The Lowly Potato and the Power of Vegeculture

Sharon April 18th, 2008

Passover begins tomorrow evening, and training it down to NYC for a family seder.  Expect the blog to be quiet for a bit.  But I didn’t want to leave you all on the methane note ;-) - we all need a happy thought now and again.

 My happy thought is…potatoes.  Does that sound strange?  If so, take a look at this article about the growing hope that potatoes represent in the world food crisis.  We have relied so heavily on seed crops that we’ve missed many of the possibilities of roots.

 I’ve written about this more extensively in an article about Vegeculture - that is, the use of root crops as staple foods.  I believe that more and more of us, who do not feel we can produce our own wheat, will transition our diets towards small scale production of root crops - potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, cassava, manioc, taro, beets….  In a world where food grains are increasingly scarce, our ability to rely on our own local, staple vegetable crops may be essential. 

It is also worth noting that a transition to root crops represents a deeper shift - because potatoes are higher yielding than grains, we are making our first shift to an agriculture that emphasizes productivity of land, rather than productivity of people - that is, the realization is coming that we have no choice but to make the best possible use of the land we have.  It is a slow process, but I see new awareness of root agriculture as an early step.

 At Passover, we are prohibited from owning or profiting from grains - certainly wheat, and many Jews also forego rice, corn and other crops.  That leaves matzah (made from wheat in a particular way), but also potatoes.  Many of the traditional foods of the Passover Table derive from potatoes, or potato starch.  For 8 days, potatoes mostly substitute for an American diet that otherwise relies far more heavily on wheat, corn and rice. 

Which raises the question of how we regard this shift.  Historically, while Passover has its pleasures, everyone is waiting anxiously for bread at the end.  It is traditional to complain a bit about the foods of Passover.  I wonder what it would be like if, instead of dreaming of bread, we could delight in the season of potatoes and other roots.  That is our goal this year - to enjoy this time of vegeculture.

A few years ago, I dumped about half an inch of compost on a chunk of my gravel driveway, laid potato pieces down, and covered them with old hay that had been rained on.  I produced a fairly solid yield of healthy, beautiful potatoes - on my driveway.  Potatoes are indeed a happy thought.


14 Responses to “The Lowly Potato and the Power of Vegeculture”

  1. mariaon 18 Apr 2008 at 9:26 am

    this year my husband and i are trying to grow potatoes in an old trash can. so far they are doing great, although we won’t know if we’ve really succeeded until the fall…potatoes are truly amazing plants.

  2. Christinaon 18 Apr 2008 at 11:26 am

    I love potatoes! We grow several kinds and they always yield well, no matter how the weather is. Same thing with other root vegetables - they are a true staple here.

    Potatoes became widely accepted in Scandinavia in the 19th century, when people after a slow start began to realize its value. They played - together with peace and vaccinations against common diseases - a big part in the transformation of our countries from poor agricultural societies to rich industrial countries.

    And potatoes became even more popular when someone found out that you could make aqvavit from them ;-)

    Christina in Sweden

  3. Taraon 18 Apr 2008 at 1:25 pm

    My husband decided this year to grow potatoes in a stack of old tires filled with dirt. He literally just cut up some potatoes, tossed them in, covered them with dirt. They’re going like gangbusters. Amazing!

  4. Lisa Zon 18 Apr 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Sharon, thanks for writing something “happy” once in a while. It really does keep me going.

    Over at The Automatic Earth, there’s never anything happy. Gets truly discouraging.

    What to do?

    Lisa in MN

  5. Frogdanceron 18 Apr 2008 at 5:46 pm

    I have just started growing veggies in a small suburban block in Australia. Typical of me to start doing in after there’s been a 10 year drought with no signs of it ending! As an experiment I planted 2 plots of sprouting potatoes. I covered 1 with mushroom compost and nurtured it… the other I watered occasionally but pretty much left it to it’s own devices. I discovered that spuds don’t like mushroom compost…. very little grew. The other plot went gangbusters! Very, very satisfying to harvest our own potatoes. It got the boys interested in the veggie garden too.

  6. equa yonaon 18 Apr 2008 at 6:08 pm

    I grew a few nifty potatoes in my (cold) compost heap last year. I had some spongy spuds, tossed them in the heap, cut them up a bit with my shovel(smaller chunks compost more quickly,nu?).
    Lo and behold, spring came and so did the taters! And they were good.

  7. Kation 18 Apr 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I’m going to try potatoes this year as well, using chicken wire “barrels”. I’m hoping just 2 or 3 seed potatoes (bummed off my next door neighbour in exchange for fresh-baked bread and other goodies) will net me a few dozen potatoes for winter eatting. Maybe not enough to feed us ALL winter, but for a couple dinners a week for a few weeks…. Yeah, I’m hoping.

