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Saving Home Grown Potatoes for Planting

Q. Henry in Ambler, PA writes: "I harvested Yukon Gold potatoes this season and they are delicious. I got some large ones, about 3" in diameter, but also lots of smaller ones. Can I use the smaller ones as seed potatoes next spring?"

A. How can you think of saving potatoes for seed when prime potato eating time (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah) comes right on the heels of the harvest? I'm lucky if I can carry any over past January! (And I grow a LOT of potatoes; must be the Irish in me.)

And, of course, you're supposed to start fresh with certified disease-free seed potatoes every season. This is especially true if your potato plants showed any signs of illness, and mandatory if any of your tomato plants turned black and died quickly--the sure sign of late blight, a dread disease that crosses over between tomatoes and potatoes.

You should only try and save seed potatoes if you are certain that they grew in a spot that was tomato-free the previous season. But the answer to your basic 'use the little ones' question is no; in fact, it's the opposite.

Tiny taters are the tastiest and shortest lasting in storage, so they should be used first. The smaller the potato, the less moisture it can contain and the sooner it will shrivel up and look like feet that have been in the ocean too long. Use your tiny tatters ASAP, especially if they are the prized Yukon Gold variety (or a similar, yellow-fleshed potato). Those little flavor bombs are lucky if they make it to Halloween without being eaten at my place.

(And no, I don't drop tiny potatoes into Trick or Treat bags AT Halloween. My neighbors already think I'm {quote} "eccentric" (my choice of words, not theirs), and such an act would be sure to have Mischief Night-like consequences.)

Potatoes present an almost-unique gardening conundrum. Essentially a 'storage crop' grown to help people get through the winter, they are also one of the only garden delights you've never really tasted (like carrots) until you've eaten a fresh one. You can buy very tasty tomatoes and peppers in season. But you can't buy a truly fresh potato; you have to grow it.

Wherever you get them, bury your seed potatoes in loose, light soil in the Spring, and then watch the greenery emerge. At some point, a cluster of beautiful flowers should appear at the top of each plant, the flowers reflecting the color of the underground tubers. Enjoy their vibrancy for a few days. (They look like orchid flowers. At least to me.)

Then remove the flowers to prevent their truly 'setting seed' in the form of a marble-sized green ball where the flowers were. If you get distracted by a bright and shiny object and forget to deflower your spuds, get rid of these balls as soon as you see them. Otherwise, they will form viable seeds inside this pod, using energy that should go to the tubers growing below.

And yes, you CAN harvest these seeds after the plant has died back; remove them from the pod, wash and pat them dry. But I don't recommend it; it will take years of growing out, harvesting and replanting to get potatoes of a reasonable size. This activity should be reserved for people who like to push the boundaries, have a lot of extra space and/or time on their hands, and/or could probably use a second job.

But DO mark the date you pulled those flowers on a calendar and then count forward three weeks. That's when you should be able to begin harvesting succulent 'early' potatoes--the kind that cost five times as much as full-sized potatoes in a supermarket.

Otherwise, leave the plants alone until they die back naturally and then harvest your buried treasures right before your first freeze. This is crucial if you do intend to save seed, as the potatoes you select for this purpose must be fully mature, just like the actual seeds of crops like tomatoes. Always be guided by the words 'fully ripe' when attempting to save seed.

No matter your intentions, do NOT wash them. Just brush the dirt off and set them out in the open in a cool dark place, away from light, for 10 days to two weeks to 'cure' them, which toughens up the skin and allows them to store better.

After that, the instructions are pretty much the same for seed saving and winter storage. Brush them again, looking for any nicks, cuts, bad spots or patches of green. If damage you find, cut away the bad parts and use the rest of the spud right away. Be especially careful to cut away any green areas, as these parts have become toxic due to direct exposure to sunlight when growing.

Store them in a dark, well-ventilated area away from light. Temps between 35- and 40-degrees F are ideal. Be sure to check them weekly and discard any that are going bad. Forget rotten apples; nothing comes close to the horror (or stench) of a liquified potato.

Come planting time, you can try using any potatoes with visible eyes for planting. Luckily for Henry (remember Henry?) Yukon Golds are considered some of the best varieties for storage.

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