potatoes will make you sick. Some potatoes produce fruits that look like tomatoes. These fruits also produce a toxin that will make you sick. The tubers are the only edible part of a potato plant. 

Once the plant produces flowers, you can harvest the new potatoes. Just reach into the bucket and fish a few out. Try not to damage the roots. When the top of the plant dies off, there is no more production. Leave the potatoes in the bucket for two more weeks and then harvest as you like. Don’t rinse them off until just before cooking. Homegrown potatoes are delicious and easy to grow.

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com