    Have a Blessed Passover!

  8. SCMon 19 Apr 2008 at 12:46 am

    Did you know it was the UN’s official year of the potato this year (see above link)? One reason they are promoting the crop is because of its high yields and its potential to feed hungry people in difficult times.

  9. Lorion 19 Apr 2008 at 3:32 pm

    We grow potatoes year round - we’re lucky like that. But having made the leap to identify root crops as more productive, don’t stop there. We grow large amounts of turnips in the winter when other things aren’t productive.

    These we cut up and boil for the poultry. We also do this this excess and spoiled produce like pumpkins, arrowroot and chokos. Throw in handfuls of bran after boiling to make it thick and animals thrive on it. Chickens lay well on this diet.

    I take a lot of my ideas from books describing farming practices in England and Europe and about 1500 onwards. They had good rotational practices and root crops were grown there to store and use for all stock through the snowy months.

  10. Shaneon 20 Apr 2008 at 5:27 pm

    It isnt so straight forward to compare root crops with grains.

    Firstly you can’t just look at the bulk yield in kilograms or tonnes because root crops contain much more water. If you just look at the calorific content of grains and roots they are pretty much the same per growing area.

    The second thing to consider is that root crops are typically much more demanding of inputs to give optimum yields compared to grains. They need more reliable water, more nutrients, more soil preparation and aeration, and more digging to harvest them. Then they need more space for storage, and they don’t store as long as grains (normally 6 months maximum under household conditions). On the upside the tools to do so are generally simpler for growing and preparation (just a good garden fork will do, and a knife and pot, rather than sickles, threshers and mills). So they are definitely an important part of the diet but there is a limit to how much one person can manage to grow. Self sufficiency on root crops is definitely achievable, but it leaves you vulnerable to prolonged bad seasons and dry weather. The cultures that use root crops as staples are typically in reliably wet regions (PNG, central africa, northern europe).

    I just harvested around 50 kg of kumera (sweet potato) from 4 x 8m that had been growing for around four months, fertilised a couple of times with fresh pee and watered exactly zero times. I prepared the bed by solarising the sod with black plastic, didnt even bother aerating the soil but added a little lime and copra. Weed regrowth was quite strong but the vines smothered it as they grew. Most roots contain around 1000 calories per kilogram, so a person needs 2kg to make up their 2000 calorie per day base requirement. So this supply represents 25 days of food for one person. I would have spent no more than 3 days in total preparing the bed, spot weeding, harvesting and cooking the food, so this represents a time invested to time returned ratio of around one to ten.

    Extending this rate of food supply out to three crops a year of roots one person would need around 155 sq meters to supply their annual calorific intake (for scale one acre is 4000m2). But to keep the soil healthy and allow fallows, allow for other crops to make up protein and nutrient content, and allow for bad years, you should at least double this allowance, perhaps quadruple it. So the average suburban quarter acre block (1000 sq m) should have enough green space left to supply the food for one person, two in good years with extra inputs, if the soil and aspect are good. In cold climates you lose half your growing season too (I am in the subtropics).

    Hope this helps put a measure on things, though I am sure some others would disagree with the calculation

    Shane in Australia

  11. Emilyon 22 Apr 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I do worry about potato blight. The Irish thought potatoes were the answer to their food crisis, too…

  12. Melisson 22 Apr 2008 at 10:35 pm

    We only have a balcony to grow stuff on, but I filled, ironically enough, an old plastic rice sack with dirt and planted some potato eyes in there. I’m not sure how they’ll turn out, but they are growing!

  13. Pangolinon 23 Apr 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Potatoes are great but you should really think twice about growing them in a stack of old tires. God only knows what tires will leach out. Likewise you want to keep them well away from pressure treated wood. Arsenic isn’t edible last I checked.

    Other root crops that should be mixed with your potatoes are beets, turnips, parsnips and radishes. Daikon radish, while not very caloric, is helpful in that it will break up the most stubbornly hard clay soils particularly if they get a thick layer of mulch on top.

    Leeks are the natural complement to potatoes as a few leeks left to go to seed will happily yield you more leek seeds and seedlings to transplant next year. Leeks like a lot of nitrogen but will soldier along with just a green mulch if needs must.

  14. clarkon 24 Apr 2008 at 4:35 pm

    I like Shane’s analysis. Basically one individual needs a quarter acre to think about surviving. One’s own quarter acre is becoming a luxury. I have yet to run across any concerted efforts towards finding contacts that could bring people together to start a viable commune. Now that millions of baby-boomers will be receiving a monthly pittance, if everyone chipped in to a new community (sans children), survival in our New World Order becomes closer to reality.

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