We tried to run a restaurant offering only local produce; however one of the items which caused major issues was the potato. Knowing the plight of the potato farmers in Belize I thought I should support them but also use cocoa yam, cassava, dasheen and sweet potatoes which grow very well here. The potato originally came from South America, taken to Europe where it was viewed with much skepticism, and it has been popularized only in the past 200 years, becoming a staple comfort food offered in many forms throughout the world. Although the food industry is somewhat trendy and items such as sweet potato fries are currently gracing the tables of North American restaurants, the favourite is still the much-revered potato, mashed or fried. In Belize the demand for the potato has increased with the growth of tourism and people from other counties settling here replacing our daily rice and beans with hamburgers, pizza, pasta, steak and fries. Mostly the potatoes grown locally are smallish red ones with a more yellow type flesh. They are not made into French fries as they are not big enough or mashed as they are not fluffy enough, hence the influx of Mexican imported potatoes and frozen French fries. My customers were hesitant to try breadfruit, yampi, coco and even the red potatoes wondering why we do not have real ones. I was forced to recognize that the potato is, after all, a good source of vitamins C and B6, copper, potassium, manganese and dietary fiber so why not give them what they want?
The other day I was at a farm where someone had a table top of small red sprouted potatoes lying out in the sun. She said that she comes from a rice country and had no idea how to plant them. I told her that the ground must be turned over to loosen the soil and that commercial growers usually plant 6 inches in the ground, make mounds and do not chit. I then told my friends about the bucket method. My father used to order straw and manure each year for his potatoes until he changed to container gardening which he endorsed as the simplest way to grow for home use. Since this is a lot of fun and has the advantage of being able to produce a high yield in a small space protected from many garden pests, here is how to do it for anyone who has not already tried.
Seek out some good quality seed potatoes, those cultivated to grow, not eat, or just pick out the healthiest ones you can find in the market.
You will need:
5 gallon buckets or sacks or any tallish containers (clean with no chemical residue). You could use a large drum but that will be too heavy to handle at harvesting. Each potato should give 4 chits to be planted; 4 to a bucket produces an average yield of 10 pounds of potatoes.
A drill, cardboard egg cartons, organic fertilizer, piece of screening, gravel, soil, sheet of cardboard or a tarp.
Chit your seed potatoes; this is the process of forcing your potatoes to grow shoots in preparation for planting. Potatoes grow from the eyes and each can be a potential stem. Set the potatoes on an egg flat in a airy, dry, bright location like a window sill. They will begin to sprout in a week and in about 4 weeks be about one inch long (2.5cm). They are now ready for you to cut into 4 sections each with a shoot. Return the pieces to the carton and allow the cut surface to dry for about a week. This helps prevent disease. You can also plant the whole potato, one or two to the container.
In the meantime prepare your buckets or planters by drilling holes in sides close to the bottom for drainage and some in the sides to allow air.
In the bottom of the bucket put a generous layer of gravel then a layer of screen to prevent soil loss.
Add 3 inches of soil and compost. Acidic soil is best and can be achieved by adding some pine needles in layers.
Carefully plant potato chits on top of soil, shoots or eye up . Do not over overcrowd the containers as it will inhibit growth. Potatoes grow on top from the stem not down like other root vegetables. Now again carefully cover with 2-3 inches of soil. Water well.
Potatoes like sun and air so place in sunny location away from walls where the container can overheat. In general they do best in cooler climates .
Water frequently and use organic fertilizer
When new shoots appear again cover with another 3-4 inches of soil. Keep repeating this process until you reach top of bucket. Remember to water.
The potato greens continue to shoot up while potatoes are forming. Once the plant has bloomed you can harvest anytime (about 12 weeks) – early for small new potatoes and longer for larger. A good time to harvest is when the plant appears to die off or turn yellow.
Now this is the fun part which never fails to excite and delight. Put down a sheet of cardboard or tarp and start to empty the bucket and find the potatoes.
Do not save this used soil for your garden; put it someplace else for use 2 years later such as long term compost pile or use to fill holes, to be sure it has no blight which can infect plants.
Potatoes are nightshades and contain alkaloids. Cooking reduces this threat and should only be a problem for sensitive individuals. We were brought up to believe that potatoes should not be eaten raw but apparently this is not true and as long as not green they contain more nutrients, have positive effects on the colon and do not increase blood sugar as cooked ones do.
Potato greens are not edible.
Green potatoes are not safe to eat as they contain the toxin solanine which affects the nervous system. It is part of the plant’s defense mechanism to ward off predators. It forms when the tuber is exposed to too much light or heat during the growing process. So if a potato is green or has a bitter taste do not eat it.
Wash potatoes thoroughly before cooking.
Misuse of chemicals can lead to death and disease.
Save some potatoes for next year.
Spread out to let them dry before storing potatoes in cool dry dark place.
If you grew up in a meat and potatoes society you have probably missed good flavourful potatoes. There is nothing quite like the taste of freshly dug spuds. There are very sound reasons for growing your own potatoes or knowing where they come from and how they were grown. Commercially they are cultivated more often than not with the use of very dangerous agro chemicals and pesticide residues are commonly found on potatoes.
Please take some pictures of your successes, document your experience and send any comments you care to share.
Maya Beach, Placencia,
Stann Creek, Belize.