FROM SEED: SPUDS.
Another growing season, no two alike, has passed away. Diversity manifests in every domain. And as if to heighten the sense of ceaseless change, time will have moved on even further; by the time you have read these words.
For me, at the time of writing, it is harvest time. This is an exciting time, not just because the profit of a year’s gardening investment becomes evident as winter stores. No. This is the time when I can dig my experimental spud plot. Here are ragged rows of potato plants, all unique, grown from true potato seed.
Not all potatoes are equal. I’m aware of a host of differences between potatoes, not only in terms of flavour or texture. Their characteristics as growing plants are diverse too. For one thing, not all potatoes set seed, although they nearly all flower. Their fruit when they do decide to set them, are like small green tomatoes. These fruit’s flesh is quite tomato-like and their pulp usually contains many dozens of tiny white seeds. It’s from these millimetre specks that I propagate distinct new potato varieties….. anyone can.
Most of these seeds are eager to embark on the process. To my eye one potato seed is indistinguishable from another. Just as athletes, taut at their starting blocks display equal potential, so do these wee “blokes.”
There is little in the athlete’s eruption from the starting posture that heralds his ultimate performance and so it is with the miniscule potato plants that rupture the soil. But partway into the “race” one recognizes that the field is opening up. There are individual “runners” who are creating a widening gap between themselves and the rest of the pack. The field of several hundred begins to show differing vigour.
I sow about a dozen seed to each pot and as some begin to excel, pluck out the stragglers. This continues until I am sure of the supreme performer of that pot.
So, this season’s 48 pot grown plants, that are planted out when about 100 mm tall, are the strongest of several hundred starters.
The diversity of endurance continues to manifest throughout. That is the reason for the rows’ ultimate raggedness. Some, despite a good show at the starting blocks, just don’t have what it takes. At maturity I have perhaps half the plants I originally planted outdoors.
But winning this “race” is not decided by mere completion of the event. I want the best of the winners and some of this assessment is very subjective.
From here the analogy with athletics is redundant.
Throughout these plants’ lives I am unable to restrain myself from observing the individual plant’s manifest peculiarities. Much of this obsession stems from my embrace of diversity; my love of novelty. I try to notice anything that sets one plant apart from another. Often those differences are manifesting progressively throughout the plants’ development. Plants may be boisterous or subdued growers, erect or prostrate, coarse or fine. Their leaf colour could range from pale grass-green to darkest blue-green and texture may be crumpled, smooth, hairy or shiny. Their flowers when they arrive, vary greatly too in size, colour, position and fertility.
Stem colour can give some indication of tuber colour, stem girth a hint of tuber size. But it’s hidden down below the mulch that other things of note wait patiently to be discovered. That experience is the reward of a motivated propagator.
I’ve been involved in these experiments for about ten years. It’s very rewarding to a keen person.
Two of my past successes, Zopa and Excelsor, will continue to be grown yearly in my big potato plot. Their qualities have earned them a place on our table. Three others from later years are still grown and their year-by-year performance monitored. They are unique enough and have the required keeping and cooking characteristics. Importantly they are potatoes of flavour.
I seek disease resistance, cooking quality, keeping ability and almost equal with flavour, uniqueness. I want my spuds to taste great. I also love visual diversity. We eat a lot of taters. They are a staple for us. It’s great to enliven another meal with the unique qualities of a different variety of potato. I regularly grow around twenty varieties…. That is without counting the many new ones under current test.
The fork has been my ally. Together we worked to unearth the secret at the base of each withered haulm. To be honest, I was a little disappointed at the seeming uniformity of each cache of tubers. Their yield varied enormously, but their appearance was all “white” skinned and sausage-shaped. Most of these were daughters of Excelsor.
Applying my selection criteria, ten sets of tubers may have a future if they pass the next tests.
For a couple of weeks now we have been dining on a new variety per night. Some have failed to impress when I’ve eaten them. One variety broke into a mush whilst boiling. However one (how shall I call it…Ex-Excelsor No.3?) yellowish flesh baked to the divine perfection of my old love, Red Dakota.
Selected tubers of this and three others have been placed in sachets, labeled and hung in the cellar with my twenty or so lots of “seed” tubers for next season. In a saucer by the stove, on a square of paper, dries the smeared seed pulp of a shy-fruiting Kowhinewhine. What surprises might those few seeds carry.